• Callum Rookes

The Race to the Top is Often the Race to the Bottom

Updated: Mar 7

Music and Mental Health


Shakespeare once said, “if music be the food of love, play on”. Hans Christian Andersen can be quoted saying “Where words fail music speaks”. Heck, even Lady Gaga said “When you make music…it’s really your job to have mind-blowing, irresponsible, condomless sex with whatever idea it is you’re writing about at the time”!


Music brings joy to many, and indeed, the very act of playing and performing music brings a lot of respite from the woes of the world, a cathartic escape from the daily bustle, and has been medically proven to have a healing effect (whilst temporary) on Alzheimer sufferers. Militaries throughout the world use music to raise the morale of troops, rouse the public, and use it as a tool for soft influence. As soon as cavemen discovered you could hollow out the thigh bone of an animal, put some holes in it, fashion a very rudimentary “flute mouthpiece” and create music, the world was off. Cavemen started something big!


At this stage of my blog, you’re probably thinking “wow, music is pretty amazing. What’s not to love?” and you’d be right. It is amazing, but like many art forms, at what cost? As a bit of a backdrop to my tuba playing, I was a late starter, but I flew through the ABRSM grades in a handful of years, and was nearly always the only tuba player locally, so everyone would contact me to ask for help at their upcoming concerts. I became a principal tubist of the National Youth Brass Band of Great Britain and was accepted to study at Trinity College of Music and The Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. I had a nurturing teacher, and the above-mentioned successes wouldn’t have happened without his guidance. In my wildly delusional head, I must have been good, right?


Ten years ago, I had just begun my first year at Trinity College of Music. I remember being so excited to go; to leave home, and finally have the highly sought-after adult independence. Thinking back, ‘fresher’s’ week was a bit of a blur – not because of the rampant alcoholism that takes hold of all freshers that week – but because I recall not participating in any events other than the initial first outing to the local pub. I put it down to being introverted (those of you who know me know that I'm a massive extrovert) and a bit shy, but actually it was the beginnings of something a bit darker.


My initial weeks of study were eye opening. I just wasn’t a good tuba player, and I was suffering from the classic feelings of being “a little fish in a big pond” (after all, at the local level I had been receiving praise, and I believed I was good tuba player because, well, it seemed like there weren't any better tuba players my age). I had two world class tuba teachers, one of whom I had trouble gelling with. He was a superb musician, an earthly human being, and a total beast on the tuba – but I just wasn’t ‘getting it’ with him. Looking back, he most likely was beating his head against a brick wall with me, but at the time, the feelings I felt were of deep inadequacy; of not being ever good enough for my teacher, and not knowing how to get better.


The months went by, Christmas came and went, and the year 2010 began. I had failed my mid-year orchestral excerpts exam, had just about scraped through my technical exam, and the final exam for the year was quickly approaching. I found myself being increasingly isolationist, and the thought of getting up to go practice the tuba was getting ever more difficult. “What’s the point? I’m not getting better” I kept repeating to myself in the echo chamber of my head.


Outside of music, my relationship to my then-girlfriend was becoming increasingly strained. Jealously is a terrible emotion, and I had become increasingly jealous of her. She was a wonderful musician, and a hugely gifted violinist. I’m sure we had some great times together, but when I look back, the memories are all obscured by the cloud of my emotions, and thoughts of what I must have put her through at the time. Every success she had, I couldn’t help but look on in envy. In this world it’s all too easy to compare yourself to someone else, when in actual fact people have wildly different lives, battles, circumstances. But as a young, naïve Callum, my then-girlfriend was achieving everything I wanted to; from performing at the proms with The National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, performing a concerto with an orchestra, to getting scholarships to study. I felt I was in her shadow. As the feelings of jealousy festered, my final exam that year - a performance recital - went by as quickly as it came. It was a total car crash; worse than a car crash - I walked away with 48%. During the summer, I got some seasonal work working at a chocolate shop, and frankly, I ended up getting fat! I struggled to keep the practice up, found myself navel-gazing, and soon enough I had to go back to Trinity to start my second year. Things just weren’t getting any better. In my initial weeks of my second year I found myself missing scheduled rehearsals at Trinity – I struggled with organisation and would forget to jot down rehearsal times and dates. I was facing a disciplinary from Trinity, I was eating unhealthily, I was worrying about money, and it was all compounded by drinking, and the thought that I was a terrible tuba player. I found myself often locked in my room playing video games, missing lectures at college, having low self-worth, and feeling like I had no value. It was hard for me to admit at the time, but I was depressed.


In January 2011 I was on the cusp of leaving Trinity, when a couple of things happened that started pulling me out from that rut. Earlier I mentioned I had two tuba teachers, and I loosely told you about one of them. I wanted to wait until this point in my blog to tell you about the other teacher. His name is Ashley Wall, but everyone calls him George. I credit George with keeping me on the straight and narrow. He was the father figure who offered advice and counsel during the tough times, helped me to start believing in myself, and in my second year, I managed to have the majority of my lessons with him. He helped me to get out of my head and helped me to realise that music is music and should be enjoyable; it shouldn’t have anything to do with the ego or comparing yourself to others. He would let me have my lessons at The Royal Opera House, and even let me sit in on rehearsals there. It was in those moments when I got to see the professionals at work, that I realised George really was right. There were no egos, and music was music. Further to George’s greatness, he even let me borrow his F Tuba to learn on. With George, I realised that in a weird duality, the race to the top is often the race to the bottom, especially if you don’t look after your mental health.


