By Jiana Smith, The Commonwealth Times
VCUarts music alumna Amora Mikell remembers the emotional and mental stress she experienced at the beginning of her junior year in college. Whenever she practiced the cello, an instrument she has played since the sixth grade, Mikell said she often experienced negative thoughts and anxiety.
“At a certain point, I was stuck,” Mikell said. “I wasn’t growing anymore because when I went into the practice room, I was borderline abusive, like beating myself up with the things I was saying. It really caused my mental health to spiral.”
Mikell, along with music education alumna Julissa Martinez, plans to release two workbooks titled, “For Mindful Musicians: A 6-Week Guide to Overcoming Negative Self-talk and Performance Anxiety,” projected to be released in spring 2022.
“For Mindful Musicians” was one of 10 projects to receive a 2020-21 VCUarts Undergraduate Research Grant. Mikell and Martinez received $3,000 for their project, which is the maximum amount a project can receive.
To apply for the grant, applicant projects must be collaborative and interdisciplinary, according to VCUarts Interim Director of Communications Teresa Engle. Grant recipients are selected based on their scholarly investigation, creativity and willingness to take risks, Engle stated.
Mikell and Martinez aim to give musicians the tools necessary to manage performance anxiety and negative self-talk, according to their project proposal. These tools include meditation and mindfulness practices, like identifying constructive and destructive thoughts, to reduce overwhelmed feelings and stress.
Inspired by her struggle with anxiety and depression as a student musician, Mikell said she wanted to start a conversation about mental health in the music community.
“I know that there were others like me that were struggling with their mental health,” Mikell said. “I felt like they needed an advocate.”
Two workbooks total, one for children and one for young adults, will be produced. The workbooks will be presented at five national colleges and five public schools, with an emphasis on historically Black colleges and universities, along with middle schools with mostly minority populations, according to Mikell. The list of schools has not yet been finalized.
Mikell said she wants to make sure students of color have adequate mental health resources.
“When I graduated … I realized there weren’t many people looking out for people who looked like me,” Mikell said. “They really need someone looking out for them.”
The workbooks are based on research conducted by Mikell for an independent study course supervised by music professor Tiffany Valvo. After surveying 100 former and current music students, Mikell said she found that most music students struggled with mental health.
“It was really eye-opening,” Mikell said. “It seemed like most people that took the survey were struggling in terms of their music performance and how it affected their mental health.”
Mikell said she hopes the workbooks will draw more attention to the importance of mental health and the brain.
“We all are just walking brains, and we’re nothing without our brains,” Mikell said. “I feel like if we understand our brains a little bit better, we’ll all just be healthier individuals.”
The VCUarts Undergraduate Research Grant program started in 2006, according to Engle. Students are awarded up to $3,000 for their projects, according to the Undergraduate Research Grants web page.
The grants are given to promote interdisciplinary collaboration between arts students, Engle stated. Arts students are also allowed to collaborate with students outside of the arts school.
The grants also encourage students to seek mentorship from arts and non-arts faculty members, according to Engle.
“We invest in collaborative projects—shaped by artists, designers and performers—that reach across the university,” Engle stated via email.
Valvo, who is Mikell and Martinez’s faculty mentor for the project, said she first met Mikell in her Creative Practices course, which is offered through the VCUarts Center for the Creative Economy. The course focuses on developing mindfulness and meditation practice to improve mental health.
“When she approached me about doing more research and exploring these concepts more, I was really enthusiastic about the idea,” Valvo said. “[Performance anxiety] is something that people don’t talk about all the time, although it is obviously super, super common.”
Valvo said that seeing Mikell and Martinez’s project grow over time has been “amazing.”
“It’s been great to see how they have developed their ideas together,” Valvo said. “[The workbook] is hopefully going to be a super practical resource that people can use.”
Engle stated that grants, like the one awarded to Mikell and Martinez, are important to VCUarts because they allow the school to invest in students.
“We believe in a future of boundless possibility,” Engle stated. “VCUarts wants to help [students] bring [their] ideas to fruition.”
Mikell said she hopes to see the workbook distributed by March 2022.
“This is all idealized and soft deadlines, but that’s the goal right now,” Mikell said. “I’m really in the nitty-gritty.”
Lead Image: The James W. Black Music Center sits on VCU’s Monroe Park Campus on Park Avenue. Photo by Megan Lee