Challenging the Norm...(an)
Take one quick scroll through social media and it isn't long before you get a sense that there's change afoot. No longer content with gracious smiles and polite laughter in the company of the less than savoury, outdated attitudes often seen in our industry (or by those who critique it...), music students and young professionals are calling for a fresh perspective!
Often plagued by a stiff-upper-lip mentality, classical musicians can sometimes find we're on the back foot when it comes to the modern thinking witnessed in the world around us. Our career is hard but it's what we signed up for - does one really need to discuss such difficulties so openly? Mental health, financial hardships, lack of job stability, sexism and elitism, our industry deals with it all but we still feel great insecurities when speaking these truths out loud for fear they'll have a negative impact on our future career. But with world attitudes changing, who are these musicians, unafraid to put their thoughts and feelings into the firing line, breaking down the barriers that past traditions have worked so hard to keep quiet?
This fortnight, I've been joined by two graduates doing just that. Hattie Butterworth and Rebecca Toal are the two creative minds behind the aptly named "Things Musicians Don't Talk About", the forward thinking classical music podcast creating a space to talk about the emotions, struggles and vulnerabilities of classical musicians that are chronically overlooked.
Welcome Hattie and Becca!
What was the inspiration behind the podcast?
Hattie: I bought a microphone in September 2019 because I had always really wanted to start a podcast. I didn't know about what but I just knew it was something I wanted to do. Then lockdown happened. The first month was fine, and I was so amazed that my mental health had managed to survive. I was really surprised. So many people were really struggling, and I was really enjoying the time. Then about a month in, I started getting really unwell with my anxiety and OCD. And when I started coming out of that, (it lasted about six weeks), I thought I'm in a place now where I really want to talk about that experience. And I don't know, I think I've been through so many of these kind of episodes that I was thinking these aren't going to go away terribly quickly so to start a podcast alongside my journey and talk to other people who might be suffering with similar things, but also people that have experiences that are different to mine feels like a good way of documenting the reality of living with a mental illness. As I've met a lot of musicians suffering with OCD, but I haven't met any musicians really suffering with eating disorders or other types of anxiety, I decided to create a podcast about general taboos. I didn't want to just call it mental health because there are struggles that are equal that aren't about mental health as well. People have so many struggles in music, it can't just be mental health, even though our mental health is impacted by almost all of them. So I thought, let's start with my experience in mental health and just see where it goes.
Why do you think there is such a tradition in the music industry not to discuss any sort of problems or difficulties that make us look less "Superhero"?
Becca: I guess first off, music is a performative thing. There's always been such a tradition of musicians or any type of artist being put on a pedestal - they must be delivering a higher message from above and therefore they must be perfect! I always felt in order to justify asking people to come and watch you perform, there must be a special reason, like, you must be something superior to them otherwise they could just go and see anybody, why should it be you? I think there is a wrong image of the musician, artist or creator being up here and everybody else worshipping them.
On a more practical note, there's the reality that being any sort of creative or artist is so reputation based. So much of work comes through word of mouth and just general gossip. Everybody knows everyone. So you don't want any blemish on your reputation to be passed around with your name. You want, if anything, to hear, "Rebecca, she's a great player, would always hire her, etc". I feel like any mention of mental illness is equated with unreliability or a black mark next to your name. An amalgamation of all those things is why it's been so hard to talk about these things for sure.
Hattie: I think that's why we want to find people to talk openly. Especially those more high profile musicians because if it starts from the top and there are people with constant work who are not scared of their openness impacting on their work able to speak out about what they've struggled with, that is such a great culture for everyone coming beneath them. They can feel that they can make allowances for their health and well-being because this person has and people still respect them in the same way - they've managed to create a great ethos. The problem I've found is that it's all right for me to talk about my experiences, but I don't actually have a career yet. As such, I don't have much work behind me. I don't have a stable job. It's felt like a big risk but it's been one I've wanted to talk about. I do wish that people, i.e. soloists or people more higher up in the music world would take a stand and share their own experiences bit more because I think it will create a better culture for people being able to speak out and not feeling so trapped.
