Tag Archives: health

Self-Help Strategies to Improve Mental Health

Long dimmed by the pandemic, lights are coming back on in symphony halls around the country. Clubs are reopening. Musicians are back on the road. But a complete industry recovery is likely more than a year away. The hardship of the last year and the uncertainty of the future are taking a toll on the mental well-being of musicians. Musicians who cannot work or who work sporadically—book an event only to have it canceled because of a COVID outbreak—not only suffer financially, they lose their creative support network.  

As we enter another tenuous season of pandemic life, it’s important to find ways to maintain contact with fellow musicians and friends. Take time to make a call to a colleague or video chat with family members daily. Reach out to other musicians who can identify with your situation. Most important, achieving a more regulated emotional state takes a holistic approach.


Most forms of exercise trigger the release of “feel-good” chemicals in the brain. These mood-boosting chemicals include brain messengers such as dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. Being physically active is a positive coping strategy for difficult times. Moderate exercise is a great way to refocus your energy while taking advantage of the mental and physical benefits.

Cortisol, a stress hormone released by the adrenal glands, helps your body deal with stressful situations—the “fight or flight” response. When levels of cortisol are too high for too long, it can cause a number of health issues, like weight gain and chronic disease. Exercise can help regulate cortisol levels, prompting greater resilience to acute stress.


These days we’re all looking for ways to improve our immunity, and walking seems to be a smart strategy. Research shows that moderate-intensity exercise—and walking in particular—ramps up our immune system. It increases the number of immune cells that attack pathogens in our body. Studies show substantial health benefits for people clocking between 7,000 and 10,000 steps a day.

A good walk can do wonders for your mental well-being. It’s a great stress reducer and improves mood and sleep quality. Walking is a great way to work out problems, reining in the anxiety that comes with intrusive and racing thoughts. One of the most cited studies on walking and health, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, found that those who walked enough to meet physical activity guidelines had a 30% lower risk of cardiovascular events. Pounding the pavement helps improve your range of motion and mobility because it increases blood flow to tense areas and strengthens the muscles surrounding your joints.

Tai Chi

Originally developed for self-defense, tai chi has evolved into a graceful form of exercise that’s used for stress reduction. Often described as “meditation in motion,” it’s an ideal way to help maintain strength, flexibility, and balance. There is growing evidence that this mind-body practice, which originated in China as a martial art, has value in treating or preventing many health problems. Each posture flows into the next without pause, ensuring that your body is in constant motion. The movements are usually circular and never forced. The low-impact nature of the exercises put minimal stress on muscles and joints, making it generally safe for all ages and fitness levels. It may be especially appropriate for older adults who otherwise may not exercise.


Yoga is another mindful exercise that encompasses poses, breathing techniques, and meditation that calm and center the mind. Some yoga styles are intense and vigorous. Others are relaxing and meditative. No matter which type you choose, yoga is a great way to stretch and strengthen your body, focus your mind, and relax your spirit. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), scientific evidence shows that yoga support stress management, mental health, mindfulness, healthy eating, weight loss, and quality sleep. When you practice yoga in a group it can be a supportive social activity. In addition to reducing anxiety and depression, studies show that it actually makes your brain work better. When you practice yoga, your brain cells develop new connections, which strengthen memory, attention, awareness, thought, and language.


Deep, controlled breathing, often used in mindfulness-based practices such yoga, tai chi, and qigong, is a simple technique for stress reduction, lowering the levels of cortisol. It also helps to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, known as the “rest and digest” system. Try this breathing exercise: Put one hand on your chest, the other hand on your lower belly, and close your eyes. Breathe in through your nose, hold for five counts, and breathe out through your mouth. Repeat as necessary. 


Meditation is a way to clear away the information overload that clouds your thoughts. A 3,000-year-old practice, meditation began as a way to deepen an understanding of the sacred and mystical forces in life. Today, it’s commonly used for relaxation and stress reduction. Even a few minutes in meditation can restore a sense of peace and can take you calmly through your day.

Wellness & Mental Health Resources

Resources are available for many types of relief. Whether you are struggling to make ends meet or need to connect with a therapist, there are organizations that support artists in need. Connect with other musicians, learn about grants or financial assistance, access free wellness content, or simply tune in to a podcast.

Backline—Connects music industry professionals and their families with a trusted network of mental health and wellness providers. www.backline.care

Sweet Relief Musicians Fund—Provides financial assistance to all types of career musicians and music industry workers who are struggling to make ends meet
while facing illness, disability, or age-related problems. www.sweetrelief.org

Black Mental Health Alliance—Develops, promotes, and sponsors trusted culturally-relevant educational forums, trainings, and referral services that support the health and well-being of Black people and their communities.www.blackmentalhealth.com

MusiCares—Provides a safety net of critical health and welfare services to the music community in three key areas: mental health and addition recovery, health (including screening and financial help); and human services (basic needs support in times of hardship). Plus programs that address affordable housing, career development, legal issues, and senior services.  www.musicares.org

Check Your Head—A podcast where notable musicians share their mental health stories, experiences, and solutions, to encourage and support other musicians in finding the help that they need. Mental health experts also share their insight. The website offers free and affordable resources. www.checkyourheadpodcast.com

We Rise LA­—An ongoing project of the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health, serving the 10 million people of LA County with education and prevention programs and providing mental health-related services, offering connection, hope, recovery, and well-being. www.whywerise.la

SIMS Foundation—Provides mental health and substance use recovery services and supports for musicians, music industry professionals, and their dependent family members—through education, community partnerships, and accessible managed care. www.simsfoundation.org

The Actors Fund—Fosters stability and resiliency and provides a safety net for performing arts and entertainment professionals over their lifespan.www.actorsfund.org

The Musician’s Hand: A Clinical Guide

The Musician’s Hand: A Clinical Guide was the first book to focus on the specialized topic of the upper limb and hand in musicians. This second edition, now available in paperback, has been revised to reflect the scientific and clinical progress made since the book’s 1998 publication. The book opens with chapters describing the principles of hand and arm pain as experienced by musicians. Subsequent chapters cover specific disorders in musicians, therapeutic solutions, and key prevention strategies.

The Musician’s Hand – A Clinical Guide, second edition,
by Ian Winspur, JP Medical Publishers, www.jpmedpub.com.

