Nine UK conservatoires will take part in a four-year research project investigating the health and well-being of musicians. The study, called Musical Impact, will be funded by an £800,000 grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, together with £200,000 from the participating institutions.

Beginning in September 2013, the project will be divided into three key areas: to monitor participants’ physical and mental fitness over the four-year period; examine the physical and mental demands of practice and performance; and assess current approaches to promoting health in music education and the profession as a whole. The researchers will work with the UK Musicians’ Union and Association of British Orchestras to draw participants from the professional music world, spanning the full range of instruments and ages.

The first area will involve 120 musicians, split into junior conservatoire students, seniors, and professionals. ‘We hope to monitor half of the senior conservatoire students from their third year onwards, so that we can also examine how their health and well-being change during their first few years in the profession,’ said Aaron Williamon, professor of performance science at the Royal College of Music, who will be leading the research project.

Each participant will be examined at least once a year for the duration of the project. ‘We will keep track of what they do but not offer interventions to enhance their health,’ Williamon explained. ‘Meanwhile, other people will be recruited to take part in selected intervention studies, such as exercise training and mental skills training, to create a comparison group.’

The second and third strands of the project, which will begin in the second year, aim to build up a picture . ‘There is a culture of silence within the profession as it stands, where musicians feel they can’t broach the topic of health with their employers,’ said Williamon. ‘We hope to be able to address that, and to understand how people perceive the stresses of performing – for instance, musicians feel their heart rate increase before going on stage, which some might interpret as a positive sign.’

As well as providing a report at the end of the project, the research team aims to publish journal articles and launch a website with practical advice for musicians. Williamon confirmed that violinists and cellists will be involved both as participants and as assessors, particularly in the second strand of research, when it comes to the physical stresses, energy expenditure and muscle tension in the test subjects.

Photo: a student at the Royal College of Music performs a 'sit and reach' test, which measures flexibility in the lower back