Darkness Audible: Depression Among Musicians

While depression is not the taboo subject that it was when I was young, it still takes a fair amount of courage for anyone to open up about their own struggles with the disorder, much less someone who occupies as public a role as does ICSOM chair Bruce Ridge. His article resonated for me in part because I know for an absolute fact – as only I can – that at least one of his predecessors as ICSOM chair suffers from the same disorder. My own treatment – although not my bouts with depression – started shortly after my orchestra’s protracted and nasty labor negotiations in 1993-94, when I was chair of the orchestra committee. Fortunately, by that time, there were antidepressant drugs that worked for many people without too many side-effects, and they worked for me, at least in terms of keeping the condition under control.


Bruce cites a study (probably this one) which finds that 60% of musicians suffer from depression (a similar study is cited here). That means that anyone reading this article is likely at significant risk of depression now or in the future, or has suffered from in the past. If that’s you, get help. It’s not hard – even internists and family practice physicians will prescribe and refer. Depression can be a terminal condition. And, even when it’s only chronic, take it from me that it’s no fun at all.  – Robert Levine

Darkness Audible

by ICSOM Chairperson Bruce Ridge

From the first moment of my conscious memory, I have struggled with depression.

In the decade that I have spent traveling to meet with musicians, I have often seen a look in the eyes of those in the back of the room that I recognize all too well. Sometimes I understand that it is situational; after all I am often meeting with people fighting for the survival of their orchestras and their careers. And for musicians, it is often true that we see our very selves as inextricably linked with our careers.

A line from the 1998 movie Hilary and Jackie, about the great cellist Jacqueline du Pre, has always been haunting. As du Pre faces the effects of her progressive physical illness, she asks her husband “would you still love me if I couldn’t play?” and the response is “If you couldn’t play you wouldn’t be you.”

My strongest wish as ICSOM Chair has been to bring us all closer together, and to explore issues where we could better assist each other and grow together as musicians and humans. I have often said that musicians have a shared past, a shared present, and a shared future. I know that it is true that many of us share depression as well. I was compelled to finally write about depression by two events at the recent ICSOM Conference in Philadelphia.

A filmmaker and musician, John Beder, presented a short preview of a documentary project that he is working on called Composed, which chronicles how musicians deal with performance anxiety. In the film, I was impressed by the number of musicians willing to express their anxieties, seemingly without fear. When I was a younger musician, there was a stigma to talking about performance anxiety, and it struck me just how valuable this film, and these musicians’ openness, will be to assist us all. Surely those who suffer from performance anxiety will be strengthened just knowing that they are not alone.

Also at the conference, in an effort to use our presence in the city as a symbol of community service, we held our first service event at an ICSOM Conference when we provided music and assistance at a soup kitchen in collaboration with Broad Street Ministry. On their Twitter feed, Broad Street Ministry wrote: “Today ICSOM extended radical hospitality by creating a trauma-informed space with music.” Conference attendees served dinner to those in need, while others performed music.

While our musicians were playing as dinner was served, I looked into the eyes of those who had come to have a meal—in some cases I imagine perhaps the only real meal available to them in some time. The people were quite varied, some old, some young. They were in differing points of their distress, and some reacted joyfully to the music, and some merely ate their meals. But in the eyes of many I recognized the face of depression, and I realized that with a few bad turns none of us are too distant from the place where they find themselves.

A study of depression in various professions found that people working in the arts are the fifth most likely to suffer from depression. A more recent study found that 60% of musicians suffer from depression.

As ICSOM Chair, I have never faltered in my public message that we must hold on to hope, that music changes lives, that our mission as musicians should be to elevate a burdened world, and that our orchestras are indispensable vehicles for the enlightenment of the human spirit. I say those things both because they are true, and because I believe them. I also say those things because it has always been music that has allowed me to defeat depression on so many days.

Those of you who know me only in this public role might be surprised by this confession, but those closest to me surely are not. On most days I overcome it; in fact on almost every day I win the battle. I can find joy in music, and in performance. I am at my best when I am listening, either to people or music.

To those who might be reading this now through a veil of darkness, and to those of you whose eyes I have seen look forlornly into an uncertain future, I want you to know that you are not alone. What might feel like a singular secret to you is one that is shared by many, and empathy is nearer than you might think.

I also want to encourage those of you who are mercifully spared the descent of depression to find ways to be more supportive and sympathetic. There are those in your orchestras who find showing up every day to be a victory in itself over what can appear at times to be insurmountable obstacles. In our orchestras there can be an occasional “locker room mentality” where backstage rhetoric insults and isolates those who seem different or distant. This hurts our collective artistry. There is a meme that says “everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” As musicians, artists, and especially as humans, we should remember that always.

I have often quoted Dylan Thomas, writing “Rage, rage against the dying of the light…” Those words serve as a mantra that leads me through darker days, and reminds me in moments of melancholia that I won’t feel that way forever. I am empowered to resist the descent…and so are you.

In his book Darkness Visible, William Styron concludes by referencing Dante, writing:

“For those who have dwelt in depression’s dark wood, and known its inexplicable agony, their return from the abyss is not unlike the ascent of the poet trudging upward and upward out of hell’s black depths and at last emerging into what he saw as ‘the shining world.’ There, whoever has been restored to health has almost always been restored to the capacity for serenity and joy, and this may be indemnity enough for having endured the despair beyond despair.”

from the October 2015 edition of Senza Sordino
©2015 International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians
used with permission

— Robert Levine

About the author