Horn Playing from the Inside Out

Horn Playing from the Inside Out: A Method for All Brass Musicians

Horn Playing from the Inside Out

This book by Eli Epstein, of Local 9-535 (Boston, MA), presents brass pedagogy informed by scientific evidence gleaned from real-time MRI films of the interior movement patterns of the world’s finest horn players. Epstein offers tried and true methods to learn and teach these exemplary biomechanics that promote not only beautiful and easeful playing, but also career health and sustainability. Available in print from poperepair.com and digital format from Apple Books.

Horn Playing from the Inside Out, A Method for All Brass Musicians,
Third Edition, by Eli Epstein, www.eliepstein.com.

Wind Musicians’ Risk Assessment in the Time of COVID-19

by Adam T. Schwalje MD, DMA and Henry T. Hoffman MD

COVID-19 is a severe and dangerous disease. Its heart-wrenching infectivity and virulence hit home for many musicians, as we learned of the several choirs which were affected by superspreading events early in the pandemic. One was in Amsterdam, where 102 of 130 participants wound up with coronavirus infection; one in Washington state, where 52 of 60 participants were infected; and at least two others in Europe. Several choir members unfortunately died as a result. These were early hints that singing itself might be risky. The risks were strong enough that an alarm was raised by Dr. Lucinda Halstead and others in a National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS) webinar, leading many—including the Metropolitan Opera—to forego their upcoming seasons.

Because of similarities to singing, there is concern that wind players might also be at additional risk for spread of COVID-19. It is vitally important to be clear about the current uncertainties in COVID-19 risk assessment for the wind instrumentalist.

Novel coronavirus continues its rapid spread throughout the world. Infections with SARS-CoV-2 are increasing and number more than 12.2 million worldwide, with over 550,000 deaths reported as of July 10—and many more likely unreported due to well-publicized issues with testing and the high prevalence of asymptomatic infection.

The pandemic is serious and deadly. According to various medical studies, more than 1 in 3,000 Americans have died from the disease so far. Symptoms are gradual in onset and flu-like, however, many infected individuals are asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic and still infectious. It is likely that COVID-19 is several times more deadly than influenza, which itself is a dangerous disease. Most deaths from COVID-19 are in those who are elderly and/or have serious pre-existing conditions. However, over 15 percent of US deaths—numbering over 17,000—have been in people younger than 65 years.

The spread of SARS-CoV-2 is mostly by droplets or aerosol. The larger droplets can deposit on surfaces, while smaller droplets and aerosols can hang in the air and remain infectious. The smallest aerosols may lead to more serious disease, as they can be inhaled further into the lungs. The six-foot radius of safety is commonly mentioned as a distance over which larger droplets will not remain airborne, but, for example, if an infected individual is coughing in a small room, the air in the room can remain infectious for some time due to aerosols. An international group of 238 scientists recently authored a paper in Nature highlighting evidence for airborne spread of SARS-CoV-2 via microdroplets, leading the World Health Organization (WHO) to acknowledge an urgent need to further study the importance of aerosols in the spread of SARS-CoV-2.

Musicians and SARS-CoV-2
K-12 programs, collegiate programs, and orchestras are struggling to imagine how they might survive the tremendous challenges represented by COVID-19. Despite the ongoing pandemic, a few orchestras are already back to work, and many music programs and ensembles are making plans to resume operations.

It is understandable to wonder what the additional risks are for wind musicians, above the non-zero background risk of COVID-19 spread. How might we mitigate these risks for ourselves, our colleagues, audiences, students, and families? Some groups have put out detailed guidelines which purport to reduce risk of transmission of SARS-CoV-2. Others have put out blanket statements to the effect that any potential risk of infection or transmission of the virus from wind playing is essentially gone as long as proper social distancing and other precautions are being observed. The risks are unknown, but they are assuredly not zero.

Scientific and Ethical Underpinnings
It is more important than ever to read studies and guidelines with a critical eye and keep in mind the basics of scientific inquiry. A scientific study would cite sources and be peer reviewed, in the case of COVID-19, it would have the input of a physician or infectious disease specialist, and would be clear about who is producing the study and any conflicts of interest. The ability to replicate results is crucial. Musicians who do rely on the conclusions of non-reproducible studies might underestimate either the risks of their activities or the uncertainty involved in assessment of these risks. Unfortunately, there are several recent, widely circulated, pseudo-scientific assessments of risk and risk mitigation strategies for wind musicians. The good news is that there are several scientific studies on these questions also, most of which are still ongoing.

If we assume there’s no risk, or if we assert that unstudied risk mitigation procedures work, then people can’t make an informed decision about whether to put themselves in those potentially risky situations. Also, if there is at least an acknowledgement of risk, then those who are at greater personal risk from COVID-19 (the elderly, those with co-morbidities, etc.) may be able to seek accommodations for risk mitigation from their local governments. In the US, for example, this might be accomplished through the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Specific Risks of Wind Playing

The Issue of Aerosols
Much attention has been given to the risks of singing, largely because of early superspreading events. The mechanism of singing requires deep breathing, vibration of the vocal folds, active manipulation of the larynx, pharynx, tongue, and lips, and produces aerosols which can hang in the air for at least hours. Some individuals produce significantly more aerosol than others, for unknown reasons.

Risks of playing a wind instrument are probably different than those involved in singing, though there are similarities. The flute, for example, creates a strong airflow, though other instruments do not. But airflow does not tell the whole story. Playing a wind instrument involves deep breathing, sometimes forceful exhalation, and possible aerosolization of the mucus in the mouth and nose, along with secretions from deeper airway structures. The only peer-reviewed, published study on a wind “instrument” and aerosolization investigated the vuvuzela and found significant aerosol production. There is, therefore, at least a theoretical risk of droplet or aerosol transmission during wind performance, but more study needs to be done.

Two often-referenced recent studies, one from Vienna Philharmonic and one from Freiburg University, investigated airflow and wind instrument playing. Neither of these were peer-reviewed or published in a journal. Neither of these addressed aerosol generation, which is the main issue, as aerosols can hang in the air for extended periods of time and can be infectious. Dispersion of aerosols was hinted at in both studies, but dispersion is dependent on external factors like room airflow and mixing dynamics, which were not examined in either paper.

