In preparing this book it was inspiring to see musicians successfully employ Buddhist practices to address performance anxiety, to build resilience, and to sit with and process negative emotion and emotional turbulence. Practices such as meditation and visualisation can help build a stronger psychological platform to deal with the inevitable stresses that come with life as a working musician. It is hoped that awareness of these tools will increase, not just amongst those in recovery, but amongst all musicians. 


By Dr Paul Saintilan

In recent years the music industry has spoken of a “mental health crisis” facing musicians, with evidence they experience higher levels of anxiety, depression and dependency issues than the general population.

The music industry was one of the first to be smashed by the Coronavirus pandemic, heaping further financial and psychological stress on musicians. A timely new book has been published which explores the topic of musicians and addiction from multiple angles.

The first section of the book presents a review of research and published articles on the topic. The second section presents personal insights from 30 contributors working in the Australian, US and UK music industries. This includes 12 excerpts from interviews and autobiographies of well known musicians, 12 specially commissioned personal recovery stories from musicians working across multiple genres, and a series of professional perspectives. The final section of the book examines the implications for individual musicians, organisations and the industry as a whole.

Facets explored by the book include: preconditions such as genetics, personality traits, childhood trauma and mental health; performance anxiety (a big issue); using drugs to enhance creativity and imagination; social, cultural and workplace pressures; identity issues—“public versus private self”—and subcultural identity; fame and celebrity; Imposter Syndrome; and the way drugs are employed to manage the emotional turbulence generated by all of these pressures.

So how do you manage emotional turbulence without using drugs?

The use of meditation and Buddhist practices first arises in the book within the US recovery stories, where five musicians introduce meditation in their story. The theme returns in the section on professional perspectives, where one of the contributors (Rob Cannon) looks at techniques from sports psychology such as meditation and visualisation that could be employed to help musicians with focus, performance anxiety, resilience, creating psychological boundaries and sleep. To give a concrete flavour of the way musicians have introduced meditation and Buddhist practices in their story, three examples are provided below.

Dan (Brown) from Florida emulated his musical heroes to the point of self-immolation. His story is a deep dive into a melting pot of music, imagination, mental illness, and addiction. In discussing his spiritual practice he observes:

“For years I imagined, believed really, that drugs brought me deeper into some emotional space; but that was just being high. Now every moment, every note, every missed chord change, isn’t cataclysmic. It’s just right. I’m in the moment and the moment isn’t screaming for me to wrap it up so I can go nullify myself for some ‘reward’ for what is already an inherently rewarding experience. My oldest friend, music, doesn’t need to be weighed down by a two-faced sidekick.… If I claim a certain faith, it’s Advaita Vedanta. And my entire spiritual practice is devoted to meditating and being aware of that intuitive voice. Then I realize there is no voice, only complete stillness and silence; the intimacy I wanted was already there. That is my higher power; ego, attachment, and aversion stripped away, revealing the truth. Years ago, when I first worked Step Two, I stumbled onto this quote by the Vedanta mystic-saint Sri Rama Tirtha: “A God defined is a God confined.” That statement awoke and has sustained my spirituality, in all of its myriad, loving forms.”

Joe (Clements) worked in the underground punk rock music scene in Santa Cruz, California. Through tools such as meditation he was eventually able to have a deeper confrontation with drivers of unhappiness such as ambition and the pursuit of fame, and the need for approval and validation:

“I’d tried meditation when I’d first gotten sober in the early 1990s but I’d written it off as something that wasn’t for me. I couldn’t stop my thoughts or tie my legs in a knot. I thought it was a bunch of hippy shit.”…. “In the beginning meditation helped me to ignore the thoughts. I could steer my attention away from anger, stress and frustration. By focusing on the breath, feeling my feet on the ground, I started letting go just a little. With practice I was able to calm myself enough to see beneath the anger and see sadness, beneath the frustration and see fear and worry. I started meeting these internal experiences with some wisdom and understanding, kindness and compassion. I got in touch with the younger part of me that never felt good enough. That kid who felt alone and unseen. I sat with this part of me and sent it kindness, compassion and forgiveness. I learned to sit in the fire of fear, watch the anger wash away in the sadness of my tears and found freedom in the ashes of my suffering. I slowly loosened my grip on self-doubt and the need for approval. I realized that approval was what I’d been strung out on all along. In turn, I became less reactive, I didn’t feel the need to run.”

