It’s no secret that the freelance musical life can sometimes be one of financial insecurity, a swing between work drought and work overload. Between having to manage a constantly changing schedule, provide for one’s own health insurance and future benefits, and keep on top of skills and develop new abilities and directions artistically, musicians often feel stress, burnout, and depression.
But many make it work, and with effort and adaptability, create careers for themselves that they wouldn’t trade for anything. I’m one of these musicians, and today I want to talk a little bit about my path to a balanced career, how I continue to struggle, and what I’m doing to stay joyful and inspired in my work.
Up until the early years of my 30s, I worked part-time jobs in other industries while trying to figure out the right direction for my musical career. I was a ticket agent for the Minnesota Orchestra, an office assistant for a medical health organization, and an employee of my friend’s eBay shipping business (that was one of my favorites- really let my type A organizational tendencies shine). Throughout these jobs I was steadily learning what I wanted to be ‘when I grew up’, and it looked a little different from what I’d told myself I’d be upon leaving music school years before.
I had always thought I would make a living performing- with a chamber music group, as a freelancer, as part of a theatre orchestra or band, anything. I worked cruise ships and marketed myself as a capable performer in many genres. But the work I was getting did not garner enough to pay my bills, and when teaching opportunities started to fall in my lap (see this post for my teaching origin story), I realized that if I wanted to break the cycle of part time, non-music-related jobs, I would have to start developing my studio. It was timely- I was starting to get discouraged and bitter about my performance career- and it provided me a way forward.
These days, I make the majority of my income from teaching weekly private lessons to students at all levels, and I love it. My gig income has become something ‘extra’ I can sock away for fun things or life savings. But lately, I’ve been feeling a bit ‘crispy’ about teaching (that is, just on the edge of burnt-out), and while part of that might be the end of another school year nearing, I think it also has to do with the sheer amount of teaching that I am doing that is giving me little time to work on other aspects of my career. I’m feeling the need to rebalance, and I have a few ideas.
The first thing I’ve been trying to do is cut back slightly on the number of students in my studio. I love each and every one of them, but I’m beginning to feel that past a certain number, I start to get a little frazzled and have more phoned in lessons than I would like. My magic number of students for optimum teaching mental health is probably somewhere between 25-28, and right now I have *34* including a few long standing clinic engagements that involve anywhere between 2-10 students apiece. The summer will loosen my schedule quite a bit, but I want to make sure that in the fall, the structure looks a little different and I can stave off the crispiness for a little longer.
First, I don’t plan to replace the 5 high school seniors currently in my studio, unless a student comes along that can easily fit into my available times at one of the high schools or at the church I rent from. Secondly, I’ve stepped away from the company I teach Skype lessons for- that’s 2 more. Thirdly, if I’m awarded the grant I wrote to continue and expand my teaching offerings at Richfield High School, I will likely try to organize all my home studio students on one or two days (instead of 3) so I can streamline my schedule.
On top of this, I need to be stricter about giving myself days of the week off, and particularly making sure I have more than one in a row. Currently, Saturdays and Mondays are days ‘off’, but more often than not they end up getting filled up in some other way. Saturdays get gigs, and Mondays become days in which I make a lot of appointments and address my inbox/business needs.
What would be ideal would be maybe a Fri/Sat or Sun/Mon day off arrangement, something that lines up with both a social life and a chore day, and that’s what I’m striving to create starting in the fall. I’m also hoping to expand my outreach as a clinician and educator, and that may mean having to juggle schedules so that I can get into more classrooms.
One of the most amazing things to happen in the last 2 years is a growing demand for my services as a performer, not just in groups like Brass Lassie and the Adam Meckler Orchestra, but as a freelancer and soloist, as well. A particularly long 2 weeks last month made me realize that the educator life and the performer life don’t exactly mesh well if you like full nights of sleep. But playing as often as I have been lately has reminded me that performing is my life’s joy, and developing a better structure around gigging might help me balance some of my burn-out feelings around teaching.
The musical life will never be perfect- but what work life is- but as musicians we are constantly adapting our strategies toward having a healthy and fulfilling career. I also know for myself that doing one particular thing for years and years is not for me, and that I will evolve into a new phase not long down the line. Likely it will still involve all of the things I do now, but to me it will feel fresh and motivating as I chase down that challenge.
How have you found ways to balance your career and your mental health? How do you keep things fresh and inspiring? Where are you at in your journey?