A lack of evidence about aerosol generation and elements of aerosol dispersion is explicitly noted in the Freiburg review. Even if there is minimal airflow from playing, if aerosols are produced especially in the context of deep breathing, there is a risk of spreading the aerosols around the environment. This risk is not quantifiable at the moment. Several centers in the US are investigating aerosol production from wind instrumentalists, these include University of Colorado at Boulder, Colorado State University, Rice University, and University of Maryland.

Other behaviors associated with wind playing might also be risky: Wind players buzz on their mouthpieces, blow out tone holes, blow out spit valves, clean their instruments with swabs and feathers, and might have leaking embouchures or nasal emissions during playing. How to mitigate these risks is not yet known, though many approaches have been suggested and are even being put into use.

One example is the use of disposable rags to blow out spit valves for brass musicians. This is intuitively cleaner and less likely to spread infection than, for example, emptying them onto the bare floor for everyone to track around—but the potential for aerosolization if any force is used to expel the contents, for example, is not known.

Another strategy is use of shields of plexiglass surrounding wind players. This strategy has not been studied for wind musicians, but is reminiscent of (though not entirely similar to) the idea of using polycarbonate face shields to protect healthcare workers from aerosol spread—effective in the short term to protect from an infected patient coughing in one’s face, but after 30 minutes during which aerosols mixed with surrounding air the face shield was found to be ineffective.

The risk of aerosol production posed by wind instrument performance is not known, though there are several indications that it might exceed background risk of COVID-19 transmission. Studies on this risk, and the effectiveness of risk mitigation strategies, have not yet been completed.

Reedmaking is a large part of many people’s livelihoods. But, it is important to recognize that there are no guidelines, no US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommendations, no EPA or FDA recommendations, and very little science that specifically supports or instructs on how to make a reed safe from coronavirus. There is no validated method that will eliminate the risk of viral transmission from reeds. The safest approach would be to treat all reeds as if they are infectious: to not work on others’ reeds and not share reeds with others. This can be difficult, especially for double reed players.
CDC guidelines which have been referenced by some reedmakers, like the suggestion for a soak in 70% alcohol, are designed for disinfecting already clean surfaces. Unfortunately, reeds are not like other typically studied surfaces. Played-upon reeds include proteins, respiratory secretions, and dead skin, in addition to the structure of the reed itself—all of which would probably tend to stabilize the virus, according to multiple studies. The CDC has no recommendations on how long, or with what, to soak or process a reed to render it safe from coronavirus.

There is some timeframe, of unknown duration, during which virus particles deposited on and in a reed will lose their ability to infect a new host. Unfortunately, it is unclear how long coronavirus particles remain infectious on or in items like reeds. The closest available comparison is with cardboard, on which virus particles seem to remain infectious for a relatively short time (24 hours compared to 72 hours or more for solid surfaces). However, SARS-CoV-2 remained infectious on a wooden board for at least 96 hours. In any case, the materials tested to draw these conclusions are not soaked in someone’s mouth for hours on end, and these types of tests generally exclude presence of other substances like proteins.

Therefore, applicability to reeds in a real-world situation is unknown.
Another theoretical option for reed disinfection is a high-temperature soak (e.g., at 77 degrees C or 170 degrees F, for 30 min), which is more conservative than the 30 minutes at 65 degrees C used for heat inactivation of commercially available SARS-CoV-2. This might be a way to ensure that the entire reed is disinfected—though this method has yet to be validated.
For cleaning and disinfecting reedmaking equipment, a reedmaker might be able to use resources like the CDC’s Interim Recommendations for Cleaning and Disinfection for Households or the EPA’s list of disinfectants to use against COVID-19. Knives and other reed tools should be treated like food preparation equipment; potentially dangerous chemicals should be removed from their surfaces before use.

Putting one’s mouth on a reed which has been sucked on by another person is not without risk in the COVID-19 era. It is impossible to quantify this risk. It is likely that some procedure like heating in water or waiting for a specified time decreases this risk, but it is impossible to say how much the risk is reduced with this or any other method. To support those who choose to wait for some length of time before using a reed which has been played by others, reeds should be marked with their date of last play-testing. Using a “sanitizing procedure” could give a false sense of security but is probably better than doing nothing, if there is no alternative to sharing.

Music Education
Less-experienced players are more likely to have leakage of air around the embouchure, to have stress velopharyngeal incompetence or nasal emissions, and to work harder to produce sound—all of which may create more risk of aerosol production and subsequent COVID-19 spread.
Practice rooms are small spaces which might easily be filled with aerosol. These particles may take hours to settle and could still remain infectious on surfaces even when settled from the air. Appropriate ventilation and cleaning precautions should be used, with some minimum time required before cleaning and re-use.

In K-12 school music and collegiate methods courses, sharing and storage of instruments present another set of challenges. While brass instruments can probably be effectively cleaned using the CDC guidelines for surfaces, using an instrument brush/hot soapy water for cleaning followed by a disinfectant wash, it is unclear how other instruments, made of delicate woods, felts, and corks, can be cleaned or disinfected. Careful management of a full class of school-age recorder players, in this context, would be difficult. The instrument storage room presents additional possibilities for spread of potentially infectious droplets.

Unknown Risks
The risks of wind playing in the COVID-19 era are unknown. There is a possibility, currently being studied, that the risks of wind playing and associated behaviors are greater than baseline risk of spread of COVID-19. This has wide ramifications as programs are attempting to re-open. Acknowledging the risks and attempting to mitigate them is important—but should not lull musicians into a false sense of security. Unfortunately, the available scientific evidence is too scant to reliably inform decisions about risk mitigation strategies for wind musicians. Musicians should be empowered to make their own decisions based on their individual risk tolerance. Leaders should be cautious in their representations of risk and clear about uncertainty regarding the efficacy of risk mitigation strategies.


This article has not been peer reviewed. There is no external funding source. It represents the general opinions of Drs. Schwalje and Hoffman and is not intended to offer or replace specific medical advice. If you have questions about your medical situation or your specific risks regarding COVID-19, please contact your physician.

