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Music students and faculty reflect on role of mental health in music

Music student Ryan Phillips plays his clarinet in Kenan Music Building on Feb. 23, 2024.

UNC junior Sharayu Gugnani first picked up the violin at age 7. When she was in eighth grade, she began to work with Nicholas DiEugenio, associate professor of violin at UNC.

To her, she said it felt like a natural continuation for her to pursue a music major at UNC. 

But her musical journey has had its ups and downs. She said her sister, who she learned to play the violin with, died a year and a half ago. 

“To have that kind of partner taken away was very rough,” Gugnani said. “I wasn't sure if I even wanted to continue without her. For a lot of times, [music] is a reminder of my pain, but it’s also a reminder of the love and life that I still have in me.”

Gugnani said that creating a strong community was important, not only within individual musical specialties, but also across other areas of the UNC Department of Music. She was able to find support in DiEugenio and a community in her violin studio, she said.

Ryan Phillips, a senior at UNC double majoring in music and English and comparative literature, said he believes the music department is a supportive place with a community full of people who want each other to succeed.

“There are pockets of competition, and competition doesn't go away,” he said. “But at least on my side, and among the majority of my peers in the department, the pressure is more on yourself, and feeling that you want to improve as much as you can, rather than the pressure being induced by others who want to be better than you.”

Although the department does not have its own support specialist like other departments and schools on campus, Cat Zachary, the communications coordinator for the music department, said all music faculty and staff are encouraged to complete Mental Health First Aid training and Safe at UNC's HAVEN training. She said the department aims to support its student community by offering free food and coffee at the music buildings and staff offices. 

DiEugenio said in an email statement that while the atmosphere within the UNC Department of Music is “overwhelmingly supportive and nurturing,” with caring staff and faculty, the department lacks institutional support and resources for the community.

He said that for students who experience personal challenges during their adolescent years, being immersed in a demanding artistic discipline can make navigating those experiences even more difficult.

“When these triggers are stacked, the result is often performance anxiety or tendinitis or both, with additional challenges relating to depression and notions of self-worth,” DiEugenio said.

Phillips, a Kenan Music Scholar who plays the clarinet, said music and mental health have a two-way relationship. 

“Playing music, performing music and practicing can be a source of relief of stress, oftentimes because it's something that I love to do,” he said. “But at the same time I also think that there’s a paradigm of perfection, and imitating to a very precise degree the intent of any composer is something that makes music more of an intense and tense activity — which can have detriments on mental health.”

DiEugenio said he believes that faculty and music students, who devote thousands of hours to their highly specialized art, deserve access to a dedicated staff of academic, mental and physical health support professionals, not unlike college athletes.

“Ideally, the UNC Department of Music would house a musician’s well-being center, a dedicated space with mental and physical health resources for music students, staff and faculty,” he said. “The mere existence of such a center would go a long way in addressing various stigmas related to musicians’ health.”

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