Event organisers, Dr Naomi Norton (Associate Lecturer in Music Education and Musicians’ Health and Wellness Coordinator at the University of York) and Sheryl Doe (Dispensing Optician, Allegro Optical), report on the ‘Visual Health in the Performing Arts’ day, which was held at the University of York in July 2022 

Professionals gather to promote eye health and wellness for performing artists

‘Visual Health in the Performing Arts’ was a one-day networking and knowledge exchange event organised by the Department of Music at the University of York in collaboration with the British Association for Performing Arts Medicine (BAPAM) and Allegro Optical in July 2022. The event helped to raise awareness of the unique visual challenges faced by performing artists: for example, many musicians need to scan detailed musical scores, switch between near and far distances, and have good spatial awareness. The goal of the event was to develop a network, identify research and education topics, review factors affecting performing artists’ visual health, identify care pathways, and enhance clinical effectiveness. Musicians, clinicians, medical device manufacturers, and organisations involved in promoting performing artists’ health attended this inaugural event.

During the morning ‘Perspectives’ session two musicians discussed their real-life experiences with visual impairments. Pianist Yanna Zissandou spoke of how her life changed after sustaining a retinal tear and described how difficult it was to focus on multiple points both pre- and post-retinal tear due to light and glare issues. After her own optician was unable to restore her vision sufficiently, Yanna sought the help of Allegro Optical. Norma Wilson (pianist, flautist, educator, and music therapist) has experienced wet macular degeneration, which affects her ability to read music. She spoke of her traumatic diagnosis and what she has been through since then to keep engaging with music. She also sought out the expertise at Allegro Optical and wrote directly to Angela Hewitt to find out more about how to use an iPad while performing. In the coming weeks, Norma will take great pride in accompanying her granddaughter for a performance exam. Like many artists, Norma and Yanna never considered the possibility of not playing: making music is a way of life and to forgo that is, for many people, beyond comprehension.

Dr. Gunnar Schmidtman (University of Plymouth) provided insight into some of the different ocular conditions and how they affect musicians. He talked about how musicians playing small bore instruments like the cornet and soprano cornet may experience increased intraocular pressure.  Glaucoma is one of the serious conditions that can result from sustained elevated intraocular pressure. Initially, glaucoma rarely exhibits any symptoms: peripheral vision, which is the outer edges of our field of vision, is typically the first area affected and it often takes a while to be noticeable.  As a result, many glaucoma sufferers are unaware that they have the disease and it is frequently only discovered during a routine eye exam.

Paul Bartley from Optelec highlighted advances in technology that have led to wearable assistive technology for those with visual impairments and the use of portable devices and apps.  People frequently experience a loss of independence and control when their eyesight begins to deteriorate.

Sheryl Doe from Allegro Optical has worked with numerous musicians and spoke of the  critical challenges that these performing artists face. She talked of the journey made by those seeking clinical help and discussed ways of identifying, preventing, and managing serious ocular conditions. Allegro Optical works closely with optical manufacturers such as Optelec, optical lens manufacturers, and device and app manufacturers, to dispense bespoke solutions to performing artists.

A number of key points arising from conversations at the event were summarised in a panel session focusing on ‘Obstacles and Opportunities’ and further interrogated in small group discussions throughout the day. Firstly, there is a lack of data regarding the number of performing artists in the UK who experience difficulties with their visual health. This is causing difficulties in understanding the needs and challenges of this population, persuading medical device manufacturers to develop bespoke products, and convincing institutions and organisations to prioritise visual health. The research and resources that are available focus primarily on musicians rather than other performing artists such as dancers and actors. Secondly, artists and creators are not generally taught about their visual health or how to protect it and eye care professionals (including optometrists, opticians, and ophthalmologists) are not provided with sufficient insights during their training to be able to cater effectively to the specialist visual needs of performing artists. Different ocular conditions require a variety of approaches to facilitate vision and more needs to be done by venues, lighting designers, employers, and artists to explore this challenge and find workable solutions. There are organisations and individuals working to provide specialist services and support for performing artists, but better communication and connections between them is needed. Finally, there is a spectrum of visual health within the performing arts and it is vital that the industry and education system work towards being an inclusive environment for all, regardless of visual status and use of vision to engage with the performing arts. While everyone can work towards protecting the level of visual health that they currently have, experiencing visual loss does not mean the end of engagement with the performing arts as there are many ways of thriving within the industry without relying solely on vision.

Speaking of the event, organiser Dr Naomi Norton, said: ‘Bringing together this dedicated and passionate group of individuals resulted in an exceptionally rich day full of discussions not only of obstacles to promoting visual health, but also opportunities for collaborative solutions to the challenges that we face. This shared insight and expertise provides a sound basis for further research, collaboration, and educational approaches to supporting a more inclusive and healthy performing arts community that prioritises visual health alongside other aspects of wellbeing. This event was only the beginning and we hope others will join the network and work with us towards those aims. A huge thank you to the University of York Place and Community fund and Department of Music for supporting this event and enabling it to happen.’

If you would like to know more about this event or the resulting network and collaborative projects that we are working on please contact Naomi (naomi.norton@york.ac.uk), Sheryl (sheryl@allegrooptical.co.uk) or the BAPAM team (training@bapam.org.uk).