School of Music urges students to pursue holistic wellness

Dr. Lesley McAllister posing in front of her piano. Photo courtesy of Lesley McAllister.

By Shelby Peck | Staff Writer

Baylor School of Music faculty are challenging their students to pursue holistic wellness this semester through advocacy for rest, offering wellness classes and hosting guest speakers.

After noticing increased levels of anxiety, stress and depression in its students last year, the School of Music instituted a health and wellness initiative under the direction of Dr. Lesley McAllister, professor of piano and director of the keyboard division.

“We want our students to be aware of these issues and be able to find a support system to have coping tools to heal,” McAllister said. “Musicians have always tended to have those difficulties. I think it just has a lot to do with the way we’re trained, to be really perfectionistic.”

McAllister said health-related issues such as performance anxiety, symptoms of repetitive use and musculoskeletal problems are all prevalent among music students as a result of practicing for too many hours.

In the fall, the School of Music emphasized the importance of physical health among its students, including education on how to improve posture and use the body efficiently. This semester, the focus has shifted to mental well-being. Efforts to promote mental health awareness will include guest speakers such as Vanessa Cornett, author of “The Mindful Musician.”

Other efforts to maintain the wellness of music students implemented by McAllister include the offering of MUS 4236, a Performer Wellness Class. According to the School of Music website, the class is held one evening a week during the spring semester and is open to music students.

“It’s grown a lot; I think my first class had five students. But now I have as many as 17 students,” McAllister said. “We perform for each other, we talk a lot about how we prepare for a performance, we use breathing techniques, yoga, imagery and just find ways to cope with some of these issues we’re talking about.”

As the Faculty in Residence for Texana House, McAllister said she sees students struggle to find rest not only as musicians but also as residents. Watching them balance studying, practicing and their social lives, she reminds them of basic things that can often be forgotten when stress kicks in.

“You have to sleep. You have to feed your body,” McAllister said. “Food is fuel, so you have to get nutritious content in your body so you can do all the amazing things that you’re doing. Care for yourself first.”

She said she encourages her students to take a walk, read a book for fun, say a prayer or read a devotional. If they sleep eight hours a night but work all day, they are still lacking rest. She said “counteracting the sense of being busy all the time,” is very important.

Conroe freshman Nalani Defensor, a performance study major, said she likes to find rest by listening to music that makes her happy.

“I have a list of all my favorite songs that are classical that I have to study, and they just make me feel better,” Defensor said. “I can get my mind off of everything else and just sing or practice because to me it’s not really a chore.”

Spring sophomore and choral music major Sydney Shell said she appreciates the faculty to student ratio in the School of Music. She said she enjoys being able to go to her professors’ offices and listen to their wisdom.

“I can say that most of my professors know me by name, which is something not a lot of people can say,” Shell said. “Each professor has sought me out as an individual and really cared about my wellbeing. I can tell them about some of my worst days and trust they will give me an opinion I can trust.”

Shell also said as she navigates a future career in music, she is grateful for the advice and examples of “seasoned musicians” who have gone through what she is experiencing in the School of Music.

McAllister said being able to see her students in one-on-one settings is one of the “magical things about being a music teacher.” She said she appreciates listening to them in their struggles, but she also recognizes the importance of directing them to resources such as counseling when it may be needed.

“I always tell my students the attitude you should have is that you’re giving the audience a gift and you’re sharing music with them rather than putting on a performance where you think everyone will be judging everything you’re doing,” McAllister said.

The School of Music provides a list of resources on its website relating to many aspects of students’ physical and mental health. Methods of self-care, hearing and vocal health tips, proper warm-up techniques and recommended readings are all listed to assist music students in caring for themselves.

“Rest isn’t something you deserve; it’s a basic need that all of us have,” McAllister said. “We are not going to be able to do the work that we need to do unless we give ourselves the time to rest.”