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Riley Music Academy Music Cast: Musicians and Depression

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WARNING: sensitive subject

Each week I try to reflect my experiences and offer advice for musicians. I tend to dip into analysis of the working musical life and this next topic is something I have not only experienced myself but I am witnessing more and more with friends and colleagues. If you are affected by anything in this post then please contact a professional service.

For those of you who keep tabs on someone’s online presence (through a blog, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram etc), it’s easy to assume that all these people live amazing lives with opportunities thrown their way left, right and centre. After all, it’s natural to celebrate the positives in life. Actually, I much prefer reading positive statements on a social media timeline. There are people however, who choose to hang out their laundry publicly and on reading these comments I tend to unsubscribe. I prefer to surround myself with positive vibes and I suggest you do too.

The reality of a working musical life can be ‘feast and famine’. Regardless of what rose tinted outlook you post on Facebook, it comes in fits and starts. Recently, I’ve had some great gigs and they have been reasonably high profile, but last weekend I had zero! For a freelancer this can be frustrating because you want to work but can’t (there are also plenty of occasions where I don’t want to work but have to).

If you are reading this then I’m guessing you’re a creative type and will experience the ups and downs of living with this mentality. The musical life is a roller coaster ride; the highs feel so good (gigs, admiration, a good solo, audience participation, helping yourself to the buffet) but today I want to focus on the lows.

I have many musical friends and it worries me that so many are having episodes of depression and waves of self doubt. I myself have wrestled the black dog and it’s not a pleasant experience (to put it mildly). I can think of three occasions in the past few months where hugely talented and well respected musicians have asked me for help. I am very humbled by this. I feel that a) they must be really desperate to call out to me and b) they are such great musicians that they should be doing really well. I’m saddened that such talent is finding life in the musical game so hard.

I want to leave the whys and how’s of depression to people more qualified than me, but I believe that the feeling is present because of unresolved inner conflict. Many people will argue this and tell me that depression can just ‘be’, but I live in the hope that it is a message and it is there for a reason. As with all faith, this gives me a reassurance that I can deal with situations and that I can retain some control. I feel empowered and this helps me to get out of the dangerous downward spiral. I think we all know how easy it is to be sucked into the negative loop and as our own worse critics, we can cause real damage to ourselves.

This leads me to tip number 1:

Catch yourself

Whenever you notice yourself being hard on yourself….stop. Just stop and take note. You can take this to mean whatever is relevant to you. For some it could be: self criticism, negative commentary, worry, obsessing about other people’s opinions, reading bad reviews, comparing yourself with other players, feeling jealous of others success or even letting yourself go (escaping into drink/drugs).

This meditation principle of ‘noting’ is a trick  I have recently learnt and have been putting into practice. I know I go on about meditation quite a bit but the study of the mind in this way is fascinating to me. I love the idea of training the mind to cope with anything and to live your life with stoicism. With meditation (or mindfulness) you do not try to alter or block the thoughts, you merely notice them and allow them to pass. This method of noting is useful because you can tag the thoughts or the feelings as they pass by and start to put some distance between them and you. It changes your outlook from: “I’m depressed” or “I’m anxious” to “oh look, there’s a depressing thought” or “there goes an anxious feeling”. It separates the thoughts/feelings from you and you can detach from them. Like I said though, it’s training, so don’t expect a quick fix. Be resilient and put it into practice.

Rewind the clock

A hugely beneficial exploration for me was to look at my past. This is something that I would not take lightly however, as its like picking off a scab. It’s fine if it’s just a little graze but if it’s pulling the stitches out of a deep wound to a major artery I would not do it without professional supervision! When exploring my past it gave a better understanding of who I am, what I’m prone to and what events have mounded me. It’s given me an outlet for some of the feelings I had bottled up and that release has been massively cathartic.