Becca: One last thing I'd say is that classical music or the music industry in general, is in such a fragile state, and even the people that are successful and high profile, they're still scared of putting a foot wrong because, yes, in reality, they have a more stable career but the industry as a whole is not fantastically strong. So I feel like it's quite scary to think that even the biggest names, they're still not like watertight.
(Below a recent post of theirs that speaks volumes about the changing attitudes in music)
When you post about things you're personally going through, do you still find yourself plagued by the old ways of thinking? For example, people will be less likely to hire you if you talk about personal problems etc.
Hattie: So I've had this conversation with a few family members, and it's probably going to land me in some hot water but... I don't horribly want to work for someone that would discriminate me based on what I post. I respect people who are cautious but I think everything that's happened to me and the multitude of experiences I've had, which have all just kind of hit me one by one, I want to share them. I want to connect with the people about them, and that's more important for me at the moment than pleasing someone that might employ me. But I do get what I call a "Vulnerability Hangover". When I post something deep and personal, I'll feel great and then about four hours later, I get this vulnerability hangover where I really regret it and I want to take it down. I know you shouldn't feel validated by comments but it is helpful when people say, wow, thank you for opening up, that's really helped. That makes you feel like, thank God I did share that.
Becca: I feel similarly. I do worry about people seeing it and judging it but I think yes, you shouldn't feel validated by comments, but the number of people that have reached out, especially the people that you see in person and begin an open conversation with about the post, I think they've been the experiences that have made me feel a lot better about posting.
I think also because I've been doing it for quite a few years now, at first I would be constantly refreshing seeing if more people liked it or commented. And now I'm just a bit like, I put it out there. They can deal with it. They don't like it. That's fine. I also post two types of posts. I either have, the kind of posts that I put out there to try and help me process things and heal in a way that just feels very cathartic. Then sometimes I have one where I'm not in a very good place and it's not a cry for help but it's definitely like, I don't really know what I feel about this yet, here's this thing that I'm going through. As much as I know that I'm aware of, trauma dumping on people I think because it's social media, and a lot of it is just people scroll past it anyway.
What would you say to someone wanting to be more open about what they're going through but worried about how it might hurt their career?
Becca: Don't use social media in place of therapy. I think it can be a great tool for self reflection. You can start small. You can just be like, I'm not having a great day today and I bought myself a candle because I wasn't feeling great. I would experiment with putting out something small and see how it makes you feel. If you instantly feel more anxious for putting it out there then maybe go and talk a professional first. But if you enjoy being completely uninhibited like Hattie and I, then go for it. If people don't like what you post, they can unfollow, your feed is your own. You don't have to follow anybody. And in terms of a career, I don't know if you guys noticed, but there are many jobs anyway, and we're going to have to make our own work.
Hattie: I think people get this impression that I expect everyone to be as open as I am. I've had some messages from people saying, "I'm sorry, I just can't talk about that or that I'm going through something". I'm not expecting everybody else to be posting deep things if they don't want to. Some people go through something terrifying, have a break and just live life very low key. That's fine. I spent three months off social media last year. That was important for me to find myself as something other than a sharer. I remember just being really burned out of sharing and burned out from all of it. Follow your intuition with it. If you're feeling like sharing something would help someone don't let the anxiety stop you. I'd say if you feel like it's in line with your journey and you think it could help you connect with people, I think that's brilliant.
Thank you so much Hattie and Becca for being so open and honest about taking the step to make the music industry a more open place to share the less perfect parts of ourselves. It's been wonderful to have you as guests on the blog. If you haven't already listened to this magnificent duo, I cannot urge you enough to give them a play on whatever platform you listen to your podcasts on. Listen on Spotify, follow them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram or visit their website for more information.
What's your relationship with social media? Do you find it a happy place to stay connected with your friends and colleagues or are you all too aware of the power of the filter? Perhaps you make a conscious effort to set a time limit or do you feel like your day runs better without it? Let me know your thoughts below!
All my love,