#MusicAndMentalHealth: Then vs Now

When I set out this month to put focus on how I and my colleagues balance our careers and our mental and emotional health, I had no idea the myriad places each topic would take me. I’ve covered so many ideas: from talking about how I balance work & life, researching what burnout feels like (and discovering just how badly I had it), and giving myself permission to vacation; to highlighting some of my favorite folks (Rebecca Hass on rest, Leah Pogwizd on owning your animus, and Tully Hall on curiosity); to asking you via Facebook posts how you do self-care, design your perfect schedule, rock it out, and manage stress. 

I’ll admit that at the beginning of May I was a little bit of a wreck. I’d made an unforgiving and jam-packed teaching schedule for myself, and April and May were busy with gigs, recording sessions, and rehearsals. I was also navigating the resurgence of a traumatic episode in my past, which often happens around the event’s anniversary. In short, I was more than burnt-out, I was ready to sweep out the fireplace and move out of the building.

At the end of last year I set myself some hefty goals for 2018, and I started out January with my usual nose-to-the-grindstone pace & a to-do list miles long. It might be no surprise to anyone, but I have trouble taking days off. There’s always something I can get done if I have the time. Just sitting down- with no real agenda- is incredibly hard. Now, procrastination- that’s another story. I’m happy to set myself a task and then avoid it at all costs, only to rush the work just at the end of the time I’ve allotted for it.

What I’ve learned this month is that overwork does no one any good. I’m self-employed, and many of the tasks and goals I set for myself do not need to have deadlines or be rushed. No one but me is suffering if I don’t get a certain product out into the world when I said I would. If I let myself get it done as I’m inspired to do it, or even just forgive myself when I miss a day of work on it, it’ll get done, and be even better than I thought.

In June & July, I’m intentionally not setting a theme for the blog. I’ll be writing and checking in, but I’m giving myself permission to go back to freeform posting. I’ve also assigned myself only one big project- the marketing and pricing design of my music clinician business- and put a few others on hold. Less is more, this summer, as I give my tired mind a chance to reconnect with the inspiration music and teaching give me.

What have you learned in May? How will you move forward in new and healthier ways?

#MusicAndMentalHealth Wisdom Wednesday: Alexander Technician Tully Hall

Wednesdays this month, I’m aiming to feature the writing of a colleague who’s doing good work helping musicians find ways to balance work, life, and play. Whether they’re finding paths for themselves and sharing their journey, or actively guiding people through the process of gaining a good groundwork, these folks are truly thinking outside the box of our traditional grindstone mentality. The result is careers and people that are happier, more productive in the long run, and ultimately, more successful (and it all depends on how you define ‘success’).

This week I want to feature the insightful writing and mentorship of my Alexander Technique teacher, Tully Hall. Tully is as kind-hearted and wise a person as I have ever met, and we’ve really bonded over our mutual ideas about brass playing, movement, pedagogy, and life.

After many years of being intrigued by Alexander and thinking “I should try that”, last July I finally got a recommendation to contact Tully, and I am so glad I did. I’ve done just about every little bit of bodily self-care you can think of in order to manage chronic back, neck, and shoulder pain: acupuncture, yoga, physical therapy, cupping, massage, flotation tanks… Every one of them was great, and combining them helped a little, but nothing has made quite the difference that AT has, and in as short an amount of time. I stopped fighting my body’s tension spots and started reorganizing how I stood, sat, moved, and flowed through my day.  Talking with Tully about intention and external focus of attention has reminded me that the pedagogy I teach doesn’t just have to apply to brass playing. We can move through the world without grasping, without working so hard. We can be open and curious.

Here are some of my favorite posts by Tully on the topic of intention and curiosity, but I highly recommend her entire blog.

Where Intention Goes, Energy Flows

Descriptions of Alexander Technique can often include the dreaded p-word (Posture!), which can bring up a maelstrom of ‘shoulds’ and ‘shouldn’ts’ for many of us. But what is posture really? A few weeks ago I listened to ‘On Being’ host Krista Tippett talking with physicist Carlo Rovelli. The episode is titled: All Reality is Interaction. One of his phrases really stuck with me: “the huge wave of happenings which is a human self.”  One aspect of that wave is our interaction with gravity. We are made for gravity: we meet its presence with our own wave of anti-gravity. We’re so elegantly designed that we don’t have to exert direct muscular force to do it.

