#MusicAndMentalHealth: What Does Burnout Feel Like?

Many years ago, when I worked on cruise ships, I experienced firsthand what it looks like when a musician feels burnt out and uninspired.  The bottled up atmosphere of a ship, combined with repetitive musical engagements and low regard from management for the wellbeing of their artists, can really make making music feel like a soul-sucking dead end job. While I managed mostly to avoid feeling that way myself, many of my colleagues who had done ships for years exhibited all the telltale signs of career exhaustion. It’s why I made an effort to rebuild my career at home on land before I found myself in the same position, and work constantly to manage it optimally.

[disclaimer: lots of cruise musicians love their job for years! ymmv!]

Any career or imperfect job situation can bring us stress and lower our motivation from time to time. Music can be particularly hard to balance for many reasons as musicians are often struggling to make ends meet, always on the hustle, worried about turning things down, constantly practicing for the next thing, and tentative to take breaks. On top of that we’re often perfectionists- we’ve spent long hours in the practice room honing our skills and we can be obsessive with our practice regimens.

According to Psychology Today, there are 3 main pillars of burnout:

  1. Physical and Mental Exhaustion, which can include insomnia, mental fatigue, forgetfulness, anxiety, changes in appetite, depression, and difficulty managing anger;
  2. Cynicism and Detachment, characterized by a loss of enjoyment in tasks and activities, pessimism, and isolation;
  3. Signs of Ineffectiveness and Lack of Accomplishmentincluding apathy, irritability, and decreased productivity.

I’ve definitely felt all of these in the last couple of months, and I’ve been struggling to identify exactly what’s burning me out, or if it’s a general need for change. As summer approaches, I know my schedule will change for the better, but there are a few things I can do know to help myself reposition the needle.

Primarily, I need to say no to more things. I don’t be a part of every project or take every student that comes my way. I have a big, self-assigned project (a teacher’s guide for my upcoming clinic offering) on my plate right now, but I’m realizing that it actually doesn’t need to see completion until I start marketing in the fall, and that it is actually in very good shape. Beating myself up about the progress I was making on it was #3 through and through, and it was bleeding into my everyday life and work.

I also need to give myself a break- there won’t be a big project or effort in June. I’m putting my proposed YouTube series on hold until later in the summer, or at least until I feel more inspired to do it. I’d like to get back into a more regular practice routine, and start to brainstorm repertoire for a packaged guest artist performance/presentation, and that seems like a lot of fun play and practice, rather than busy work.

And finally, I need to listen to my very own Relaxation Mentor, Nikolai.

This is a live view from my computer as I attempt to write this post around a cranky, needly, elderly bb who will put his head over the trackpad and keyboard while I’m typing in hopes I’ll give up and just sit with him.

Lately, Nikolai has been reminding me of a book I had as a child called Misty Morgan. In the book, Morgan the unicorn is trying desperately to get his friend the Princess to play with him, but she is constantly in motion, obsessed with getting her work done. After being put off a few too many times, Morgan eventually wanders sadly and unthinkingly into a thick mist, and it is up to the Princess to rescue him.

Whenever I’m in the midst of a busy day, in and out of rooms in my house, or stopping home just for a quick bite, Nikolai’s pitiful expression worries me. I want to make time for the work I love to do, but also leave open space for play and friendship. It’s the balance of the two of these that keep us inspired.

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