Exclusive Interview with EYSO Conductor Matthew Sheppard

Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra conductor, Matthew Sheppard shares his insights on the relationship between mental health and music as a performer and conductor. Matthew Sheppard is the music director of the University of Chicago Chamber Orchestra and the Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company of Chicago, and the education conductor for the Elgin Symphony Orchestra. A passionate conductor and teacher, he is the artistic director of the Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra and the Hyde Park Youth Symphony, and he regularly conductors both professional and youth ensembles across the Midwest and abroad. Recent performances include appearances with the Champaign Urbana Symphony Orchestra, the National Orchestra of Paraguay, and the Lake Geneva Symphony.

Various studies have shown certain music to have calming effects on the mind, but we wanted to dive deeper into music's impact on mental health and vice versa from a deeper musical perspective. This is the first of an interview series in which we explore music and mental health's relationship from various perspectives. Here are Sheppard's insights:

1. Have you found music to have calming or elevating effects on your mood? If so, have you found there to be a difference between playing, conducting, or listening?

Absolutely, music can affect my mood. Right now, I’m listening to the middle of Till Eulenspiegel by Richard Strauss, and I’m feeling heroic and upbeat—just like the eponymous Till was at this moment. But (spoiler alert) by the time he’s hanged at the end, I know the music will have a different effect on me.
One of the most common—and powerful—ways we use music is as a mood alterer. The Greeks recognized it in their philosophy and spoke of how music can be used to inspire, to nurture, and to shape one’s character. Most of us have pieces that we turn to in certain emotional states, whether it’s to get pumped up (think pre-game music) or to amplify feelings of intensity (that song you listen to after a break-up).
When I’m conducting and performing, I find myself in the strange position of both being more engaged in the music—physically, and with an aim to lead the music as it lives and breathes, both guiding and responding to its energy—and slightly apart, emotionally. As a performer, my role is to help create the music, and I have to have a reserve that prevents me from collapsing into an emotional puddle, or flying off the handle in excitement. It’s a delicate balancing act to be both fully engaged and never quite allow yourself to give in and lose control of yourself, and your responsibility to the music.

2. Musicians are known to have mental resilience. Through your career as a conductor and musician, have you found that music as a performance art increases mental toughness? What is the general role of mental health in music?

What an interesting question. This touches on an idea that I think is important: the distinction between being a performer, and being a musician.
I do believe that being a performer could increase mental resilience in ways—you have to steel yourself against nerves and criticism, as well as be able to adapt quickly to challenging situations. Of course, it’s also possible that the pressures of performing can exacerbate nerves, so it’s a bit of a double-edged sword.
Being a musician, however, gives us access to a profoundly deep source of mental toughness, resistance, and emotional well-being: that of art, and of empathy with our fellow humans across time and space. To be a musician doesn’t necessarily mean to be a performer, but to in someway resonate with and feel the effect (and affect, as in the affective domain) of music and art. It gives you a chance to build connections outside of ourselves, to better understand how we relate to the wider world, and to try and make sense of it.
Great art doesn’t create callouses, or act like armor on the soul. Instead, it builds connections—it reaches out across lines drawn in society to develop understanding. Great art transforms us in some way, leaving us changed after our interactions with it. And though allowing for that level of vulnerability can open yourself up to pain, it ultimately gives you a resilience that runs far deeper.

3. The music industry has a reputation of being competitive and risky, with many musicians dealing with mental health problems. How has your mental health been affected throughout your music career?

This is a great follow-up to the previous question, and to my response about a performer vs. a musician. The mental health risks that can come with the music industry are directly related to the performance aspect, I think. It is a demanding and challenging profession, and one in which your successes and mistakes are played out live in front of an audience. Certainly, the pressures can be enormous.
I’ve been fortunate to not encounter many debilitating mental blocks as a performer. Stress and anxiety can build up as I approach a rehearsal or performance, particularly if it feels like things haven’t been working recently. Taking time to step back from an immediate problem (“I’m not connecting with this orchestra”) to examine the bigger picture (“I’m over-extended and moving too quickly”) has often solved this.
Almost all of my music-making is with other people, as an orchestra. Perhaps the single best piece of advice I had for navigating the psychological challenges of leading 90 people in an artistic endeavor was this: remember that each person in the orchestra is an individual, with the same individual concerns and troubles as you. If things aren’t working in a rehearsal, it’s not because anyone is out to get you—they didn’t meet in committee before rehearsal to decide how to mess with the conductor. Treat each and every person as the valued, respected, and beloved individual they are. Beautiful advice, paraphrased lightly from my teacher Don Schleicher.

