Musicians with ADHD, and the colleagues who work with them

I’m pretty open about the fact that I live with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. It’s part of who I am. I sometimes even enjoy having it: the periods of hyperfocus are what enable me to write incredibly quickly, and my head practically bursts with creative ideas more or less non-stop. I talk faster than anyone I know, because that’s how fast the ideas come out.

It still isn’t easy, though. Before I received my diagnosis in my late twenties, I’m sure my ADHD behaviours caused me to miss out on a lot of professional opportunities. Forgetting rehearsals, or being calamitously late to them because I vastly underestimated the time it would take me to get there; forgetting I had students coming for lessons; losing my music and other important possessions; zoning out in rehearsals; never having a pencil; having to borrow other people’s rosin because I’d left mine somewhere; forgetting previously agreed-upon bowings and articulations; impulsively blurting unflattering remarks (“Did you know that you drag behind the beat all the time?”)…and my self-esteem really suffered at the negative comments of my understandably irritated colleagues.

Because I was a high achiever academically, and because my ADHD leans more towards inattentiveness than hyperactivity, none of my schoolteachers noticed that I had classic ADHD symptoms during my childhood–though plenty of them scolded me for not paying attention when they were talking to me. People who knew me at my best–the straight-A student, the kid who could reliably get up in front of an audience and play Bach suites, the kid who memorized poems for fun–didn’t know that in my worst periods of distractibility, I actually can’t read. That is, I can identify individual words on a page, but I can’t connect the sentences. It’s like looking at random words in a dictionary without being able to collect them into a whole that makes any sense. When that happens, I can’t make head or tail of a musical score either. Total inattentiveness is the shadow side of my hyperfocus and creativity, and it can be very, very distressing.

Since realizing that I suffered from a neuropsychiatric condition, and not from moral failure as a human being, I’ve learned to work with my ADHD. A reader of my book Cello Practice, Cello Performancenoticing a reference to my ADHD in the last chapter, has asked me to write a blog post about what musicians with ADHD can do to function in non-ADHD world. I’ve done just that–and I’ll also include some advice for non-ADHD colleagues on how to support ADHD musicians in rehearsal and other aspects of professional life.

1. Seek help

This may seem obvious, but a lot of people with ADHD don’t ever seek help. There’s this kind of weird omertà around the idea of taking prescription medication for ADHD, and I don’t really know why. You wouldn’t hesitate to medicate a heart complaint, for example. This shouldn’t be that different.

It’s not always necessary to take prescription medications, of course. From my own experience, I’d also highly recommend seeing a therapist with a specialization in ADHD to help learn time management and other coping strategies. (It even helps you get better at showing up to the therapy appointments–big win!) I’ve heard great things about cognitive behavioural therapy, though I’ve not tried it myself.

2. Declutter

I’ve come to realize that I function much better in an uncluttered environment. I can’t practise efficiently or effectively if my studio is a mess, because clutter tends to trigger my need to get up and walk around the room fixing things. I take five minutes at the end of every working day to tidy my desk, return things to the right places, and so on. I’ve developed a filing system for my music scores that keeps them sorted into categories (sonatas, concertos, quartets, orchestral cello parts, etc), which I alphabetize by the composer’s last name. My motto is “A place for everything, and everything in its place.” Not “A place for everything, and everything on the floor.” The same goes for my house–I can’t have piles of papers and junky clutter lying around, or I can’t think straight. Filing cabinets are my saving grace. So is my local second-hand shop, which unquestioningly takes the bags and bags of superfluous possessions I donate every couple of months.

Next, I need to take the time to declutter my mind. The energy I expend in practising, teaching, rehearsing, and performing all day puts me into sensory overload and distraction mode. I’ve found that I need to schedule power naps between activities. I set an alarm, turn off the lights, and sit in a chair with my eyes closed for ten minutes. Even if I don’t fall asleep, I can calm the whirlwind of music and chatter in my brain by sitting in the dark listening to my breathing. After that, I have enough focus to move on to my next activity.

When that activity is a rehearsal, you have to figure out how to get through it without zoning out in the middle. This can be incredibly hard, because what seems like a normal rehearsal to most people can be intolerably slow-paced and boring for a person with ADHD. With this in mind, you have to plan around it. Whenever possible, make some time before the rehearsal to calm your mental chatter. For example, I plan to arrive early and sit in my car for ten minutes with my eyes closed, collecting my thoughts. I make sure I’ve recently had a cup of coffee–which I find therapeutic–and that I’m mentally and physically prepared for the rehearsal. Before I blurt out any comment, I take a moment to breathe and think about what I’m going to say before I impulsively say something that will hurt a colleague’s feelings. I’ve learned certain polite social skills: taking a breath and counting to three before I speak so that I don’t impulsively interrupt someone who is speaking, even when that person is speaking so slowly that I wish they had a fast-forward button that I could push. I have learned not to  assume that other people see problems and solutions as instantaneously as I do (ah, beautiful hyperfocus, how I love you), and to “frame” my comments by prefacing them with “What would happen if we…?” or “Would you consider…?”. If I really feel that I can’t tolerate one more second of rehearsing, I request that we take a short break so that I can declutter and refocus, or simply go outside and jump around for a while to work off some of my overload. (You can’t, obviously, do this in an orchestra rehearsal, but you may be able to in chamber music.) Sometimes, when your brain is truly fried, you have to call it a day.

