Pursuing Music with ADHD

By Kensley Behel

Musicians with ADHD see and experience the world through a different lens. While often creative, innovative and high achieving, they are sometimes tagged with opposite attributes. This article provides a solid understanding of ADHD as it relates to music students. It also presents accommodations available to help students experience successful collegiate and professional careers. 

What is ADHD?

The term ADHD or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is misleading. Musicians’ health researcher, Dr. Eckhart Altenmueller, says this: “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.”

According to the National Institute of Health, ADHD is a diagnosable condition marked by an ongoing pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that interferes with functioning or development. Researchers believe that low levels of the chemical in the brain known as dopamine contribute to symptoms of ADHD, and cause those diagnosed to constantly seek more stimuli. 

ADHD and musicians

There is very little research on ADHD among musicians, but based on the studies and anecdotal evidence available, common symptoms include but are not limited to:

  • Needing additional stimuli to practice such as practicing with a  T.V. in the background;
  • Struggling to remember and recall information from Music History;
  • Being very early to rehearsals for fear of being late – or showing up late;
  • Feeling overstimulated in practice rooms because of all of the noise;
  • Gets distracted with off-topic conversations in music lessons;
  • Losing one’s place in rehearsal while trying to count rests;
  • Daydreaming or drawing during “boring” music classes;
  • Forgetting to bring pencils to rehearsal;
  • Being very sensitive to criticism.

Specific challenges music school applicants face

• Filling out applications requires a high degree of accuracy and may seem quite boring. Because this process often doesn’t provide enough stimulation, students with ADHD may overlook critical details of an application. 

• Students may heavily procrastinate completing an application to stimulate a last-second rush to finish the application. This can be very thrilling and simultaneously very stressful for all involved.

• People with ADHD experience something colloquially known as “time blindness.” So, in the case of college applications, those with ADHD may underestimate the amount of time needed to complete an application, meaning they are unable to finish by the deadline.

• And finally, people with ADHD often suffer from rejection sensitivity, or intense emotional pain felt in response to being teased, criticized, or rejected. Some applicants with ADHD will therefore choose not to submit applications for fear of rejection because the pain is so intense. 

Managing ADHD 

First and foremost, it’s critical to understand that many music students with ADHD do not suffer as a result of nor are they aware of their diagnosis before college. This is especially true for female musicians. Often those with ADHD put immense pressure on themselves and are very successful under the rigid structures that high school can provide. 

It is not uncommon to see a previously high-achieving student start to struggle in college due to the more open structure and responsibilities that college requires. 

ADHD is considered a disability under the American Disabilities Act (ADA). Students with ADHD are protected from discrimination and have the right to ask for accommodations. 

Once a student gets to college, they can visit the school’s Office of Disabilities Access (ODA) to ask for accommodations. 

Common accommodation requests include:

  • Asking for extended time on tests and assignments
  • Testing in a quiet place without distractions
  • Asking for permission to record lectures
  • Getting assistance taking notes in class
  • Obtaining written instructions from professors
  • Taking a reduced course load

How music educators can support students 

Music educators are on the “frontlines” of musicians’ health problems. Being aware of the symptoms of ADHD can go a long way in helping students quickly find solutions to the problems they are facing. 

Students may be struggling to focus in class, forget simple instructions, ask for directions to be repeated often, are late to rehearsal, and/or have difficulty regulating their emotional responses (“emotionally dysregulated”). 

If you’re a music educator who finds yourself labeling a student as “difficult,” “lazy,” or “unmotivated” see if you can reframe your perspective to become curious and non-judgemental. It will go a long way in helping you seek to understand the student rather than label and dismiss them.

Helpful tips:

1. Writing down specific directions rather than just using auditory directions to clear up any confusion. Follow up your lesson with an email. 

2. Speak kindly to the student. As mentioned earlier, those with ADHD can suffer from rejection sensitivity meaning they can have intense physical and mental distress from criticism and rejection. 

3. If you find your student struggling to practice a piece of standard repertoire, inquire if the student finds the music boring. This can lead to students not wanting to practice. 

Be creative and find music the student enjoys practicing that accomplishes the same technical or musical goals as the standard rep. This is a concept known as “job crafting.” When the student has a say in what they are working on, they are more likely to be invested. 

3. It may be also be appropriate to guide students to seek assistance through counseling services.

4. Finally, recognize that those with ADHD often experience the chronic feeling of not fitting in. They may also have intense anxiety because they feel like they’ve forgotten something but can’t remember what it is. Think of it like Neville Longbottom’s magical glass ball Remembrall in the  Harry Potter series. The smoke would turn red when he forgot something but didn’t communicate what he had forgotten. That type of constant anxiety coupled with rejection sensitivity makes living life and doing daily tasks so much harder than it is for those without ADHD.

Disclaimer: This article cannot and should not be used to diagnose anyone with ADHD. This article is to be used as a tool to help those who have been diagnosed to be aware of common problems and how to navigate them. If you believe you might have ADHD, please seek a psychologist or psychiatrist who can administer the needed testing. 

Kensley Behel, Ph.D. in Performing Arts Health from the University of North Texas, uses her knowledge and life experience to help musicians learn how to prevent injuries. Kensley was diagnosed with ADHD during her Ph.D. and works to bring ADHD awareness into the musical community through her consulting work.

Photo credit: Tara Winstead

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