For a list of the references used in completing this article, see https://rb.gy/ack7vw

Dr. Adam Schwalje is a resident physician and National Institutes of Health T32 research fellow in the Department of Otolaryngology at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. He also holds the DMA in bassoon performance from the University of Cincinnati College – Conservatory of Music. He has played in professional orchestras and been a music educator, and is currently the medical liaison for the International Double Reed Society.

Dr. Henry Hoffman is Professor of Otolaryngology at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. He is director of the Voice Clinic and is involved in research addressing laryngeal pathophysiology. His bands, occasionally including bassoon, can be heard throughout southeast Iowa.

Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra Cuts Off Health Coverage

The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra (ISO) has furloughed its musicians without health coverage, making it the only major orchestra in the US to terminate musicians’ health care during the pandemic.

ISO musicians, members of Local 3 (Indianapolis, IN), were furloughed for a second time on June 7. The orchestra was first furloughed in March and then re-employed at a reduced salary for eight weeks beginning in April, when the organization received a Payroll Protection Program loan. 

The second furlough came with the removal of health benefits. In lieu of coverage, management offered a stipend of $1,800, the equivalent of approximately two weeks of COBRA coverage on a family plan. Talks to re-evaluate the situation were scheduled for July.

Since the furlough, musicians have continued to organize free, public concerts in open spaces such as church parking lots.


How Understanding Your Temperament Can Help You Cope With COVID-19 Stress

emily agnew

by Emily Agnew, Member of Local 66 (Rochester, NY)

In August 1987, the Honolulu Symphony went on strike. During our four months on the picket line, I experienced a level of stress like nothing I had ever felt before. Our union strike fund stipend of $100 a week was a lifeline. I pulled myself together and got a job waiting tables for the lunch shift at an upscale restaurant. But I suffered terrible stomach aches. I lived in a state of near-overwhelm all the time. Anything could push me over the edge: I still remember the sheer panic I felt when my Plymouth Valiant overheated in rush-hour traffic.

Stressful as that strike was, it was a minor event compared to the challenge thousands of musicians are dealing with now due to COVID-19. Back then, I could just buy a new water pump for my car; restaurants were open for business. I felt scared to death about money, but the word “death” was a figure of speech, not the literal danger we face now from this virus. And most importantly, I wasn’t homebound or isolated. I could see friends, and I met with my fellow HSO musicians every week to eat the Portuguese bean soup that union president Milton Carter cooked for us.

Stress has two elements: an external stimulus, and our response to that stimulus. I’d like to talk about the response part of that equation, and specifically, the way your temperament affects your response to stress. The information I’ll share here won’t pay the mortgage, make your roommate less irritating, or flatten the curve. But it will help you to meet those challenges in a calmer, more effective way as the world works to get COVID-19 under control.

Temperament: Understanding How 20% of Us are Different, and What That Means

In 1992, a psychologist in California, Dr. Elaine Aron, identified a temperament trait she had observed in many of her clients. She called it “Sensory Processing Sensitivity,” popularly referred to as “High Sensitivity.” I learned about the trait eight years later from a psychology magazine. Glancing at the bulleted list in the page sidebar, I read an eerily accurate description of myself. “Needs 8-10 hours of sleep to function well.” Check. “Sensitive to bright lights, loud sounds, harsh fabrics, or strong smells.” Check. “Needs to recharge alone in a quiet room.” Check. “Gets rattled when rushed or required to do multiple things at once.” Check. No doubt about it: I was one of these “highly sensitive” types the article described.


In the years since Dr. Aron published The Highly Sensitive Person, her first book about the trait, dozens of studies have given us more information about it. High sensitivity is in fact an inherited trait, found inabout one in five men and women around the world. It is not a syndrome or a pathology. Rather, it is a functional evolutionary response to new situations, characterized by a “wait, watch, then act” approach. 

All highly sensitive people—HSPs for short—share the fundamental neurobiological characteristic of the trait: pronounced deep processing ability. HSPs are sensitive to subtlety, taking in more information from our environment. And we are keenly empathetic, feelingour own and others’ emotions more intensely than people who are not highly sensitive. In some ways, our trait makes us ideally suited for a music career, and many musicians are highly sensitive. However, all our noticing, feeling, and processing also contributes to HSPs’ biggest challenge: we get overaroused more easily than the other 80% of people.

Being Highly Sensitive During a Pandemic

Our vulnerability to overarousal is even more pronounced during an intensely stressful time like this one. Faced with the multiple complex implications of the pandemic and the overwhelming number of unknowns, our deep-processing minds can easily go into overwhelm. When a highly sensitive person gets exhausted or overaroused, or both, we lose connection with our natural empathy. At best, we feel miserably stressed. At worst, we shut down, act out, or even blow up.

If you are highly sensitive, you need to know how to take care of yourself to avoid overarousal. It takes skill to regulate your intense emotions. Ideally, you’d learn that skill as a child. But for those of us who didn’t, it’s never too late. (That’s the kind of work I do with sensitive clients using a process called Focusing.) And for those of you who aren’t highly sensitive, the odds are high that you live with, work with, or hang out with sensitive people. You can support the HSPs in your life by better understanding their trait.

Five Ways to Lower Stress and Overarousal

During this pandemic, each of us faces a unique configuration of challenges. Some people are in better shape financially than others, but no musician is unaffected by the pandemic. Highly sensitive or not, we all need practical, effective ways to keep our heads on straight in these extremely difficult conditions. These five steps can help anyone lower their stress, and are particularly important for sensitive people:

1. Learn more about the HSP trait. The better you understand it, the more effectively you can take care of yourself and/or support the HSPs in your life. Elaine Aron’s website (https://hsperson.com) has extensive research documentation and many articles about all aspects of sensitivity, and a self-test you can take to determine if you are highly sensitive.

2. Acknowledge your external stressors and calculate your stress level. If you need stronger motivation to take care of yourself, use the Holmes-Rahe Life Stress Inventory to compute the total point value of recent external events in your life. Holmes and Rahe demonstrated the dramatic effect of stress on health, finding that when your point total exceeds 150 on the inventory, your risk of a major health breakdown in the next two years increases 50%.This risk increases by a startling 80% if your score exceeds 300 points.

3. Identify the internal stressors contributing to your level of stress. Your internal stressors may range from chronic worrying to catastrophic thinking and harsh self-criticism. In addition, highly sensitive people tend to be so conscientious and solicitous of the needs of others that we may minimize or ignore our own needs, creating internal stress. Talking to a friend, family member, or therapist can help you become more aware of such patterns, so you can regain perspective and respond in healthier ways.