3. Know yourself.

Most people have some idea of when their best practice time is. For me, it’s early in the morning before a day full of music and talking overloads my mind. I’m always sleepy in the mornings, but I find that the hour before I start teaching, 7:30-8:30, is great for my first practice session. When I was a teenager, I got up at 5 to practise, but I can’t do this now that I’m a parent and have to get my daughter ready. I also try to schedule most rehearsals in the morning whenever possible, though of course sometimes you have no power over this.

It’s also worth figuring out the conditions you need to do your best practice. In Cello Practice, Cello Performance I made the point that sometimes you need total silence, and sometimes you need background noise. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with practising in front of the TV if that’s what you have to do to get stuff done, as long as you’re listening to how you sound.

I’m no nutritionist, so I wouldn’t presume to offer dietary advice. That said, one of the best things I’ve done for my ADHD is to figure out a way of eating that works for me. A lot of people with ADHD self-medicate with caffeine, and I’ve found this tremendously helpful for my focus. Other people self-medicate with sugar (Dr. Mona Lisa Schulz admits to drinking Kool-Aid for this reason), but this doesn’t do anything for me.

4. Create structure and routine

This is by far the hardest aspect of ADHD for me. My whole authority-averse being rebels against the idea of artificially imposed rules. And yet when I really make the effort to structure my day-to-day life and plan for my future, I find that I really can be organized.

Technology can be a huge help. There are a lot of great apps, but my favourites are the Google ones, simply because I use Android devices and they’re the most convenient for me. I write down my to-do lists using Google Tasks, sorting them into categories–urgent priority, medium priority, long-term priority. I use Google Calendar for scheduling, and use the alarm function to remind myself of all the things I have to do, places I have to be, and when I need to leave in order to be there on time. Of course, setting up this rigorous schedule is one thing; making myself look at it is the hard bit.

To this end, I have to keep all my stuff in the same place all the time so that I know where it is and don’t lose it or forget it. I have to keep all my music for current projects in the same binder, arranged by order of practice priority, separated by coloured dividers. I keep pencils attached to the binder. The binder must live in the middle sleeve of my computer bag (I use this one, which is full of useful pockets). There are special compartments for pens, smartphone, tablet, tuner, metronome, rock stop, etc. There are also hooks onto which I clip my keys, using a carabiner, so that I know where they are and don’t lose them.

Of course, the efficacy of this whole arrangement depends on my not losing my computer bag. But you see what I’m getting at–have all your stuff in the same place.

Further to this structure, and also to the “place for everything” strategy, I find that I need to have packing lists on my phone for when I’m on tour. I’m embarrassed to admit that “cello and bow” are at the top of this list. (Yes. It has happened.) If you tend to forget important things when you go on tour, this can be a godsend. I even keep a special travel bag for shampoo, toothpaste etc inside my suitcase so I don’t have to think about things to put in it when I’m on the road. I have a special packet full of spare strings inside the lid of the suitcase, too. And photocopies of passports, tickets, etc, in case of emergency. (Yes, that’s happened too.) And photocopies of all your scores. Lastly, and I’m almost embarrassed to admit this, I check at all points in the journey if I still have my “three things”: computer bag, cello, and suitcase. Well, six things really, because I also do a “three things” check at every point in the journey for what I really can’t do without: passport, wallet, phone.

I find that when things happen that are outside of my routine–work travel being one of them–that’s when I have my biggest screw-ups. So I stick to routines as much as possible, even relatively small things such as going to bed and getting up at the same time. Advance preparation is your best friend: looking at your calendar every night to figure out all the rehearsals you must attend, students you must teach, tasks you must accomplish the next day doesn’t just help with organization, it helps you sleep better. I even set out my clothes and accessories for the morning before I go to bed, since I know I’m completely useless in the morning. And since my ADHD brain tends to wake me up in the middle of the night with ideas, I keep a pen and paper next to the bed to write them down so that I don’t have to pay attention to them at that second and can go back to sleep. (I had most of my ideas for this blog post at 11 last night and had to scribble a few things down so that I wouldn’t stay up all night writing it!)

