When it comes to teaching and/or performing in the field of music, almost everyone has or will have to deal with “burnout,” which is a mental collapse due to stress.
Oftentimes, people are afraid to discuss mental issues like burnout because many infer that if someone is burned out, then he has lost his love of music. However, that is not the case at all. Burnout is a natural experience in the extreme ebb and flow of being in a creative, passionate and demanding field.
Here are nine ways of reducing burnout utilizing both academic research and from my personal experience.
1. Have a Routine that Includes Quality Rest and Breaks
Musicians often forget to take real breaks because of the relentless nature of their field. Music is inherently something that you can never perfect; it can always be better with more practice. Nonstop practice without breaks and/or rest can result in the law of diminishing returns where the time being spent on a project is more than the benefits gained. One way to make sure you get good rest is to schedule breaks so that they are a mandatory part of your day.
- Get consistent sleep. Sleep is one of those things that everyone knows is important, but it is one of the first things that people do less of during stressful times. There have been numerous studies on the detriment of reducing one’s sleep schedule, especially in regard to mental efficiency. (One study is “Patterns of Performance Degradation and Restoration During Sleep Restriction and Subsequent Recovery: A Sleep Dose-Response Study” from the Journal of Sleep Research.) Not getting enough sleep can make the time you are awake less productive. To fix this, go to bed at a consistent time every night and wake up at the same time every morning. When you go to bed, turn off all distractions – do not get on your smartphone/tablet or watch TV. Dedicate that time to trying to relax and falling asleep. In the beginning, you may find yourself lying awake in bed, but if you stay consistent with your schedule, your body will learn that it can shut down and sleep at a consistent hour. Apply these same “rules” to when you wake up. Trying to “catch up” on sleep by sleeping in on the weekends can ruin your sleep cycle by pushing back the time your body is used to being awake, which then pushes back the time your body will want to go to sleep.
- Take real breaks. Sometimes when we do get a break, we continue to ruminate on what we should be doing instead of enjoying the break. A good way to take a real break is to remove yourself from the work situation. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has a resource titled “Tooling and Studying: Effective Breaks,” which offers several methods for making breaks effective, including studying in blocks of time (50 minutes of study/10 minutes for a break), getting up and moving around, scheduling meal breaks, turning off your phone during study (turn it on only during breaks). I recommend that if you are practicing in an office, practice room or rehearsal space, go outside and either walk around or sit on a bench. Be present in your moment outside by experiencing the break. Listen to the sounds of nature (or traffic) or look up and notice the trees, clouds, birds or the people around you. Finding ways to get your mind mentally focused away from the task/job that is making you feel burned out will help you return to the task at hand with more mental energy and concentration.
It is universally agreed that exercise is good for the body and mind. Developing an exercise routine can help balance hormones in your body and help increase energy throughout the day. Many people have the misconception that working out will rob them of energy that they could have used later, when in fact working out has the opposite effect. Exercise will increase your mental awareness while boosting your level of physical energy for the day, which is why many people recommend working out in the morning.
Researchers have found that “individuals who exercised at least two to three time a week experienced significantly less depression, anger, cynical distrust and stress … and higher levels of coherence and a stronger feeling of social integration …” (from “Physical Exercises and Psychological Well-Being: A Population Study in Finland” by Peter Hassmén, Nathalie Koivula and Antti Uutela). You do not need to become a body builder or an endurance athlete, just enjoy the exertion that will improve your physical and mental health.
3. Rely on Friends
Friends are an invaluable resource when you experience burnout. You can vent to them, cry on their shoulder and use them as a healthy distraction from your current dilemmas. Do not be afraid to share issues with your friends. One of the best ways to deal with difficult issues is to talk through them out loud. When you think through problems in your mind, you tend to focus on issues that would sound preposterous when said out loud.
Talking to someone gives you the opportunity to explain your situation and to get a response you might not have considered. Friends also provide sympathy and laughter. Both of these can make us feel less overwhelmed by the difficulties and stress of being a music educator or performer.
The Mental Health Foundation has a great article titled “Friendship and Mental Health” about how people can utilize their friends to strengthen their mental health and how to be a good friend by listening to others who are having problems/mental health issues.
4. Do Something Completely Different
Some people make music their one and only focus in life, which is easy to do because there are so many ways to become more and more involved in music. However, having a nonmusical activity in your life can give you the mental release you need so that when you return to your musical activities, you will be refreshed and energized.
Consider joining an athletic team, finding a hobby (gardening, painting, wood working, model building, etc.), start exploring new places where you live (hiking, camping, biking, etc.) or something else that is not related to music. The point is to get away from music to stave off burnout so when you return to it, you will have a fresh and open mind.
