Sometimes, everything just stops.
You’re tired of being asked to do things.
You’re tired of expending yourself day in and day out without any signs of the pressure letting up.
You’re just tired of being in survival mode all the time instead of really living.
Burnout is scary.
This phenomenon speaks a lot to how professional life (across all disciplines) is beginning to affect people in the 21st century, but here, I want to focus on one particular group: musicians.
Musicians don’t have the luxury of “clocking out,” and any time not spent cultivating the craft easily feels like time wasted.
The work day isn’t 9 AM to 5 PM. It’s 7 AM to 11 PM.
This feeling amongst musicians is a result of what is called “cutthroat culture.” In my own life, I give this title to the cutthroat culture: “negatively motivated competition.”
Negatively motivated competition can have some serious effects on one’s psyche if the wheels in the practice room, the concert hall, or personal life start to come off.
With that said, here are some of things I say to myself when I hit personal lows:
1. “I can’t take time for myself because I will feel like I am putting off something.”
2. “I have never been able to play this passage right no matter how I practice it. Something must be wrong with me.”
3. “I hate feeling like I’m always trying to do things instead of actually being able to do them.”
4. “You know what? This sucks.”
5. “I suck.”
6. ( …general darkness… )
7. (Go back to the top and go through all that again. Do not pass “Go.” Do not collect $200.)
This is where that kind of self-dialogue always ends up. (see below)
I could go into my own personal solutions for identifying, avoiding, and/or conquering burnout, but there are these people called doctors who go to school for 10 years to help us with these sorts of issues. I’m personally going to look to them for help, and you should too.
Here’s what the Mayo Clinic Staff (arguably the best group of doctors in the world) has to say about burnout:
Lack of control, extremes of activity, lack of social support, work-life imbalance…
Is it safe to say that these characteristics have become normal, maybe even accepted, in music? I think it’s fair to all musicians to say “yes.”
A lack of routine that defines many musicians’ daily lives naturally results in a lack of control.
The sheer amount of material that musicians are expected to know and willingly take on completely normalizes extremes of activity.
The self-confined nature of the practice room, lack of availability of jobs in many musical fields (e.g. orchestra positions), and general comparativeness amongst musicians often creates competition that can generate a complete absence of social support.
“Music is my life.” …work life imbalance.
Most of us are severely hurting ourselves and we don’t even know it.
But there are ways to get out of it.
Speaking from my own experience, the only way for me to do this consists of the following steps:
1. Step away from your instrument. Leave the building if you have to.
2. Seek professional help from a certified therapist.
3. Create a daily routine that gives yourself time before you spend time.
4. Actually tell yourself, “Everything’s going to be ok.” Don’t wait for someone else to tell it to you.
5. Intentionally seek positivity in everything you do. If so many people in the world are so passionate about being negative and cynical, you can be equally contagious with your positivity.
These are just a few solutions that work for me, but I encourage you to create your own routine and your own provisions that create a safety net for yourself.
People quit their dream jobs because of this. Don’t let yourself become a statistic.
For more information about burnout and mental health, I’d encourage you to visit mayoclinic.org.
Thanks for reading,
Josh McClellan is a percussionist currently studying at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY.
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