Musician, heal thyself

A Denton shrink plumbs the murky psyches of self-destructive rock artists and concludes they don't have to die young, drunk, and depressed

A student counselor today, Hipple, who also teaches one class, offers his services free to any student who wants to make an appointment. Although he describes himself as "not musical," he does like music, and found the renowned music school's student body to his liking. "I'm a generalist as to whom I see, anyone except little kids," he says. "I like working with creative people, and that's all counseling really is--helping people think through their problems and come up with new ways of dealing with them." Hipple estimates that roughly a quarter of his clients these days are musicians, and is fascinated by the obstacles facing people who seek to express themselves musically. "It's a tough, competitive business," he says, "and the environment is one of constant stress; there are so many casualties."

Hipple, who describes his own musical tastes as eclectic and claims most recently to have sampled cajun, WRR (the city-run classical station at 101.1 FM), KTSU (UNT's mostly jazz station, 88.1 FM), and country music, identified through his interactions with musicians a number of factors that work counter to healthy, happy music-making lives. There's a strong drive for perfection--retake after retake, practice after practice--paired with quite a bit of criticism. "From the beginning, musicians' learning sets a focus on weaknesses and mistakes. In life, you need a ratio of strokes to kicks of about three to one; you rarely find that in music." With all the repetition, boredom is a constant danger, and musicians are more often than not in an atmosphere that's permeated with alcohol. "The stage is set for problems," Hipple says, adding that clubs are often noisier and smokier than any factory.

In fact, for a multi-billion-dollar business, the music industry lags far behind its less hip brethren. "The trend in most of American business has been to talk more and more, and they spend a lot of money working on communication," Hipple says. Musicians, however, are "so used to making music that when they get with others, they often don't have the tools for problem solving, talking things out, and taking care of business that the rest of us do."

There are other problems. Musicians' schedules are out of sync with virtually everybody else's, incorporating working nights, weekends, and holidays. "When they're younger, it's not much of a problem," Hipple says. "But as you get older, get married, and start a family, it gets to be more stressful." Since coming to UNT, Hipple has counseled musicians of every stripe, from classical and jazz to country and rock--"lots of different musicians with lots of different problems," as he says. Until four or five years ago, his experience was mostly with individuals, but then he started working on a model that could be used with entire groups and has slowly been codifying it. The results, together with his survey, were first publicized in late 1996.

In his papers and articles on this subject--bearing titles like "Taking Care of Yourself Personally and Professionally" and "Staying Sane in the Music Business"--Hipple sets about identifying problems such as drug and alcohol addictions and performance anxiety and proposing solutions, but many of the issues he tackles are more nuts-and-bolts: "Keeping a Band On Track," "Living Life with a Non-musician," "Getting Ready for the Road." Like his "The Business of Making Music," which contains hints like "set outcome goals" and "outline process goals," much of his work in this area focuses on strategies familiar to anyone who's ever taken a course in business communication--setting goals, establishing time frames for attaining them, setting up lines of authority and accountability for completing tasks, the importance of feedback--but applied to the musician's environment (load in/outs, going on the road or into the studio, contracts) with impressive specificity.

Much of this has to do with his contact with the eclectic Denton band Brave Combo, with whom Hipple has worked on and off on a private basis for the last five years, talking with them and going to practices and shows.

The band had seen other therapists before they ran into Hipple. "We just had issues that we couldn't address or resolve on our own," says Combo frontman Carl Finch as he sets up his equipment in the band's downtown Denton rehearsal space. "John is great, and he's very good at what he does, but it takes the right group of people. I wouldn't necessarily recommend therapy for every band."

Turner Scott Van Blarcum, however, doesn't recommend it for any band, and his views are fairly typical of rock musicians. The snarling leader of Dallas punkers Pump'n Ethyl, a band whose songs bear titles like "Too Punk to Fuck" and "Jesus was a Homo," Van Blarcum takes a dim view of any and all attempts to organize or "straighten out" music. "Psychoanalyzing rock 'n' roll, huh? Ha-ha, what a fucking joke," he fairly spits. "They've just conceived another way of making a buck off of music. Christ, you've got club owners, promoters, record company fucks, booking agents, the IRS--and now Sigmund-fucking-Freud wants a cut." The obstreperous punk--a Deep Ellum scenester familiar to most as the big "scary-looking guy" with a mohawk that allows the blue-ink skulls floating about his scalp to be seen more clearly--refuses to consider Hipple's work seriously for even a second.

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