Embrace the sadness

I heard an idea from a parent a while ago. He didn’t want his children to grow up with preconceived ideas. When it’s raining outside he always said to them “look, what a beautiful rainy day”. How many times do we complain about the weather and state how miserable the grey clouds look or that wet and cold equals negativity? Okay, so you might not get benefits of Vitamin D from being out in a storm but it’s exciting, powerful, adventurous and in lots of ways….beautiful. I like this idea of turning common preconceptions on their head. I believe that life runs in cycles and that waking up on the wrong side of the bed happens to us all. It’s the Ying Yang effect, light and dark. If it’s part of life then you can’t avoid it. It will come and then it will go. For every shitty experience there is an amazing one. If you want to feel sad then embrace the experience and use it to explore your feelings.

The Guna

I don’t know if you’ve experienced this, but sometimes I get told something that is so mind blowing that it stays with me for a while and then for whatever reason, gets lost in the trivia of life. Then when I’m reminded of it, it blows my mind again! Probably because I can’t believe that I’d forgotten it or put it to the back of my mind. A week or two ago I spoke to a good friend. In my mind he’s a bit of a guru (he would say he’s a very normal guy but he’s modest). He’s been practicing mindfulness for over 30 years and he knows a thing or two about philosophy and spiritual awareness.

Anyway, he reminded me of the Guna. This is a philosophical outlook adopted by many. The belief is that there are three Guna present in everyone and everything. These ‘states’ are:

  • Sattva (goodness, constructive, harmonious)
  • Rajas (passion, active, confused)
  • Tamas (darkness, destructive, chaotic)

These three qualities are all necessary in our lives. Although Tamas sounds like something to avoid, it is necessary for things like sleep and rejuvenation. Rajas gives us energy and is associated with movement and exercise. Sattva is the daddy of them all however and is associated with higher consciousness or basically being in the zone. So what on earth are these ancient Sanskrit words all about? Well, for me, I can completely identify with them. I can often find myself in a Tamatic state. I think the expression “the devil makes work for idle hands” sums it up quite well. Too much Tamas and I find it harder and harder to do things. It’s like being stuck in a bog and it can drag you down. The answer… Rajas. Not only do I stop and take note of how lethargic and demotivated I’m feeling but I force myself to get up and do something about it. I do something physical (like run or go to the gym) and I make a plan or find some inspirational material to get me fired up. For those people who make fun of self help books and motivational Memes on the Internet, I envy you as you have obviously had no use for them. Please bear in mind though that, for some, these are literally a lifeline. From Rajas you can, with practice, reach Sattva which is like the ultimate in mellow. Nothing bothers you in Sattva and you can rest in a warm bath of happiness. I’m sure we can all relate to these states. What balance do you have? I can certainly think of other Tamatic people and I have a few friends who are full of Rajas – bouncing off the walls!

Just to be clear, you can not get to Sattva from Tamas so:

Get off your arse

Exercise is a scientifically proven remedy for depression. If you don’t believe in the Guna then believe in brain chemistry. Exercise releases endorphins which can help lift your mood. If you combine this with being outside in the open air then it can play a big part in altering  your state of mind. I ended up running so much that I eventually entered a marathon. Paradoxically, after the marathon I took 5 years off running!

If you are new to exercise then the NHS couch to 5k program is amazing. If you don’t feel up to running then even a good walk can help lighten the mood and it also boosts creativity so it’s a win win.

Choose a side

As a prolific procrastinator and a ‘sitting on the fence’ type, I have found that making the leap to a decision helps a lot. Measuring the pros and cons, contemplating both sides of the argument and predicting other people’s reaction is exhausting. Particularly if you worry what others think then you will wear yourself down. It’s natural to want to be liked by everyone but pleasing everybody is impossible. That’s the joy of experiencing human nature; everyone has a different opinion. If you make a choice then not only will it bring you immediate relief but it will also make life easier in the long run. Those who agree will build a stronger, more intimate relationship with you and those who don’t will let you know! Once they state their opinion they will usually leave you alone and go about their business. Why try to please people that have radically different priorities in life anyway?


