Thoughts on Burnout Prevention

Burnout is something many musicians encounter at some point(s) in their careers, but it is possible I think to take steps to help prevent and recover from it. It’s a word I’ve heard students, teachers, and professional players mention many times over the years, and – contrary to some opinions – it is something to take seriously. The Meriam-Webster online dictionary defines burnout as “exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration.”  Most college music teachers have seen the signs of burnout in their students: lack of motivation to practice, little to no improvement from lesson to lesson (from lack of practice), not showing up to class… etc., etc.  It can happen to even the most dedicated and talented of students, especially those who are involved in numerous ensembles with heavy rehearsal/performance commitments. As with many things, the time to think about burnout is not when you’re in the middle of it, but rather before its onset. Though I’m no psychologist, I’ve dealt with my own periods of feeling burned out, and wanted to share a few tips on ways to prevent and recover from it.

  1. Time Management: If I could name one thing that gets college students into trouble it’s this.  If you’ve never sat down and figured out just how much time you have for your classes, rehearsals, practicing, meals, social time, and other activities, do it! Simply putting pen to paper, or finger to smartphone, can do much to calm one’s mind. I encourage my students to schedule their practice time just like any other class – this helps to ensure that regular practicing does occur, in the long run preventing that feeling of crushing burden or impending doom.  Once you’ve crafted a schedule, stick to it as much as possible, but be reasonable in your expectations.  If you know you’re only going to be able to practice X number of hours a day, don’t put X+1 in your schedule.
  2. Have a Hobby: This may sound silly for serious music students, but it’s very important to cultivate interests outside of your discipline.  Yes, be serious about your major, but also try to find other activities that help you de-stress from the challenges you face on a day to day basis.  There is a long list of possibilities – cooking, reading, exercise, watching movies, etc. – the important thing is that it take your mind away from music for at least a short time, and in a healthy way.
  3. Make New Friends: More often than not, music students are mostly friends with other music students.  The nature of our field brings people together – which is a wonderful thing – but having relationships with people outside of your major can be a crucial factor in preventing burnout.  Here’s a little test – see if you can sit down with one of your friends and have a short conversation – say 5-10 minutes, without mentioning music.  Talk about anything you want, current events, restaurants, video games, whatever, but you aren’t allowed to bring up the latest etude you’ve been working on, or how (un)prepared you are for an upcoming concert/lesson/recital.  If you can’t do this – and it may be harder than you think – consider making some friends outside the music building, or at least doing something new with your current group of friends.  I was very lucky in undergraduate school to have a close group of friends outside the music building – whenever I’d had a tough day in the practice room, I could always count on these friends to start a spirited discussion about sports, politics, or the latest development in computers.  This may not sound that important, but in the long run it helped me recharge at the end of a busy day and wake up the next day refreshed and ready to go at it again.
  4. Know When to Say “No” Learning to say “no” when you have enough commitments on your plate is one of the toughest things for motivated, serious students to tackle.  If you’re a good player, the obligations can quickly stack up, and if you’re not managing your time correctly (see No. 1) you’ll feel swamped in no time.  You have to learn to strike a balance between pushing yourself and giving yourself some down time, and this balance will be different for everyone.  It all comes down to knowing yourself, and how best to respond to any given situation – not an easy feat!
  5. “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”: Cliche, yes, but also very true.  No matter how busy you get, no matter how many challenges (opportunities) come your way, take charge of your own satisfaction and overall happiness.  There are enough bitter, burned out people in the world already – make it your goal to find something to be happy about every single day. It doesn’t have to be an earth shattering revelation, just something that lets you know, in the end, whatever you’re doing is worth all the heartache and toil.  If you find it impossible to do that, it’s probably time to seek out professional help and/or reevaluate your current school and career goals.
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2 Comments

James – After reading this post and thinking about it for a while, it occurs to me you haven’t touched on how one goes about working with music might be a factor in burnout. High level playing and earning a living with music making is a whole different ball game from helping beginners and amateurs have fun enjoying music making, so I’ve never really dealt with the issue, just read various accounts.

Towards the end of your long tone warmup post you suggested varying the routine from time to time, with the implication one might find something that works better, at least for a while. It’s my idea that keeping one’s music practice fresh from day to day might help prevent burnout, and that there are probably other ways in which one approaches music making which might be helpful.

Hi Lyle,
This is an excellent point, and I suppose one reason I didn’t go into too much detail about it is that I wanted to focus on burnout prevention for music students. Full time professional players approach it in different ways – some do lots of private teaching, some of them pursue various kinds of chamber music, and others put the horn away for weeks (or months) at a time during the off season. I agree that varying routines and trying new things all the time can really help too. For both amateurs and professionals, I think that having other outlets besides music can help prevent some of the bitterness and rancor that often accompanies burnout. As one of my former teachers put it, “Horn playing is what you do – it’s not who you are.”

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