4. Take steps to keep your arousal level down. Highly sensitive people need solitude to process and recharge. If you can possibly find some time alone each day, do. If your stress level is chronically elevated, you can re-train your body to a calmer baseline by resting in a simple, enjoyable restorative yoga pose for 15 minutes a day (found on YouTube at https://youtu.be/BgGQJTGMNe0). I do it every day after lunch.

5. Trust your intuition as you make decisions. Highly sensitive people are gifted with particularly keen intuition. As your stress level decreases, your access to this sense of inner rightness increases—another motivation for taking care of yourself and skillfully managing your arousal levels. Meditation helps by lowering your arousal and is a powerful support to your intuition.

These five steps can benefit all of us during the COVID-19 pandemic, and they are indispensable if you are highly sensitive. I’m living proof: though my current Holmes-Rahe score is similar to my score during the 1987 Honolulu Symphony strike, I’m relatively calm. I’ve avoided the kind of stress tsunami I experienced back then. The difference? Greater knowledge of my sensitive trait, and hard-won arousal-management skills.

If you think you might be highly sensitive, take the self-test and begin learning. Managing your overarousal is a vital skill to help you stay well during this pandemic.

After 30 years of performing and teaching, including five years playing second oboe for the Honolulu Symphony, Emily Agnew now works with creative, sensitive people around the world in 1:1 sessions and courses. You can find more free stress-relieving resources on her website at https://sustainablysensitive.com.

hearing protection

Hearing Protection Field Test 2020 – Some of the Best Gear For Your Ears

by Todd Hobin, Member of Local 78 (Syracuse, NY)

A musician should protect their hearing as if their career depended on it

NOTE: The pandemic has caused a pause in live performances, but performing is not the only risk to your hearing. Listen up.

hearing protection

If you sit at the back of the orchestra, right in front of the percussion section, you’re a victim. Play in a rock band, you’re a victim. Drummers? Duh. But, what about the happy homeowner mowing their lawn, doing small repairs or housework? Do you ride a motorcycle, go to parties, or enjoy music in your earbuds? You are all victims. Prolonged sound over 90 decibels (dB) will cause permanent hearing damage. How long? As little as three minutes of mowing the lawn.

The tiny hair cells inside your cochlea are very sensitive. Too much volume will make them bend over and fold. Unlike some cells in your body, they will not regenerate. Long-term exposure will cause irreversible damage including tinnitus. (Musicians are 57% more likely to develop tinnitus.)

First, do no harm. Control your environment. Damaging sounds are everywhere. For example, full volume on your earbuds delivers 112 decibels. Don’t do that. Protect your hearing off the job. 

May is Better Hearing Month, so what better time to think about the value of your ears? My completely unscientific field test starts in the field outside my house. I put these popular hearing protectors up against my tractor, my chainsaw, and the tools in my shop:

hearing protection

3M EAR Classic Earplugs. Proper insertion is essential to get their full 29dB Noise Reduction Rating (NRR). Roll them up between your thumb and forefinger into a tight little barrel. Then, using your opposite hand, reach over the top of your head and gently lift up on the top of your ear. This opens your ear canal to allow the earplug to slide in right up to the hilt. After insertion, press and hold the earplugs in your ears until they expand to fill the entire canal. This will take a little longer than you think. Be patient and make sure you have a good seal. 

The most offensive sound I can think of is a circular saw cutting through a pine board. I cut through a number of boards without so much as a flinch. The EAR Classics were equally successful blocking out the sound of my chainsaw, my drill, and the massive sawmill my neighbor brought in to cut up and plank a 70-foot ash that fell in our yard. Perfect. Hair follicles saved. 

The EAR Classics are reusable and you can wash them. A little soapy water does the trick. I don’t recommend them for gig use. They cut out too much sound. My rating: safe, comfortable, and inexpensive. Highly recommended. 

hearing protection

Uline Bullet Earplugs work well, but I noticed a couple of issues. They come in a variety of colors and Noise Reductions Ratings. I used the orange 33 NRR version for my test. Many manufacturers have similar products. They are a little firmer than the Classics. Insertion technique is critical, with the pointier end going in. The longer shaft goes in deeper and in my case caused a little ear pain from time to time. After a number of days testing, I noticed what sounded like water in my ear. My audiologist pulled a nasty chunk of hardened wax out of my ear. Could that have been caused by packing bullets in my ear canal?

Be careful. I don’t recommend washing them either. The foam doesn’t hold up. Rating: safe, a little uncomfortable at times, cheap. I purchased the 200-count box. I’ll use them up.

hearing protection

Professional Safety Ear Muffs by Decibel Defense have an impressive 37dB NRR. Riding the tractor was quiet and comfortable from the start. But on a hot day I had a problem. It got sweaty. I found myself adjusting them quite a bit. I also couldn’t wear a wide brimmed hat. I’m Irish. I burn. I rate them safe when in position, semi-comfortable, and very dorky. www.decibeldefense.com.

For the gig, I chose three consumer devices to rate:

hearing protection

Earasers—The clear plastic design is unique, making them all but invisible on the gig. With a -19 dB rating, they still allow enough sound in to be of use while saving you from the big hits and overall booming sound of a rock band in full swing. My field work over the last few years involved major concert venues, small clubs, and lots of band practices. After long gigs in hot environs, I was having trouble getting them out of my ears—eventually breaking off the little wire extraction thingy. No complaints though. They served me well. Rating: safe, comfortable, not so cheap.

hearing protection

EarPeace HD Musicians Earplugs—I carry them with me everywhere I go. It’s been a constant field test in every environment from a huge amphitheater to a tiny stage in the corner of Shifty’s bar. I could hear everything clearly. It was just quieter. Sometimes I forget that I have them in. Even band practice is perfect. Hear what you need to, nothing more. Rating: Perfect. www.earpeace.com.

hearing protection

Westone makes hearing protection for shooters. They were recommended to me by a drummer. Go figure. And indeed, they have a very impressive array of products. www.westone.com. Rating: Trust the drummer.