Pete (Kuhn) from California recounts a journey that took him from the 1970s jazz scene in Manhattan to heroin addiction, armed robbery and a stint in prison. He sees mindfulness as vital to both jazz improvisation and living his life generally:

“Self-focus is the last thing you need as a jazz improviser because instead of being in the moment, listening and responding intuitively, you get in your own way, you’re stuck in your head thinking ‘so and so is in the room, I better play something hip for him’. Or ‘this really difficult passage is coming up, I hope I don’t screw it up’. I guess I previously used drugs to quieten this internal dialogue, while now I would effectively use mindfulness meditation to quieten these thoughts”….. “The beautiful thing is that I now have a life of meaning and value before I pick up the horn. I’m not chasing validation, living a life predicated on the success of a record or the next gig. My heart is full when I pick up the horn, I’m picking it up as a whole person, and anything from there is just abundance.”

The section on professional perspectives returns to the power of meditation by throwing light on the work of Dr Don Greene.

Greene graduated from the US Military Academy at West Point, became a commando, and served in the Green Berets before going back to school and getting a PhD in psychology. He focused his research on “centering” (effectively a meditative technique to boost mental calm and focus), and formulated an approach adapted from the work of Dr Robert Nideffer, a prominent sports psychologist.

He demonstrated that the technique helped SWAT teams perform better under stress, and what he learned then equipped him to work effectively with Olympic athletes too. Finally, he applied the techniques to orchestral musicians who experienced performance anxiety, particularly when faced with 3-minute auditions that could dramatically affect their careers. He enjoyed such success working with musicians that he was invited to join the faculty at the Juilliard School in New York.

Visualisation, or mental rehearsal, is a common technique in sports and helps athletes to mentally prepare for an upcoming event or match. Musicians are now employing these techniques such as cellist Johannes Moser, who has significantly reduced performance anxiety by visualising aspects of forthcoming performances. This is a vivid exercise in imagination, focusing on details such as picturing himself walking onto the stage in the concert hall, the audience breaking into applause, the orchestra members standing around him as he walks to the front of the stage, the dying of the applause, the silence, and then the conductor giving the cue for the music to commence.

By repeating these visualisations with positive self talk, he significantly increases his confidence levels when he actually performs.  The book acknowledges two different paradigms practiced by meditators—the “self surrender” paradigm in the context of Buddhism and the Twelve Steps, and “self development” paradigm of sports psychology.

In preparing this book it was inspiring to see musicians successfully employ Buddhist practices to address performance anxiety, to build resilience, and to sit with and process negative emotion and emotional turbulence. Practices such as meditation and visualisation can help build a stronger psychological platform to deal with the inevitable stresses that come with life as a working musician. It is hoped that awareness of these tools will increase, not just amongst those in recovery, but amongst all musicians.


(The quotes above are copyright and reproduced with permission)

If you’re interested in this book, although the paperback publication date is June 12, you should be able to order a copy at the following sites:


Paul is the editor of the book, Musicians and Addiction: Research and Recovery Stories and CEO of Music Australia. He started life as a musician, studying with the late Australian music composer Peter Sculthorpe. He went on to work as an international Marketing Director at EMI Music and Universal Music in London in the 1990s. He partied hard, and then decided to drink his way through a marriage breakup in 1999. This escalated a dependency problem that was ultimately solved through AA initially teaching him some hard lessons about addiction, and then discovering Buddhist Recovery which he found sublimated sobriety and made it beautiful for him. Find him on LinkedIn.


Photo: Book Cover

Editor: Dana Gornall


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