… I make music — both privately and with other people. Studying music contains all the lessons I need to address my anxiety, my goal setting, and my ability to self-assess. This is the aspect of music I want to share with my students the most.
As a part of my series about “Mental Health Champions” helping to normalize the focus on mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Adam Cole. He is a jazz musician who writes books. As the Co-Director of the Grant Park Academy of the Arts in Atlanta, GA, he oversees an approach to teaching music which emphasizes mental, physical and emotional wellness. He is featured in Reader’s Digest, Psychology Today, and NBC.com.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?
I’ve been teaching music for twenty years, first privately, and then in public school. I’ve had the opportunity to witness first hand how important the arts are to the sanity and well-being of the kids in school. For some of them, I saw these “special” subjects transform them from indifferent, struggling kids into thriving students who could excel.
I’ve spent my life researching and explaining the reasons why learning music and the arts in depth, as opposed to simply being “exposed” to them or having them taken away, has such a profound impact on the people who participate. I’ve explained my thinking to the Georgia House of Representatives Education Committee in 2014, and last year I worked the project manager for the redesign of the arts standards for the state of Georgia. The book I’m currently writing, The Art of Transformation, Transformation of Art, will deal with this subject at length.
My passion comes from the conviction that this is the way we must think about the teaching of the arts at this time: When we teach students to think like musicians, we improve their mental health and well-being and prepare them to excel in every other subject. You see, the very people that currently make the decisions about the arts grew up believing that arts education was for weeding out the potentially “good” performers from the “bad,” or that it contributed to a “well-rounded” person but couldn’t be valued in any way that related to academic excellence, much less mental, emotional and physical well-being. Because I know better, because I’ve seen better, and because I have the language to explain it, I believe it’s my responsibility to keep shouting it to them from the mountaintops until I change the conversation.
According to Mental Health America’s report, over 44 million Americans have a mental health condition. Yet there’s still a stigma about mental illness. Can you share a few reasons you think this is so?
It seems to me that some of the people with a health condition might be stigmatizing mental illness as well. Until recently in this country, those with mental illness were either hidden in houses or sent away to institutions. They were kept away from the general population, seen as “them,” rather than “some of us,” and the information on them was inaccurate so that even some of those with a mental health condition did not believe it was appropriate or worthwhile to address the issue.
When those with a mental health condition are kept out of sight, the approaches to mental health will also be kept out of sight. The general public will not be aware of how mental health should be managed, the approaches will not be normalized, and the successes of those approaches will never be seen. If we could recognize this population as being made up of people rather than diagnoses, and understand that there are ways for them to successfully integrate themselves into society, we would be less fearful and more encouraged to do something.
Can you tell our readers about how you are helping to de-stigmatize the focus on mental wellness?
I deal with mental wellness by making it a focus of music instruction. We reach out especially to kids who have difficulties making it in mainstream schools, kids with tremendous gifts and daunting interpersonal challenges. Some of the very resources they need to navigate social and emotional wellness lie in the act of learning to think like a musician.
Musicians, whether they have a mental illness or not, walk the line between security and insecurity every day. They have to live with their current capacity to meet their own goals, process their failure and success, and ultimately present themselves and what they have learned to an audience. Developing these skills creates remarkably strong minds and resilient emotional selves.
Because it’s far too easy to teach music in an abusive way, there are some neurotic and damaged musicians. The sad truth is that you can create remarkable performances by asking people to kill parts of themselves that protect their sanity and well-being. The results are sometimes so wonderful that we assume the end justifies the means.
We disagree. The benefits of learning to be a healthy musician make any kind of performance ability seem trivial by comparison. The best thing is, what you learn in music you can apply to the rest of your life if you have someone who can show you the way.
Was there a story behind why you decided to launch this initiative?
I have struggled my whole life with a generalized anxiety disorder. Too much uncertainty can create difficulties in my ability to perform and be present. It hampered my musical progress, and I couldn’t even enjoy what I was able to do.
Over the last forty-five years, using principles I learned from The Feldenkrais Method and my experiences as a music teacher, I have been able to recover from most of my difficulties. I am a far healthier person and musician than I was at age 20. Everything I’ve discovered and done for myself is easily transferrable to a music lesson, and when I see people who have any aspect of what I was going through, I feel compelled to offer them my support.
In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?
I’ve been speaking about mental wellness, about people with relatively normal mental and emotional functionality seeking to remain aware and functional. This question is really about something else: people who are unable to reach wellness because of something in their biology, or because of severe trauma. I want to emphasize that there is a real difference in approach for people in these types of situations.
At the very least, there should be accurate information on mental illness. We as individuals should have access to that information, and a means by which we can interpret it since it’s very difficult to understand statistics and case-studies without assistance. With good information, we can hold our government accountable in the right way.
It is very difficult to make sense of the history of mental health treatment in this country. The issue is highly politicized and spills over into homelessness, prison reform, and even simple left-wing/right-wing ideology. Keeping all of those related issues in mind, it comes down to finding solutions to the treatment of mental illness that have been shown to work and funding them, which is where the fight really begins.
What are the 6 strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?
1) I meditate. Every morning I sit until I’ve taken five full breaths. While it’s a bare minimum, it’s sustainable, and I always notice when I skip.
2) I practice The Feldenkrais Method — developing my awareness I am able to feel like a whole person, more in control, and able to face uncertainty. When I teach the Method to other people, and even when I write and publish about it, I also see increased benefits in myself.
3) I write — whether it’s journaling or composing fiction and poetry, putting my feelings into words makes a tremendous difference in my ability to cope.
4) I publish — sharing what I’ve done is more potent than simply writing it down. I’m accountable for what I say, and I have to assess its value. I also get feedback from readers, which is tremendously helpful and often exhilarating.
5) I make music — both privately and with other people. Studying music contains all the lessons I need to address my anxiety, my goal setting, and my ability to self-assess. This is the aspect of music I want to share with my students the most.
6) I know what works for me, and I do it. — I keep to-do lists and stay as organized as possible because I know that disorganization and forgetfulness make me more anxious. As a result of many years of talk-therapy, I have ways to think about my feelings that I’ve been cultivating for decades, and they get me through a lot of hard times.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?
Is it okay to say that the television show The Office has changed my life? Not only was it a good release for me, but the issues the characters deal with in the show, however ridiculously they are presented, are quite real and addressed in a remarkably genuine way, and I was touched, moved, and inspired to do better in my own life from having watched and lived with them for their “nine years!” Thank you so much, Office cast and crew, for being so good at your jobs.
My answer here is not so much about mental illness specifically. It’s about seeing a situation in which writers, actors, producers did their absolute best to create something that reached people. Whenever I see that kind of integrity and sincerity of intent, it inspires me to want to do better in my arena.