Get Ready, Get Curious…Engage!

My great niece has this uncluttered freedom that I admire very much. (It’s wonderfully common in the 1.5 year old demographic.) Using my Alexander Technique know-how lets me get some of that freedom for myself:

  • I can enter a listening, curious state rather than a “just let me get through this so I can get to the next thing” state.
  • If I don’t rush, I don’t tighten.
  • I don’t have to hold myself up, I can rest on whatever’s supporting me.
  • I can orient my attention outward into the environment surrounding me.
  • I can find a state of flow that makes me available to move.
  • If I’m holding or moving something, I can ask it, “how would you like to move?”

Have you experimented with Alexander Technique? How has it affected you, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally? Do you find, like I do, that after a lesson you feel like you could take on anything in your day with poise and grace?

#MusicAndMentalHealth: Give Yourself Permission

As this post goes up, I’m in all likelihood stretched out on a beach or in a hammock (the rainy season is starting in early this year) in Cahuita, Costa Rica.

I’ve been invited to stay with friend and fellow trombonist Gabe and her mom. We’ll take in Cahuita National Park, the Museo de Cacao, and local culture. I am incredibly excited; I’ve only spent a few hours in Costa Rica itself but I have a soft spot for the Caribbean and the Central American countries from my time on cruise ships.

Giving myself permission to buy a plane ticket and take time off from work and potential gigs was incredibly difficult. I knew the minute Gabe invited me that I would go, but I had to give myself all kinds of pep talks to actually make it happen. It’s so hard, as a freelance musician and a self-employed educator, to walk away from work during the regular season. It’s easier over winter holidays, when students are not in school and wanting a break, or in the summer when things are light anyway, but mid-May? C’mon! On top of that, how will my chops feel when I get back? What will I have lost, musically.

The answer? Nothing. Sure, it’ll take a few days to feel normal again, but in reality, I’ll have gained. My skills will not suffer in the long run for a week off. Years ago, I would panic at the idea of not playing for whatever period of time- a few days, a week, a month (ok, but to be real, I probably couldn’t go a month just yet :/). Eventually, I began to realize that time off is truly musically valuable. It gives your brain a chance to recuperate, incorporate old habits, and simmer on new experiences and ideas.

As for teaching and playing, taking a vacation is not going to mean I lose students or gigs. They will still all be there- because everyone understands the value of time away. I recently saw a claim that Americans work more days that medieval peasants. I laughed aloud- and then I sobbed a bit. I don’t even have a 9-to-5 job, but I do work in the ever-growing gig economy, which might grind even harder that the 40 hours a week crowd. We don’t have health insurance provided for us, after all, and our income depends on how hard we hustle.

So, giving myself permission to leave is hard. I’m getting better at it, though. And I give you permission to take a break, too.


#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.

#MusicAndMentalHealth Wisdom Wednesday: Rebecca Hass

This month on the blog on Wednesdays I’m aiming to feature the writing of a colleague who’s doing good work helping musicians find ways to balance work, life, and play. Whether they’re finding paths for themselves and sharing their journey, or actively guiding people through the process of gaining a good groundwork, these folks are truly thinking outside the box of our traditional grindstone mentality. The result is careers and people that are happier, more productive in the long run, and ultimately, more successful (and it all depends on how you define ‘success’).

This week, I’m delighted to excerpt some of the writing of my dear friend Rebecca Hass, whom you know from some of my past collaborations with piano as well as our efforts to institute a regular networking happy hour event for women in the MSP Metro’s music scene. Rebecca has been a champion of so many things positive and holistic in my life, as well as an excellent ear and mentor when it comes to difficult situations. Please check out her work, writing, and performances, and be sure to support her album of original Brazilian tunes Kickstarter, which launches May 29th!

Here are some of my favorite posts from Rebecca on balance, mental health, and creativity:

What is Enough

“Over the weekend, despite relaxing quite a bit, I felt unbelievably exhausted, moody, and irritable. (Hello, signs of burnout!) As this article explains, burnout is not a sudden state that you find yourself in, it’s a slow leak that creeps up on you (although you may not notice). I relate to many of the signs they listed. Teachers are definitely at risk for burnout, and people with my workaholic personality. So, I keep reminding myself that rest is part of the cycle of my work – I will not be able to function well if I don’t rest. (Easier said than done.)”

