Musicians and ADHD
Updated: Sep 17
As a full-time musician, I was known for being exceptionally consistent in my ability to memorize concertos and perform them on stage without a memory blip. But I had a secret. I practiced with Gilmore Girls in the background. One day, it came up in my lessons that I practiced to T.V. My teacher thought it was odd but I was performing well and she ultimately didn't see the problem with it. The subject never came up again. That is until I got to my master's degree and I was told that I should stop practicing that way. I began to flounder. It wasn't until a few months ago that I began to have insight into why I began to flounder. You see, in January 2022, I was diagnosed with ADHD. And that began a domino of understanding my life through a different lens.
What did an ADHD diagnosis mean?
First and foremost, it allowed me to begin to put some of the puzzle pieces together. I learned that it's common for women to get a diagnosis of ADHD in their late 30s and 40s, and that's because many of us fly under the radar. I was 30 when I got mine.
Like many other women with ADHD, I did well in school. I excelled in music. I didn't show typical hyperactive symptoms. But my hyperactive symptoms have always been there – they are just in my mind. My mind races a million miles a minute and because of that I often misplace my keys and wallet. In fact, there's a running joke in my family that I'm constantly asking, "has anyone seen ____?"
Nod your head if you can relate!
Timing is Everything!
The timing of this particular diagnosis couldn't have been more providential. I was in the final stages of my Ph.D. and was practically best friends with Google Scholar (my search engine of choice).
So I turned to Google Scholar putting in keywords like, "classical musicians with ADHD," "musicians with ADHD," and "female musicians with ADHD," and to my surprise, there was very little research on the topic.
I began wondering if I was alone in my experience.
To date, there have been two known studies published detailing the experiences of classical musicians with ADHD. This post is going to focus on a doctoral dissertation by Joy Hoffman.
Dr. Hoffman, a bassoonist who also received her ADHD diagnosis as an adult, introduced her dissertation by recalling her personal experience and I immediately felt seen. She described irregular schedules, procrastination, and a general lack of planning followed by shame.
What she describes is a part of ADHD called executive dysfunction. People who have properly working executive function can easily organize their thoughts, manage their time, and prioritize tasks. In essence, proper executive function allows you to prioritize your life in an efficient way and execute those prioritizations without distraction.
There are many fields that have naturally moved to provide competitive accommodations that suit neurodivergent individuals. I have several friends in tech and they often talk of being able to show up to work when they want as long as their work gets done, being able to leave in the middle of the day to walk or take a bike ride to help alleviate stress or excess energy, and even having nap rooms on site if they feel overwhelmed.
The classical music industry is not in a place that readily offers these needed accommodations. And in many instances, ADHD proves to be detrimental to the musician. Participants in Hoffman's study spoke of losing their place in rehearsal, missing an entrance due to "zoning out," and not using time in private lessons efficiently because they got sidetracked with unrelated conversations. These struggles were so relatable that I created a bingo card to help other musicians with ADHD feel seen.
Adaptation and Benefits
The moment that everything really clicked into place for me was when I read that other musicians with ADHD practice with the T.V. in the background. They used T.V. for motivation and for focus. And suddenly, I realized I wasn't alone.
Television wasn't the only adaptation that Hoffman's participants mentioned. Mindfulness and medication were also cited as ways to help with inconsistency, distraction, anxiety, and executive dysfunction.
While there are certainly challenges associated with being a musician with ADHD, there are also benefits. One of them is our ability to hyperfocus. Our hyperfocus can allow us to get an extraordinary amount done in a very short amount of time.
Though we can do extraordinary things like graduate with a Ph.D., be the principal basoonist of a major orchestra, conduct research, travel the world, and more, it's because we have adapted.
Musicians with ADHD, especially female musicians, may begin to struggle in higher education in ways they never did during high school because they no longer have a rigid structure in place.
Symptoms may look like:
Being chronically late to class, rehearsals, or lessons
Double booking yourself for multiple obligations
Procrastinating theory homework or audition recordings
Having a messy/cluttered music stand
Forgetting your concert black attire
Emotional outbursts in response to criticism about your playing or receiving a bad grade
My guess is that you've found this blog post because you think you might have ADHD or were recently diagnosed with ADHD. You may be wondering why you didn't have this information earlier. Or, maybe you're thinking through what your life could have been if you would have had proper academic or workplace accommodations. That's normal. And, I want you to know that you are not alone.
I want to leave you with one final thought from a researcher I deeply admire, Dr. Eckart Altenmueller. He said of ADHD, that "attention deficit is an imprecise term because the disorder is not thought to involve a lack of attention. Rather, there appears to be difficulty in regulating attention, so that attention is simultaneously given to too many stimuli." As you work through finding the best solutions for you, keep this in mind!
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Altenmüeller, E. (2007). Musical learning in individuals with disabilities. W. G & F. R (Eds.), Neurosciences in music pedagogy.
Hoffman, J. E. (2020). Professional classical musicians with ADHD: A qualitative study. [Doctoral Dissertation, University of Georgia].
Nadeau, K. (2005). Career choices and workplace challenges for individuals with ADHD. Journal of Clinical Psychology 61(5). https://doi.org/10.1002/jclp.20119. 27
Palmini, A. (2008). Professionally successful adults with Attention-deficit/hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): Compensation strategies and subjective effects of pharmacological treatment," Dementia & Neuropsychologia. 2, no. 1(March 2008): 66-67, accessed July 8, 2020, https://doi.org/10.1590/S1980-57642009DN20100013
Sreenivas, S. (2021). ADHD in women. WebMD. Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/add-adhd/adhd-in-women