The Best

A good musician needs a good audiologist. If you don’t have one already, get one now. You’ll want to get a baseline reading to know how much hearing you are losing over time. Find a professional audiologist near you who can make a mold of your ear canal to properly fit you with the best hearing protection for musicians. Find one at Hearingtracker.com. Rating: Pricey, but by far the best way to go.

Todd Hobin is a singer/songwriter, recording artist, studio owner, and adjunct professor in the Music Department at Le Moyne College. He has toured with the Beach Boys and the Kinks, to name a few, and has written scores for film and TV.

The Coronavirus and Its Rapid Spread

The coronavirus, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), as of March 23, has spread to 187 countries and tallied over 294,000 confirmed cases, with more than 13,000 deaths. In the US, all 50 states as well as the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the US Virgin Islands are affected, with over 15,000 confirmed cases and over 200 total deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). In Canada, 11 provinces or territories are affected, with over 1,400 confirmed cases and at least 20 deaths, according to the Canadian government.

The virus was first confirmed on December 31, 2019 by officials in Wuhan, China. According to a timeline of the virus prepared by The New York Times, the first known COVID-19-related death occurred 11 days later in China. By January 20, the WHO declared the virus had spread to other Asian countries. The first US case was confirmed on January 21, where a man in his 30s in Washington state developed symptoms after returning from a trip to Wuhan.

On January 30, the WHO declared a global health emergency, and the Trump Administration restricted all travel from China to the US. On February 2, the first virus-related death outside China was confirmed in the Philippines, and less than two weeks later the first fatality occurred in Europe after an 80-year-old Chinese tourist died in Paris. By this time, about 1,500 people had died from the virus, mainly in China.

By February 20, the number of global cases had risen to nearly 76,000, according to the WHO, with cases in Iran and Italy seeing a major surge just days later, followed by confirmed cases in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa.

On February 24, the White House asked Congress to allocate $1.25 billion in new emergency funds to bolster its preparedness. Four days later, the first US death occurred in Seattle.

The CDC lifted all federal restrictions on testing for the coronavirus on March 3. By this point, the coronavirus had infected more than 90,000 around the globe and killed about 3,000, according to the WHO.

On March 11, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic. That evening, in a prime-time address, President Trump issued a travel ban from all European countries other than Britain for 30 days. Three days later, he included all countries within the United Kingdom.

On March 12, Broadway theaters closed their doors through April 12.

On March 13, Trump officially declared a national emergency and said he was making $50 billion in federal funds available to states and territories to combat the coronavirus. The next day, the US House passed its first coronavirus response bill on a bipartisan vote to expand access to free testing, provide $1 billion in food aid, and extend sick leave benefits to vulnerable Americans. The Senate passed the bill five days later.

On March 16, Canada closed its borders to foreign travelers—with US citizens exempt—in an attempt to limit the spread of the coronavirus. Multiple US states also announced that day they would reduce allowed crowd capacity at any location to 50 people maximum, and all gyms, casinos, and movie theaters would be closed, while restaurants and bars would offer takeout only.

On March 17, the European Union banned all travelers from outside the bloc. This applied to 26 EU states as well as Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland. UK citizens were unaffected.

On March 18, the Canadian government unveiled an $82 billion aid package to provide direct support to Canadians forced from work—including freelancers—and for businesses facing hardship due to the shutdown of public life caused by the coronavirus outbreak.

On March 20, 44 unions, companies, and organizations representing the entertainment industry sent a united letter to Congress seeking emergency financial help and unemployment insurance to all workers in their industry as a response to the work lost due to the coronavirus pandemic.

As of March 23, The provinces of Ontario and Quebec had both declared a state of emergency and ordered all non-essential businesses to close.


The AFM and its Members Respond to COVID-19 Effects on Musicians


While our union officials have been monitoring the COVID-19 outbreak and potential impacts on musicians since it first became a global health emergency in late January, once music events began being canceled and restrictions on large gatherings were announced by both US and Canadian officials in early March, that is when the impact on musicians and their livelihoods became stark.

On March 3-4, President Hair was in Washington visiting legislators on union-related legislation. Although the coronavirus was still in its infancy as far as its North American presence, Hair says the people in the nation’s capital were beginning to panic, and it immediately got him thinking about the AFM’s response.

On March 5 and 9, respectively, the AFM’s two largest locals—Local 47 (Los Angeles) and Local 802 (New York City), which cover Hollywood and Broadway musicians—began posting updates and information on their websites to offer their members guidance on health and emergency relief resources. The Local 802 Executive Board began working in conjunction with the 802 Emergency Relief Fund and Musicians Assistance Program to get musicians help as quickly as possible, while the Local 47 Executive Board established an Emergency Relief Fund for members who have lost revenue due to work stoppages, as has the Music Fund of Los Angeles.

Also on March 9, all employees at the AFM headquarters in Times Square who could do their work remotely were allowed to work from home, and any essential employees who needed to work at the office were given limited schedules to avoid being in rush-hour crowds. The office was also supplied with hand sanitizer, cleaning wipes, and gloves to help prevent contagion. (The New York office closed, with all employees working from home, starting March 19, as did the West Coast Office on March 20.)

On March 12, the day Broadway theaters closed their doors, President Hair issued a statement in response to limits being placed on public gatherings: “Union musicians in the United States and Canada are committed to doing everything possible to limit the spread of COVID-19, but this will have a disastrous impact on musicians and so many others who live gig to gig. It is critical that both national and local governments take immediate action to provide economic relief including expanding unemployment benefits and an immediate moratorium on evictions, foreclosures, and utility shut-offs.”

Actors’ Equity Executive Director Mary McColl also released a statement, in which she said the decision to limit public gatherings, “means tremendous uncertainty for thousands who work in the arts, including the prospect of lost income, health insurance, and retirement savings.” International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE) International President Matthew D. Loeb also called on the federal government to take decisive action and issue a relief package to entertainment industry workers. “Entertainment workers shouldn’t be collateral damage in the fight against the COVID-19 virus,” he stated. “Film and television production alone injects $49 billion into local businesses per year, and the overall entertainment industry supports 1.2 million jobs in municipal and state economies.”

Helping Traveling Musicians

The cancellation of Broadway shows includes all the travelling shows, and many union members were left out on the road with employers offering only partial payment for their final week of work, says AFM Touring/Theatre/Booking Division Director Tino Gagliardi. Gagliardi has been in constant contact with all the AFM touring musicians to keep them informed of the situation.


