Hitting the Right Notes

By James Baratta ’22, September 29, 2021
School of Music students and faculty discuss mental wellness.

The Ithaca College School of Music is one of the most highly regarded in the country, so it’s no surprise that its students spend long hours practicing and honing their craft.

However, hard work and dedication shouldn’t mean sacrificing one’s mental health or well-being. That’s why a group of music majors have come together to form the Mental Health Awareness for Musicians Association (MHAMA), with the goal of focusing on their mental health while still finding ways to nurture their shared love for music.

On September 15, MHAMA hosted a panel discussion, organized by music education major Mahum Qureshi ’23, centered on the ways in which mental health relates to pedagogical policy and the prestigiousness of the school’s culture.

Future Discussion

MHAMA will be hosting additional events throughout the academic year. For more information, visit the organization’s website on Engage.

For MHAMA President Gavin Tremblay ’22, a music education and voice major, one goal of the informal event was to gauge a way to balance the academic and mental health needs of the students.

“If we don't actively combat this unhealthy culture with events that acknowledge and address students' mental well-being, we are effectively accepting that chronic negative thoughts and habits are a reasonable sacrifice to receive an education.”

Gavin Tremblay ’22, president, Mental Health Awareness for Musicians Association

MHAMA's structure includes a two-pronged approach to addressing mental health in Whalen,” said Tremblay. “If we don't actively combat this unhealthy culture with events that acknowledge and address students' mental well-being, we are effectively accepting that chronic negative thoughts and habits are a reasonable sacrifice to receive an education.”

The panel included several faculty members who have taken an interest in student mental health: assistant professor of music education Matthew Clauhs; assistant professor of music education Sean Linfors; associate professor of music theory, history, and composition Sara Haefeli; assistant professor of music performance Jacob Walsh; and assistant professor of music performance Benjamin Rochford.

Many of the professors on the panel shared their own experiences as undergraduates in the field of music, while acknowledging that times have changed.

“We were the people for whom that curriculum worked really, really well, and we [loved] it,” Haefeli said. “But we have to recognize that not all of you are going to be cookie-cutters of us.”

Nick Jones ’23, a music performance education and voice major, said that his professors have been understanding and receptive to the challenges that students face.

“The faculty really needed to hear this from students. And so, the more that you can give this feedback to other faculty members, the more it's going to help.”

Sara Haefeli, associate professor of music theory, history, and composition

The professors see us as human beings first and as student musicians second,” he said. “With that said, I think we should talk more about real changes that can be made in the way that we discuss mental health in college... especially among perfectionist students.”

Haefeli believes that shaping the School of Music’s curriculum to improve students’ mental health needs to be a collaborative effort between faculty and students.

Sara Haefeli

Haefeli said that one thing she wants to see faculty think about is the idea of their standards. (Photo by James Baratta)

“We are in the process of trying to look at the curriculum and ask and answer these questions,” she said. “One of the things that I'd like us to wrestle with is this idea of our standards. The faculty really needed to hear this from students. And so, the more that you can give this feedback to other faculty members, the more it's going to help.”

This focus on student mental health aligns strongly with the college’s overall vision. The institution-wide approach to student wellness took a major step forward this past year by partnering with JED Campus — a nonprofit organization that works with colleges to strengthen their mental health, substance misuse and suicide prevention programs and systems.

One of the main discussions that took place centered on the viability of the Carnegie unit, which is defined as one hour of classroom instruction and two hours of work outside the classroom, for a period of 15 weeks for each credit. The unique nature of music courses, which often require many hours of practice, make meeting this workload a challenge.

“It is very different to do so many hours of work per one 3-credit class, than so many hours for three 1-credit classes,” Clauhs said. “It's a very different mindset.”

“It is important to me that we engage in a conversation about how we young musicians view ourselves and how we prioritize. For me, this means allowing myself to not practice when I feel that getting more rest or simply focusing on other aspects of my identity is more important to my mental health.”

Nick Jones ’23, music performance education and voice major

Jones agreed and said that students need to take a hard look at what that means. “It is important to me that we engage in a conversation about how we young musicians view ourselves and how we prioritize. For me, this means allowing myself to not practice when I feel that getting more rest or simply focusing on other aspects of my identity is more important to my mental health.”

The group also discussed when a pedagogical policy unintentionally requires students to meet an arbitrary requirement that the culture of a school reinforces. These requirements are often left over from outdated curricula and sometimes place undue stress on the student population. Linfors encouraged students to help identify places for improvement in the School of Music’s curriculum.

“We work to recognize those things and eliminate those things when we see them,” he said. “But we don't always see them.”

The collaborative nature of the event was clear, with professors and students both seeing the value in working together toward this common goal. Clauhs thanked MHAMA and the student population for initiating the conversation around mental health. 

“I wonder how we can create a model of culture in our School of Music,” he said. “Thank you for getting this conversation started.”