This blog started off with me saying that I had no gigs this week. Yes, it was frustrating but I still consider myself lucky. I have other work to be doing. Also a gig is the icing on the cake for me. It’s an opportunity to put everything into to practice and experiment on audiences.

I’ve had a lot of friends ask if I can hook them up with some gigs as their diaries are empty. Again, I feel sad for them but I also think that opportunities are made. We live in an age where any artist can release work at any time, the problem is that people are not necessarily prepared to pay for it! It’s no use thinking that just because you put something out there, people will buy it. Sometimes you have to diversify, sometimes you have to be persistent, sometimes you just have to work bloody hard. The times where gigs are not coming your way, that’s the time to either appreciate what you have or work on maintenance (preferably both). Practice and get better, talk to promoters and musicians to research what’s happening in the area, start a new project, rekindle an old project, file your tax return (I did mine this week and I would have rather watched a box set of the tragically mundane, Sunday evening, predictably British, Last of the Summer Wine – there you have it, I got down from the fence and made a decision that I don’t like that show)!

Maintenance is the least glamorous part of life and yet we spend the most amount of time doing it. It’s vital so don’t neglect it. Maintenance can also be satisfying – knowing that you are knuckling down and getting things done.

It’s like eating cake, we all like to scoff a couple of slices but for our health to be balanced we must eat proper meals most of the time. There have been many artists who loose their way because of eating too much cake. Life on the road is brutal so be thankful that you have the opportunity to maintain balance.


“It doesn’t have to be like this. All we need to do is make sure we keep talking”.
-Stephen Hawking

Fairly self explanatory this one. Talk to someone who can handle listening. Don’t dump on loved ones too much, however tempting; they can only take so much. Best option: talk to a professional – they know how to detach themselves so you can unload as much as you like – guilt free.

Help each other out

Every time you meet another human being you have no idea what that person is really thinking or the turmoil they have endured. Be kind.

If you are feeling low, don’t hammer the credit card searching for new shiny things, go out and do something nice for someone. It’s not the same as buying the latest phone and being amazed by the screen resolution and the camera’s megapixel count but it’s a different sort of euphoria. It feels more genuine, hits you at a deeper level and lasts longer.

My thoughts on depression are honest and backed up by my own experiences but I would like to point out that I do not have a doctorate in psychology. If you are experiencing any form of depression then please talk to a professional or at least a good friend as bottling it up is just bad news. As always, I would love to hear your comments. This is a particularly sensitive issue and I realise the subject matter will not interest everyone but I hope that perhaps it will provoke some thought and lead to some positive actions/habits. It’s great that attitudes toward mental health are beginning to change and people no longer think of depression as something that only the weak minded experience and you should just “get over it” or “man up”. There’s a reason why so many people are experiencing it and it’s no use ignoring it. There are some amazing resources out there and if you need them, you can get hold of them. Be it medication or any of the alternatives I have suggested above (or a combination of course) you will certainly find something that will work for you. If it’s clinically proven, scientifically tested, a placebo or some zany remedy, who cares? It’s a personal experience and although it’s ultimately something you must face alone, there are others that are with you on that same journey.

With love



2 Comments Add a Comment
  1. Bernard
    November 16, 2016

    THanks Jay for your openness in sharing this. Just after I read this a saying came up somewhere along the lines of “ music is what emotions sound like” . It not surprising then that musicians get affected by the highs and lows of emotions that they express for the rest of us. Acting seems to have similar challenges of expressing emotions while maintaining well being and it might be worth looking at what actors do. You’ve listed a lot of great strategies for managing depression . I’d add the idea of reframing from the positive psychologist , Martin Seligman. This says you can defuse the depressive power of events by reminding yourself they are only temporary and have limited scope to affect things.

    • Jay
      November 20, 2016

      Thanks Bernard :)

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