5. Find the motivation to be more functional.

At this point in my career, I’ve now had the experience of teaching a lot of students with ADHD. One of them told me he chose to attend this university to study with me because he saw instantly at his audition that I was classic ADHD (diagnosed by a 17-year-old! I must be so transparent…), and he hoped that I might understand his challenges and appreciate him for his good qualities. I’ve seen these people go through all the things I really suffered with as a student. I can help–but only to a certain extent. You have to have the drive and motivation to learn how to function in a world that runs on timetables and deadlines. I found the writings of Kelly McGonigal, especially The Willpower Instinct, very useful for harnessing my willpower and getting things done. I also love The New Feminine Brain by Mona Lisa Schulz (which I promise is useful for men too) for some really practical help for high achievers with ADHD.

6. Be kind to yourself.

Beating yourself up is second nature when you’re ADHD. You’ve been hearing annoyed and frustrated comments from family, peers, teachers, and colleagues your entire life, so of course you’ve internalized some of them. I recently started reading Kristin Neff‘s work on self-compassion, and it really spoke to me. If you can replace the monologue of self-reproach (“You screwed up again. What’s wrong with you? You knew that rehearsal started at five!”) with one of self-compassion (“You poor thing, coping with ADHD is really hard, isn’t it?”), it’s amazing how much easier all of this gets. Acknowledge that you have an actual condition that causes this. Yes, you can learn to function, but you’re up against a lot.

How to be supportive of musicians with ADHD

I am the first to admit that having a colleague who is chronically late and forgetful, fidgets like a six-year-old, and spaces out while you’re trying to talk to them, can be maddening. I find people like that maddening too, and have worked very hard to function better. However, there are some things you can do to help them with their biggest challenges so that you can take advantage of all the things that make them great.

  • Learn about ADHD so you can be compassionate about what they’re going through. Chances are they hate forgetting things, losing things, and being late just as much as you do.
  • Please–and I know it can be hard–avoid making negative comments, sighing sarcastically, or rolling your eyes when an ADHD colleague makes yet another blunder, daydreams through a rehearsal, or loses her music. It won’t improve anything. Please understand that the person has been hearing these comments all her life, yet may feel powerless to do anything about them. “Tough love” comments like “Grow up!” and “Get some social skills” don’t work either. You cannot shame a person with ADHD into becoming more organized and less distracted.
  • When possible, divide rehearsals/lessons into fast-paced, varied segments. That way, there’s less scope for the person to zone out and lose all focus. Frequent breaks–especially coffee breaks, that magic potion–make rehearsal time far more efficient.
  • Try not to take it personally if the person with ADHD seems listless during rehearsal. When your brain is on permanent fast forward, it can be almost impossible to focus on conversations that go at normal speeds.
  • If you rehearse a section several times, please adopt the courtesy of saying “Let’s go back to bar [number]” each time, not “Let’s go back to the same place.” People with ADHD will often forget instantly that you started at bar 36 and will hate having to ask where the “same place” was. Yes, we know that’s annoying too.
  • By all means help the person to stay on track using reminders and so on. Just make sure to phrase it positively (“Hey, let’s hang out and put our scores in binders together”), and not in a sarcastic or infantilizing way (“Your stuff is a total disaster. Here, let me organize it for you before you lose all those loose pages again“).
  • Let them know that you appreciate their good points, such as their talent at the instrument, their creativity in solving problems, or the hyperfocus they can achieve in performance when the adrenaline is flowing.

And on that note, I’m off to sort today’s practice goals into a prioritization list, and set about accomplishing them.


5 thoughts on “Musicians with ADHD, and the colleagues who work with them

  1. Thanks so much for making this post. I’m in the middle of my studies at the moment and I have been wondering whether it’s even possible for me to achieve the success that I’m working so hard for when I have ADHD. Sometimes I forget that I don’t have to punish myself everytime I stuff up, and reading about someone else who has experienced similar difficulties has reminded me to have courage and stand up for my talent and determination.


  2. Thanks so much for writing this. Im just now realizing (at 26) I have to take real steps to help myself cope with ADHD as a musician. One thing I’ve found most difficult/frustrating is being pretty unreliable at sight reading. I know a big part of getting better no matter who you are is just practicing harder and developing your own methods of reading well, but do you have any advice on ways to keep focus whilst in the throes of a 5 pg symphony movement? Very incouraging article!


    1. Hi Adam, I’m glad you found it useful. To be honest, staying focused in long rehearsals is one of the hardest things for me. If possible, I try to make sure I’ve exercised and had coffee before rehearsal. Those two things make it possible for me not to get overly inattentive and fidgety.


  3. This was super helpful. I have ADHD and I’m in my second yeat of music studies. I’ve been having a lot of trouble learning one of my peices lately and this was super helpful. Thank you


  4. Thank you so much for this! As a musician you’re in such a special position with ADHD too because it is not your typical learning process I guess. Do you have any other advice on practicing in general? I often find that my practice of certain pieces or parts of a piece is so unreliable when I’m having a lesson with my piano teacher for example. How do you know or make sure that you really internalize your training? Or is there maybe something you do that helps you to access this training when you need it?
    I’m just so grateful for your article because it’s so easy to think that I’m the only one struggling with this. Thank you!


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