He also has been meeting with other entertainment industry union officials and the Broadway League to sort out the issue of worker benefits and compensation. “Some companies have given notice to musicians they will only be paid a partial week for their last week. The union’s position is full payment of course,” he says. “The League’s got to do the right thing here. What we’re looking for is full compensation through the rest of the week that was canceled plus additional financial relief for the musicians through additional wages based on the type of production and health care benefit contributions until April 12, with a commitment to resume discussions on the possibility of additional health contributions the week of April 6.”

An agreement was reached on March 21.

Side Letter to Integrated Media Agreement

On March 13, the day President Trump officially declared the COVID-19 outbreak a national emergency, the AFM announced it had signed an agreement with the Employers’ Electronic Media Association (EMA) to enable livestreaming of concert performances by a signatory employer that has been adversely affected by the spread of COVID-19. This side letter to the 2019-2022 Integrated Media Agreement guarantees no disruption in compensation or benefits for any musician for a 30-day period following the date of posting of the first streaming content.

“What the side letter does is to allow the employer to maintain an online presence when maintaining an in-person presence (for either audience or musicians) is either impossible or imprudent in the limited context of the COVID-19 pandemic,” explains SSD Director Rochelle Skolnick. “An employer must elect to use the side letter and the musicians of the orchestra must vote to approve its use. It is not automatically applied to any orchestra.” She says the use of the side letter also does not interfere with the ability of a local, orchestra committee, or musicians to make their own decisions about gathering together to rehearse or perform. “In short: agreeing to use the side letter does not create any new obligation for you to show up to work,” she explains.

Online Resources

This COVID-19 side letter was the first document to be placed in a newly created folder in the SSD section of the AFM.org website called “Corona Virus Resources.” The folder also contains legal guidance on force majeure (“Act of God”) aspects of collective bargaining agreements and a Q&A document regarding musician attendance and COVID-19 concerns; it will also be continuously updated and augmented as conditions change.

In addition to the new SSD digital resource, there is now a COVID-19 resource page with information and helpful links at www.afm.org/covid-19/.

Lester Petrillo Fund

Union officials also have announced reminders that any members who contract COVID-19 and lose work because of it can apply for limited emergency financial aid through the Lester Petrillo Memorial Fund. The Fund was established to assist members in good standing who become ill or disabled and are unable to accept work. A member would qualify for assistance if he/she is diagnosed with coronavirus and/or he/she tests positive for coronavirus and is quarantined.


Members and local officers may download Petrillo Fund applications from the AFM website. Go to www.afm.org and type “Petrillo Memorial Fund” into the search bar. Completed applications together with supportive medical documentation should be submitted by members to their local unions, which will then submit them to the Federation.

Across the northern border—which the Canadian government closed to foreign travelers on March 16—the Canadian office of the AFM, located in Toronto, started putting emergency office measures into place on March 13. These measures included allowing staff to work from home if possible, having reduced office hours to avoid peak travel times in transit, having a maximum of three staff members in the office at one time, offering hand sanitizer around the office, and practicing increased cleaning of common surfaces in the office, says Alan Willaert, Vice President from Canada. The Canadian office closed until further notice on March 24 after the Premier of Ontario and the Mayor of Toronto both declared a state of emergency and ordered all non-essential businesses to close for two weeks.

The Canadian Office of the AFM, in coordination with the Canadian Actors’ Equity Association and the Toronto Musicians’ Association, also started the Save Live Arts in Canada initiative (www.savelivearts.ca) in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The initiative encourages all who work in the live arts to sign a petition addressed to all elected officials in Canada, which urges certain health and financial actions be taken to help members of the entertainment sector in the face of unemployment.

Urging Federal Response

Also on March 13, Willaert sent an open letter to the Government of Canada, urging support for musicians due to an unprecedented loss of work caused by reaction to the Coronavirus. “The CFM is requesting that government adopt emergency measures in this exceptional situation, to provide security to counteract this critical loss of revenue, through whatever means necessary,” Willaert wrote. “These steps may include a waiver of the one-week waiting period for Employment Insurance (EI) benefits (in the case where the musicians are entitled), to expanding the benefit to include freelance workers who provide their services as self-employed contractors, to ensuring that compensation is made available for musicians who have had gigs or tours canceled for both lost revenue and other expenses, such as the hundreds of dollars, or thousands paid to USCIS as petition fees for P2 visas for US entry. Consideration must be made as well for proper funding to help musicians and symphony/theatre organizations recover, as well as assistance to stimulate and revitalize the industry once the virus has been contained and/or eradicated.”

Willaert also signed on to a letter from the seven Canadian entertainment unions to the Canadian minister of heritage and multiculturalism urging him to extend income support to workers not eligible for EI sickness benefits. Many workers in the Canadian entertainment industry are not classified as employees under Canadian laws, and therefore are not eligible for EI benefits for any loss of work due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

“We are concerned the government may forget the importance of our industry and the need to also protect the workers who rely on it for their income,” the letter states. “We are already seeing cancellations of screen-based productions and live performances with more anticipated. Workers who are signed to productions rely on those contracts, which can range from several days to several months. The loss of that expected income will be devastating to these precarious workers. Production insurance is not covering cancelltions related to COVID-19.”

On March 14, President Hair issued a statement on the pandemic’s impact on musicians and other gig economy workers:

The SKYXE Juno welcome stage was shut down by Canadian government order at 10:30 a.m. on March 12, with only two of the 19 scheduled Local 553 (Saskatoon, SK) musical groups over the March 12-16 event having performed. The Starry Night Quartet kicked things off at 8 a.m. Thursday morning. The quartet features four members of the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra. Pictured from left: Joan Savage (violin), James Legge facing away from the camera (viola), Nova Wong (violin), and Scott McKnight (cello).

“As events related to the fast-moving coronavirus pandemic evolve, emergency declarations in many locations have banned all but small-sized public gatherings in an effort to protect families, save lives, and prevent the spread of the disease. These actions have led to the shuttering of large, medium, and small venues, sporting facilities, and the preemption of live media production involving studio audiences. This has prompted the widespread cancellation of concerts, shows, theatrical productions, festivals, and musical performances of every kind—all of which have inflicted disastrous economic effects upon performers who often live gig to gig and who bring joy to the world wherever groups are gathered.