10 Survival Strategies for Busy Times

7) Batch tasks together

Schedule larger blocks of time to do regular activities (like printing materials, planning lessons, cooking food for the week, etc.) I’ve heard a statistic that it takes 20 minutes or more to re-focus when you switch tasks, so you can save a ton of time this way!

8) Make shorter to-do lists

I know that it sounds counter-intuitive to be telling yourself to do less work when you’re super busy and working more, but shorter lists help you prioritize what most needs to get done. You’ll probably actually achieve the same amount, and you’ll feel more in control and better about yourself because you get to the end of the list. I’m not usually very good at doing this, but I’ve been trying it this week, and I’m getting the essentials done, in a more relaxed fashion”

These two really hit home for me. If I have too many projects going and I try to get a little of each done in a day, I am much less successful than if I had dedicated more time to each. Of course, I still have days where task-switching happens, and I have to remind myself to set aside the biggest amount of time for the thing that needs the most attention. And also forgive myself if I didn’t also clean the bathroom.

Let’s Talk About Anxiety

“Notice that I said “get better”, not “cure my anxiety” – I have no illusions that being on medication cures the problem, and I know that this is a lifelong issue that I will always be prone to. If my life gets more stressful and/or I don’t keep up my healthy habits, I definitely feel it, and it’s a learning process of awareness that I have to commit to. I’m certainly not perfect, and I’m still prone to workaholic tendencies, as much as I try not to fall into that trap (that Midwestern farmer heritage dies hard, as does the stereotypical musician lifestyle). Lisa Congdon talks about her experience with workaholism and anxiety here, and I totally relate to all of her takeaways.

I felt my anxiety ramping up again this week, as I’m nearing spring break (starting after my concert tonight!) and have gotten a bit fried from a busy month, but I am MUCH more sensitive to the red flags of increased anxiety and impending burnout now (feeling crabby/unable to handle work/stressful situations as well as normal, heart racing, feeling fearful for no good reason, feeling exhausted rather than energized after a walk, etc.) So, I won’t let things get as bad as they did last year if I can help it.”

Balancing Rest and The Hustle

“There are a lot of factors to weigh: whether you’ll be able to rest more after the period of “hustle”, how healthy you’re feeling, whether additional stressors are present in your life right now, whether it’s a typically busy season, etc. When it comes down to it, is it worth it to you to give up rest, time with loved ones, hobbies, home-cooked meals, etc. in order to pursue your career goals? Or how much of that is okay to give up? And for how long at a time?

My work has always been really important to me, but I think that I have always swung too far to that side of the rest/work seesaw, at the expense of a lot of things, including my own health. So, even though I do struggle with it, I am committed to resting and recharging as a basic personal value, even if it means that I make a little less money, or that some of my goals take a little longer to achieve. After all, no one ever says “I wish that I had worked more” on their deathbed. I want my workload and lifestyle to feel sustainable (which is obviously going to be different for every person). ”

And the end of this post is as good a time as any to introduce you to Rebecca’s ‘Relaxation Mentor’ Rusty T Cat, a total good boy who knows how to help his human take a breath and rest.

What Rusty wants us to know is that it’s important to foster the relationships and social activities in our lives, even if it’s as simple as putting down the phone and scritching a kitty’s soft forehead for a bit.

Go, and read all of Rebecca’s writing!

#MusicAndMentalHealth: The Work-Life Balancing Act

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?

The Blog in May: #MusicAndMentalHealth

It’s May! Up here in Minnesota, the snow has finally melted and we even had one day get into the 80s. People are starting to shake off the winter blues, festival and event season is gearing up, and the trees are getting those first bits of green.

But even with winter in the rearview mirror and the promise of warmer, more social times ahead, spring and summer can be a tough time for many. In May, medical health professionals everywhere celebrate Mental Health Month, a period of advocacy, visibility, and support for people struggling with mental illnesses.

In conjunction with all the fine work being done on the topic by many of my colleagues, I’m dedicating the blog this month to the mental health of musicians, professional and amateur alike, and how the art  of music can help and hinder our wellbeing. I’ll talk about how I’ve found balance in my career (and how I haven’t!), showcase colleagues whose writing and influence have helped me, and ask you to weigh in on how your life with music affects your brain.

And now that I’ve written this up- I can go for a therapeutic sunny afternoon bike ride! Stay tuned for more in May.