5. Mental Health Strategies (Mindfulness and Meditation)
Burnout is often fed by negative mental actions like rumination and repetitive “what if-ing,” which can exacerbate problems. The best thing you can do is to learn how the brain works so that you can calm down negative mental responses to stress. Things like mindfulness and meditation are great tools to help you deal with stress at all levels. There are numerous podcasts and books on both of these topics, but one podcast on mindfulness I recommend is UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center’s “Weekly Podcast at the Hammer.”
An additional step in helping create strong mental health strategies is to see a licensed therapist regularly. Charles (Chuck) Bryant from the podcast and video series “Stuff You Should Know” is paraphrased as saying, “I’m not concerned for people in therapy, I’m concerned for those who aren’t in therapy.” This is a great slogan for mental health services because it conveys that people who are in therapy are actively trying to get better, while people who are not don’t have the guidance or instruction to know where to start to get better.
Everyone could use a little help from time to time, so do not be afraid to see a therapist/counselor. Even if you feel that you are mentally healthy, it would not hurt to develop new strategies to deal with life’s problems and stresses while they are manageable and before they become overwhelming.
6. Reshape Your Mental Perspective
Sometimes your mental attitude about a task or assignment is the reason for burnout. This tends to be the case with students. Many people view their jobs/work/practicing/assignments as something that must be done so they can move on to the next item at hand. However, this often creates a sense of moving forward for the sake of moving forward.
Instead, focus on the exercise/etude/piece as an opportunity to become better in that moment. It is great to be motivated to progress in your studies/education, but progressing should be a natural part of the learning curve. Viewing tasks as opportunities to get better at certain skills or concepts will be much more fulfilling in the long term, rather than moving through material just to say that you have done it. You often see this with students who run through exercises just to say that they have completed their work instead of doing exercises with a mental focus to become better at a skill or group of skills that is being isolated. A good motto I use is: “Work on the quality, and the quantity will come.”
7. Do Something New and Invigorating Within Music
Many times, we get stuck doing the same types of things over and over in music. If you are known for playing timpani, you might play in orchestras all the time. If you are known as being a good drum set player, you may play in jazz combos all the time. But doing the same thing can lead to burnout.
What might get your “creative juices flowing” is to try something new musically. For example, try playing a different style of music, start a chamber group, research new ways to perform/teach, organize a performance in a place you have never played before or learn a new instrument. As the saying goes, “variety is the spice of life.” Varying your musical activities can help create a renewed sense of meaning and purpose.
8. Play Something Challenging or Easy
If all you do is perform difficult music, the challenge can become the reason why you are experiencing burnout. Just because a composition is touted as being difficult, does not necessarily mean it will be personally fulfilling. Constantly performing pieces like this can make you feel like a modern-day Sisyphus — continually struggling to roll that boulder uphill, just to get there and realize that you have to do it again.
The same is true on the other end of the musical spectrum. If you play easy music all the time, you can feel unfulfilled. This is especially common with percussionists who play regular gigs where the music does not seem particularly varied.
In either case, try pursuing something significantly more musically and/or technically demanding or easy outside of your regular gigs. This new challenge may lead to a sense of renewed musical growth and self-expression.
9. Push Through
Sometimes burnout happens at a time where you cannot stop and take a break to recharge your mental batteries the way that you would like. This can be one of the hardest situations when dealing with burnout. But sometimes you must push through or persist in order to keep your job to pay bills or fulfill a musical obligation where quitting is not an option.
It will be difficult, but you need to stick to a routine that you have developed in the past that you know works for you. Sometimes you will have to plan your day down to the minute and then force yourself to stick to that schedule. Even though it can feel like you are “going through the motions,” utilizing your time toward a goal can eventually give you some sense of direction.
The worst thing you can do in a situation like this is to constantly think about what you have to do. Instead, like Nike’s motto exclaims, “Just Do It!” I have met many people who, when they get overloaded or feel burnt out, spend more time talking about what they need to do rather than just doing those things. Pushing through burnout with a sense of brute force can sometimes help overcome burnout.
On the other hand, pushing through immediate burnout can also lead to long-term burnout. Pushing through can be beneficial when you are in a tough situation, such as meeting a tight deadline. When you complete the task at hand, it can give you a sense of accomplishment or fulfillment that leads to breaking away from feelings of burnout. However, pushing through can also increase feelings of burnout once the task has been completed. Pushing through can be a temporary fix, but it is most likely not a permanent solution.
These nine strategies are not the only ways to deal with burnout, but they are a good place to start. One of these strategies may work for you the next time you have feelings of burnout, but the same strategy may not work the next time. It is important to find different ways of dealing with mental stress because you change throughout your life and how you deal with stress. Just know that you are not alone. Everyone deals with stress and burnout throughout life. Without the difficult times, the great times would not be as great!