“Tens of thousands of musicians and others have suddenly found themselves without income, without the means to feed and protect their families, and who may lose healthcare coverage during these shutdowns. Today, a state of national emergency has been declared which frees up $50 billion in federal funds for use in response to the accelerating surge of infections. When considering funding assistance and relief for working people, Congress and state and local lawmakers should pay particular attention to those who work and perform in the entertainment industry, whose gigs have gone dark, and who are bearing the financial brunt of these shutdowns the most.”

Like their Canadian counterparts, the major US entertainment industry union leaders are also coordinating to protect their members from the effects of the coronavirus and the governmental response to it. These leaders—part of the coalition comprising the AFL-CIO Department for Professional Employees—had a teleconference on March 16 during which they discussed all aspects of the situation, particularly how to ensure that our elected officials in Washington DC stand up for creative professionals.

They drafted a letter to government officials in which they advocated for emergency economic support for entertainment industry professionals. Specifically, they urged legislators to create a special Emergency Coronavirus Economic Support Benefit geared toward entertainment workers who have a bona fide, good faith work offer that gets canceled due to the coronavirus, as well as the creation of a benefit similar to the Emergency Paid Leave benefit included in the first Coronavirus Response Act legislation (signed into law on March 18) but available to those who cannot work due to production shutdown rather than due to illness, quarantine, or family caregiving needs.

“We are working closely with the Arts, Entertainment, and Media Industry (AEMI) unions through the AFL-CIO’s Department for Professional Employees (DPE) to speak with one voice urging Congress to include musicians and other arts and entertainment workers in any subsequent bill to help our members,” says AFM International Secretary-Treasurer Jay Blumenthal.

While President Hair and the rest of the AFM leadership and staff are working around the clock with other national entertainment unions to protect their members, they are encouraging members to stand up and speak out as well. “Musicians need to directly contact their congressperson and senators to urge them to protect entertainment workers during this unprecedented crisis,” President Hair says.

All AFM members are encouraged to visit www.afm.org/covid-19, scroll to the bottom, and fill out the “Emergency Action – Contact Congress” form to let Congress know that they need to protect entertainment workers, thousands of whom are unable to pay for rent or food and are finding their healthcare coverage in jeopardy.

mental health

Advice for Taking Care of Your Mental Health as a Musician

by Roz Bruce, Guest Contributor

When you’re a musician, be it in a rock band, jazz ensemble, or a classical orchestra, it’s likely you have a schedule that’s tough on your body and your mind. Even if you’re not a full-time musician, those late nights and the fast-food meals can take their toll.

mental health

For many people, listening to music or playing an instrument is a way of dealing with problems and can help improve mental health. However, many musicians struggle with mental illness, which in some cases ends in tragedy.

As a songwriter and musician, I know how easy it can be to let your health slip when you’re gigging, touring, or even just heavily involved in a creative process. I remember, in the early days of my songwriting, sacrificing sleep, food, and relationships as I allowed myself to be possessed by the creative process that would end up taking its toll on my mental well-being as I suffered depression and anxiety. Later albums, which I recorded more healthily, were undoubtedly better as well as more enjoyable to create.

It’s so important to look after your mental health as a musician; it’s what helps you create, interpret, play, and enjoy music. Here is some advice for how you can help to take care of yourself both at home and on the road.

Take Some Time for You

This one is the hardest to stick to for musicians. You rehearse, prepare, play, get home tired, sleep in the next day, or go to work and repeat. It can be so exhausting and draining. You need to remember that music is a gift and you’ll burn out if you only ever give, give, give.

Take some time to do things that have no purpose other than for yourself. Read a book, have a bath, do whatever you enjoy, but do it just for you. This is an essential aspect of mental wellness. Two books that I have found particularly enjoyable and helpful are Destination Happiness: 12 Simple Principles That Will Change Your Life, by Mark Reklau, and The Little Book of Self Care, by Mel Noakes.

Take some time for yourself, by yourself. You’ll thank yourself.

Don’t Compare Yourself to Others

This really is a psychological one. Performing makes you sensitive. Yes, even you, tough guy. After you’ve performed, you’re much more likely to see the potential negatives in anything anyone says to you. Didn’t they like the songs? They hate us. Or if nobody says anything, oh my gosh! The worst. They were all embarrassed. They thought we were awful.

mental health

Then the next band goes on, and everyone is cheering *because they know them*… and you’re thinking, “Nobody did that for us … we must have been terrible.”

When reflecting on your performance, reflect on your performance. What did you do well? What could have gone better? How? Comparing yourself to other bands or performers will never lead you to anything helpful or insightful.

Eat and Drink

It sounds so obvious, but this is a big one. We need to eat to stay alive, right? But when you have to be at a venue at 4:30 p.m., sound check at 6 p.m., play at 8:30 p.m., leave the gig at 11 p.m., where’s the time for food? It’s really worth taking some food with you to a gig. Look after your body and your mind will flourish. Just get past the uncool-ness of it and prepare a packed lunch. Alternatively, try getting a healthy meal at least some of the time, rather than burgers every time you’re gigging. It’s so much better for your mood.

It’s also easy to forget to hydrate yourself when you’re out and about. Performing takes a lot of energy, and it’s not unusual to sweat when you’re on stage. This makes you more dehydrated. Make sure to keep water flowing. It hydrates your brain as well as your body, and you’ll find your mood improving as a result. Best of all, water is free.

Reach Out

If you do find yourself struggling, don’t forget that help is out there. The worst thing you can do is to keep stuff bottled up inside. Try speaking to someone close to you and getting that fear, anxiety, anger, or whatever off your chest. If you don’t have health insurance, you can get free help and look for mental health resources online. For example, the SIMS Foundation in Texas helps to provide musicians with mental health resources, as does the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic. In Canada, the Canadian Mental Health Association has a presence in more than 330 communities across every province and one territory. You should also save your state’s mental health crisis line, just in case you need it.

Roz Bruce is a professional musician, songwriter, and teacher based in Nottingham, UK. She has personal experience with depression and anxiety and has a commitment to helping others in mental distress. www.guitaristroz.com.