4. What effect do rehearsals have on the mental wellness of the orchestra players that you have worked with?

I think this ties in to the previous question. Everyone arrives at rehearsal with a certain level of emotional baggage (uplifting or debilitating), and it’s tough to generalize. However, I one of my objectives is to create a community within the orchestra—a community built around mutual trust and respect, as well as individual responsibility. Being in that type of community and feeling those connections with our colleagues? That’s empathy, and that’s art.
It’s hard, I think, to make great art with people you can’t connect to. That’s not to say you need to be best buddies, but you do need to have a mutual understanding of what you’re striving toward. Conductors set the tone for that, and one of our roles is to encourage (and allow) each individual to provide everything they can to the overarching project. Of course, conductors make specific musical decisions and guide the interpretation, but at our best, we also facilitate great art to be made by the people actually creating sound: the instrumentalists. This feeling of connectivity to each other, to the audience, and to the greater objective of creating art together is one that I know has a positive effect on the mental wellness of players.

5. Our mental health has everything to do with our community. With such a tight-knit group of talented musicians, the music played is much more impactful because of the EYSO community. What impact does conducting a community such as EYSO have on you?

It’s truly stunning. To work with such a dedicated and caring community is an utter joy, and one that I treasure. Exploring and creating great art together is truly a unique experience: the art of collective creativity. Certainly there are challenges to it, but the rewards and opportunities for growth massively outweigh these.
Teaching, conducting, and making music with the EYSO community gives me hope. It confirms that there are people in this world who care about making meaningful connections with each other, and with the larger human community through music.

6. What’s the most calming orchestra piece (or movement)? What about the opposite?

This is tough. It’s rare for me to find music that directly translates to a specific word like calming, partly because there are so many nuances to it. Is it the calming of the sea after a storm—a calming after destruction and terror? Calming as a de-stressor, as a means to slow a cluttered mind? Or, as in the Bernstein Violin Serenade I’m listening to now (fourth movement), is it the calming after a terrifying personal breakdown; a calming in motion, but not necessarily in energy? That’s the beauty of music, isn’t it? The range of expression, of recreating the vast ranges of the human experience through sound, don’t translate perfectly into language—otherwise, why would we bother with it?
One piece that superficially qualifies as calming is the second movement of the Barber Violin Concerto. The beautiful solo oboe voice atop the strings is positively gorgeous...yet to me, it is also tremendously sad. So it’s a different type of calming than something that simply relaxes.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are plenty of pieces that can get you riled up! The Finale of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony is a go-to piece to get the blood flowing, full of bombast, fire, and pure kinetic energy.

7. Favorite piece to listen to?

This sounds like a cop-out answer (and maybe it is), but I don’t have a single favorite. In fact, this is a beautiful way to come full circle in this interview: it depends on my mood, and the mood I’m searching for! But in the spirit of answering the question, here are some of the pieces I find myself wearing out the needle on, in no particular order: Puccini’s opera Tosca, the Barber Violin Concerto, Beethoven Symphony No. 7, L’histoire du soldat (The Soldier’s Tale) by Stravinsky, String Quartet No. 2 “Intimate Letters” by Janáček, and the album Nebraska by Bruce Springsteen.

Conclusion

Music - a powerful tool that moves people of all kinds, listeners, musicians, performers, conductors. Sheppard beautifully articulates the nuances of being a conductor, performer, and musician and takes us through the ins and outs of mental health's impact on these roles and vice versa. Overall, it would be an understatement to claim that music moves a person. Music moves through the body, impacting the mood and mind. Thank you for reading the first part of the interview.