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

It seems doubtful, however, that Van Blarcum and Hipple will ever sit down and talk. "Hey, doc," the tattooed punk says after another gale of laughter. "Psychoanalyze this: Fuck off."

Hipple is undeterred by the stereotypical rebel attitudes. A speaker on musician's health issues at SXSW for the last several years, he notes that "each year there are a few more people out there in the audience. It's just a little groundswell. But this year I've been invited to speak at the annual meeting of the Bluegrass Music Association. A record company executive saw me at SXSW and mentioned my name." Hipple is also encouraged by the fact that this year's Grammy Awards had a non-alcoholic area backstage in addition to the ceremony's famed Green Room.

Although money has been put aside since the time of Handel to provide for musicians who experienced health problems (England's Royal Society for Musicians), it wasn't until about 15 years ago that much thought was given to musicians' well-being in America. That was when Drs. Alice Brandfonbrener and Richard Lederman started the Chicago-based Medical Program for Performing Artists and co-edited the definitive textbook on the issues involved, the Textbook of Performing Arts Medicine.

Like the Royal Society, however, Brandfonbrener and Lederman's efforts centered on classical musicians. Spearheaded by Drs. Benjamin Cohen and David Shrader, deans of the UNT Health Center and College of Music respectively, plans have been under way for the last several years in Denton to expand this academic and scientific investigation in order to include all musicians, be they classical artists, rockers, jazz players, or marchers in a college or high school band.

"We have very little information on the world of musicians," says Dr. Kris Chesky, the director of UNT's Center for Musicians' Education who helped Hipple with last year's musicians' survey. Chesky, 38, is a Berklee-trained trumpet player who discovered a passion for scientific investigation into music therapy and education when he attended UNT to get his master's degree in music.

"We don't see anything before the fact of needing treatment, and then only those with the awareness--not to mention the resources and money--to travel to Chicago, or Cleveland, or New York get the specialized treatment they need," Chesky says. "When someone comes to me, I don't even know where to refer them, let alone being able to tell them something like 'Oh, the way you're practicing is wrong, the way you're holding your instrument is wrong, or you need to rest for this amount of time in between practicing.' We train so many musicians here, and right now, when they leave this place there's nothing.

"Look at sports: Every aspect of what an athlete does has been analyzed, and we know how what they do affects their back, their ankles, or their wrists. Or their attitudes. And we know how to address those things. That's what makes this so important, and that's why, over the last two years, there's really been an intense effort in developing a similar vision for musicians."

Chesky notes that in the past, work like Hipple's has gone on outside of UNT's College of Music (Hipple technically works for UNT's Counseling and Testing Center). "What if we looked at musicians before they got hurt, and before they had problems?" he asks, echoing Hipple's sentiments. "What if we were to understand the transitions that led to having problems and the variables that affect them--aren't we in the perfect place to do that at UNT?

"We're pooling our resources," Chesky adds, describing the work that he says is right on the edge of being given an official, institutional, fundable (through a mixture of public and private donations) existence. It's work that will combine not only the efforts of UNT's Health Science Center in Fort Worth and the College of Music, but also those of the University's Department of Speech and Hearing Science as well as the work of other experts like Dr. George Kondraske, professor of electrical and biomedical engineering at the University of Texas at Arlington, whose work centers on the physical aspects of playing. Drs. Cohen and Shrader--pioneers in this entire area--have agreed to make themselves available as advisors and consultants.

Chesky says he looks forward to a day when a musician "can talk to a doctor and say, 'Wow, you're doing a study on pulmonary capacity? I'm a trumpet player--I want to hear this,'" building "a general awareness of the ways in which science can actually impact not only how we think about health and health problems, but how a musician actually plays."

"Right now we're reaching out, but to people who have already been affected," Hipple concurs. "The next step is to get to them before they have problems."

Perhaps the day will arrive when musicians will enjoy the same resources and options as someone working in a factory or office and not have to rely on their fans' perception of them for reward or rescue. Although this might seem to be the first step toward the Wal-Mart-ification of music, within "the Man"'s methods are the seeds of a more subtle revolution, possibilities for independence that Brave Combo has already seen and to which John McCrea--in his recent article on musicians and audience expectation for the (unrelated) music magazine Cake--referred to when he wrote, "If...musicians weren't so willing to provide faux-rebellion, leather-jacket tattoo rebellion, then perhaps there could be more actual rebellion."

And more actual music.

The internet address for the UNT musician survey is http://www.scs.unt.edu/surveys/msurvey/index.html.

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