When the Arts Get Together in the Name of Wellbeing

The Healthy Conservatoires Network helps prepare the artists of the future and can even have an impact on the industry today.
John Portch

There is always benefit in talking to your peers and it is something the world of performing arts is pursuing via the Healthy Conservatoires Network. While there is a nominal rivalry between schools when it comes to artistic merit, the members of Healthy Conservatoires, which includes the Royal College of Music, the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama as well as Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music & Dance, realised they had more to gain when it came to the health and wellbeing of their students.

By John Portch

Part of the desire to share comes from the commonality of problems faced by artists, whether they are an actor, musician or dancer. At the outset of Healthy Conservatoires, Dr Penny Wright, Honorary Medical Director of the British Association of Performing Arts Medicine said: “Performers are incredibly motivated, highly talented and, on the whole, really love what they do.” She was speaking in a video published by the Royal College of Music’s Centre for Performance Science.

Wright continues: “Most performers are involved in an activity that is physically demanding and so we find that people have a lot of physical demands on their bodies and at the same time they’re working under a lot of pressure and they’re working in an environment where their job is to deliver an emotional message; so you get this triple whammy, really, that they are physically demanded of, they are psychologically demanded of, and they are emotionally demanded of.”

This is not lost on the tutors of these conservatoires, who fully understand their responsibilities. “We know as educators we have a duty of care to make sure that we set up our students with the sort of skills they need to respond to injury or ill mental health when it comes but also prevent those problem,” Aaron Williamon, Chair of Healthy Conservatoires, tells the Leaders Performance Institute.

Williamon, who is Professor of Performance Science at the Centre for Performance Science, was, in the early 2000s, also the Principal Investigator for a project called Musical Impact. Of that project he says: “We conducted a lot of research to understand the current picture of musicians’ health in Britain and how that affected their performance. Arising from our research results, we decided that we needed to form an international network of arts training organisations and employers that meets twice a year to look at good practice and share that good practice across the sector.

“We see good practice where it’s happening, we try to share how we implement that, both the opportunities and the challenges, to try to get people to engage with health in a constructive way. We then try to take what we glean from those meetings back to our home institutions where we can enact them on a local basis and enhance the training that we offer.”

One such idea shared by Williamon and the Royal College of Music was their performance simulator, a real-time platform-level distributed interactive simulation of the kind often found in the military. A visitor to the Centre for Performance Science would see a backstage area with a spotlighted stage in front of a large screen that depicts an interactive, simulated audience or audition panel. This audience or panel will react as and students can be monitored across their simulated performance or audition. It was designed in partnership with Imperial College London’s Centre of Engagement and Simulation Science.

“We address standard topics that that we see across the field, such as approaches to addressing performance anxiety. Here at the Royal College of Music we do a lot with our performance simulator and mental skills training in order to give students new tools to address issues and anxiety.

“It certainly isn’t the case that this degree of practice facility is offered at other conservatoires, so we come in with examples of that practice and we discuss with our partners how they can take some of that information back into what they do.”

As a forum, Healthy Conservatoires is invaluable to its members. “What’s great about the Healthy conservatoires Network is that we have knowledge of dancers, musicians, actors – bringing together all of that knowledge and sharing from the different performing arts,” said Dr Emma Redding, Head of Dance Science at Trinity Laban, in the same video as Wright. “For example, in dance science here at Trinity Laban, we’ve done a lot of work over the years to understand more about the physiological demands of dancing and then we’re trying to apply those sorts of research questions to musicians. Likewise, there’s a lot that dance can learn from music and there’s been a lot of music psychology research been done, particularly in the field of pre-performance anxiety and some of the psychological skills that are now taught to musicians that dancers don’t really know much about. So if the performing arts got together and started collaborating a little bit more then I think we’re going to be progressing at a much faster rate and learning from each other.”

As well as these advances, student education and engagement around wellbeing has become a priority. “We look at topics around promoting information around health,” says Williamon. We’re dealing largely with otherwise thriving, healthy young people who may want to drink, smoke and all sorts of foods without thinking about the implications for their health or, more specifically, how they perform. We talk about how to identify problems and how students can best get that level of support so that we can both help them and allow them to help themselves to tackle those issues.”

Tackling those issues is fundamental to students enjoying long and successful careers as artists. “We all train young artists for tomorrow’s profession, so in a sense we do the same job,” Hilary Boulding, the Principal of the Welsh College of Music & Drama told the Centre for Performance Science. “We work together collaboratively and I think we have a bigger voice and perhaps a more effective voice in the profession by doing that.

“We like to see ourselves as innovators such that some of the work we do training tomorrow’s artists can also have an impact on today’s profession.”


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