Secondly, I took the plunge, and bravely decided I should try counselling. There’s something very daunting admitting to yourself that you need help, and even more scary is the idea of opening up to a stranger. I remember thinking to myself at the time that my thoughts and feelings were normal, that everyone feels sad, and that my worries and woes just aren’t important. I would invalidate my feelings, preaching to myself that I should “man up” when the reality was, I just wanted to cry ALL the time. I can tell you now that my thoughts weren’t healthy. I was locked in a cycle, and something was going very wrong in my head.


I think something is very off in today’s society. The media suggest that masculinity is defined by the likes of Hollywood movie stars running into dangerous situations, guns blazing, at personal risk to themselves. Or that being stoic in the face of danger is manly. Or that being in the armed forces is manly. Or that being a ballerina isn’t manly. Or that having any sort of emotions about anything isn’t manly. In fact, if you google “masculine” the definition that pops up is “having the qualities or appearance traditionally associated with men”. Who on earth got to decide what was manly? (Women undoubtedly have their own unique stressors, as well as similar stressors to men, but I’m ill qualified to speak on behalf of women of the stresses they face, and the experiences they have as women. Who knows, maybe I’ll ask my current girlfriend to write a blog on the subject one day to cover that ground!). Furthermore, we seem to have a society where people feed off of people’s pain (trolls); a society where it’s easier to cross over the road than walk by a homeless person in need; a society where it’s hard to ask for help, and even when help is asked for, it often isn’t given. What kind of world are we living in? It’s almost like society is currently geared towards ensuring people have mental health issues.


Sorry, I went off at a bit of a tangent there. What I meant to say is, I found some courage and got some counselling! In another weird twist that helped me get out of my rut, my then-girlfriend ended things with me. Of course I was devastated, and it wasn’t the best prescription to help with depression, but it really did do me a world of good (if our roles were reversed I know I would have done the same). It was a kick up the bum, and to help recover and heal I started socialising more. When it was suggested by a peer that I should try the Erasmus exchange (the opportunity to study for one year at a participating European university, all costs and fees covered by the EU, with the added bonus of a £3000 study grant from EU!), I took a leap of faith and threw myself at the opportunity. In the following months, I was back in the practice room, often being the first in in the morning, and the last one in at night in order to win auditions for the Erasmus. I applied for The Royal Academy of Music in Aarhus, Denmark; The Hochskule Fur Musik, Hannover; The Frans Liszt School of Music in Weimar; and the Conservatorium Van Amsterdam. I was accepted into all but the Hochskule Fur Musik in Hannover and decided to accept to study in Aarhus. Things were on the up!


My first-in-last-out habit of practice was paying off. I had a real affinity for learning the F tuba, and was simultaneously learning the Mozart Horn Concerto number three from memory on it (Which for music boffins, the concerto is in Eb, so would have been easier on my own Eb tuba, but no, I decided to do it on an F tuba for its timbral quality). I was gaining confidence in my playing, and I almost forgot that I owned an Xbox, or had a flat that I lived in! I remember my end of year well. My parents turned up, as well as my best friend, and in my honest opinion of the performance, I absolutely stormed it! Stormed it so well that the ensuing night in the local Wetherspoons is a complete black out! For the first time in my nearly two years at Trinity, I finally felt good being there. I felt good about playing tuba. I felt good about life. And most importantly I felt good about music.


Eventually my results came through, and I was floored. Opening the letter to see in bold that I scored 88% on the performance, and an average mark for the year of 74% was emotional, overwhelmingly so when I looked back on the personal battles I had faced to get to that point.


Those who know the rest of my journey know that I went on to stay in Denmark to finish my bachelor’s degree, and successfully auditioned to get on the master’s program at The Royal Danish Academy of Music (Where the tuba teacher was the same one who teaches in Hannover!), before I was finally accepted into the Band of the Coldstream Guards.


This blog has been an honest and candid one, where I feel particularly exposed. My goal was to write something that may be useful to those who may be going through similar experiences, particularly those in the arts or in the music business. Above all I hope it has a good message in a world where we are all becoming increasingly connected through technology, but are often becoming more and more isolated.


If I have any nuggets of wisdom, then it is this. It’s important to have a wide and varied support network from friends, family, a partner, to talking to strangers in a pub. It’s also crucially important not to rely on any one single source of support – we all have battles, and a problem shared is also a burden shared - it's a good idea for any weight to be shared with as many people to make it as light as possible (I'm not advocating wearing your heart on your sleeve, however), and it’s also kinder on other people who may also have their own battles, and who may already be sharing the load from other people. Rely on various sources for support - you don’t have to struggle on alone. I avoided talking to friends because in my head I felt they had too much going on, or they had their own problems, or that I didn’t want to worry them with how I was feeling, or that they wouldn’t want to listen. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Good friends will always be there for you.


Going for counselling is possibly the bravest thing you can do when you have these thoughts and feelings, but I can vouch for how helpful it was for me, and how cathartic I felt afterwards.


We all feel sad sometimes, but sometimes that sadness persists and is too overwhelming to overcome. Sometimes all it takes is someone to talk to you, to say "hi" to you, to even give you a smile in the street to help with the overwhelming feelings. Above all, we all need to know that it’s ok to be depressed, and that often the hardest step to recovery is accepting we are depressed. To quote Dumbledore “help will always be given to those at Hogwarts who ask for it”, and I think in real life if everyone was there for everyone in times of need - no matter who you are - then the world would perhaps be a happier place. #bekind.

© Callum Rookes 2020