As I approach on the third month of my second year of undergraduate music performance degree, I am beginning to notice just how easy it is for students to get burnt out on music. The main difference between high school and college-level music study is the immersion. Unless you attended an arts-focused school before college, many high school students have a multi-faceted schedule that can often be highly influenced by the schedule of their family as well. While you may do a lot with music, it is more broken up over the course of one day. You may have band rehearsal and then go to algebra class, followed by Honors English and then lunch, and then maybe end your day with a marching band rehearsal and a few hours of individual practice. However, built into that time is also time you spend with your family, time you spend unwinding from the day and relaxing, and time that you dedicate to completing your homework (which, I may add, is extremely important!). It is an overwhelming, but manageable type of schedule with sufficient mental breaks to get yourself focused and excited to play music. For those who may not be in college yet, studying music as your aspired degree involves a much higher level of concentrated performance, practice and applied pedagogy. For me personally, my first year of music school was a bit of a wake-up call. You will have multiple hours of rehearsals each day, whether it be with an accompanist, a large ensemble, or a chamber ensemble. You will be expected to practice multiple hours each day to work on your individual parts for these ensembles, fundamental technique exercises your teacher assigns, and a wide variety of solo repertoire from multiple different time periods and styles of music. You will have music theory, aural skills, piano and music history classes that meet multiple times a week, as well as your general education classes you will have to take as part of your undergraduate degree. You will have a weekly lesson with your applied professor that might as well be nicknamed a weekly re-audition into the studio. While this sounds like an overwhelming amount of work, it is quite manageable and I know a vast amount of people who have survived it and have gone on to obtain two more music degrees. I also know quite a few who have dropped out of music completely because of the schedule. In my opinion, majoring in music is not something to be afraid of. It is an extreme privilege to be able to study an art form that you have fallen in love with. I try to remind myself this every day. Yes, it can be extremely taxing at times, but so can every major in college. The university-level of study in ANY subject is designed to be challenging, because if it was not challenging you would not grow as a student and as a person. You are not spending thousands of dollars in tuition to come and study a subject that will not challenge you.
Stress in music is a very different kind of stress that I often find people misinterpret as a superior form of stress to their friends and acquaintances studying different subjects. While we as music majors are struggling to prepare a piece of music to perform in a short period of time, math and science-related majors are likely studying hours and hours for their frequent exams. I think it is very important to respect others career decisions and what they choose to study, and to never think that you are superior to them or that you work harder than they do because you are studying music. All good students work hard at what they do. I encounter this phenomenon a lot, even within the music world. I see that often, students majoring in music performance think themselves superior to those who major in music education or music history, etc. because they feel that they are more dedicated to their instruments than other majors, or they believe that since one is aspiring to become a music teacher that they "do not have the drive or talent to make it as a performer". This is an incredibly toxic and disrespectful mindset to have towards your colleagues. I really try to emphasize to my students that all careers in music are equally challenging and rewarding, and that one's own individual passion within music may differ greatly from their colleagues, but that doesn't make it any more or less valid and wonderful. I am currently taking a Music Entrepreneurship class within the College of Musical Arts at BGSU, and my professor, Dr. Gene Poor, very clearly explained to us that music is a multi-dimensional career with a handful of different paths one can take: Administration, Recording, Teaching, Performance, Management, and Advertisement. To be a successful musical entrepreneur, you will likely do all of these things at some point in your career. Be open-minded towards other concentrations within music no matter what you are studying within it, because chances are you will either be doing these things later in your life or you will need to have them done for you, and building connections while people are accessible in music school can save you a world of work later on in your career.
Studying music can be extremely mentally, and even physically taxing, and can even be very dangerous to your health if you are not conscious and cautious. Depending on what your concentration or primary instrument is, there may be a whole anatomical philosophy on how to prevent injuries from practicing and performing frequently. For flute, there is a method called "Alexander Technique" that focuses on the best possible posture to have while playing to avoid injury and frequent fatigue during practicing sessions. It also brings awareness to one's own bodily anatomy and what is natural and what is not natural to do when performing or playing. While playing an instrument, or singing or dancing depending on what you may be studying, may not be physically challenging to large muscle groups, the small muscle groups that you work every time you pick up your instrument and play it can very easily get fatigued and stressed if you are not aware of them and if you are not listening to your body. I have done a lot with the study and practice of yoga, and I find that it is extremely important to always be aware of what your body needs above all else on any given day. Take that statement with a grain of salt. I am not recommending that if you are a little tired you should skip all of your classes or rehearsals to sleep, I am speaking more on deeper issues like muscle pain and emotional health. If you notice a chronic pain anywhere in your arms, shoulders or neck while you are practicing, I strongly recommend bringing it to your applied professor's attention. Chances are, they will be able to help you fix your hand position or posture to help alleviate the pain. I developed a pretty severe case of tendinitis my senior year of high school and freshman year of college solely from bad technique and posture while I played. When you are playing for hours on end, it is very easy to get lazy and slouch, or tense up your muscles while practicing a frustrating run in a piece of music that you just cannot seem to conquer. Emotionally, watch for warning signs. One of my high school orchestra directors said that every musician is at least a bit socially inept because of the amount of hours we spend alone in a practice room throughout the span of our lives. While that may be a comical way of putting it, young musicians need to be aware of their mental health. If you feel yourself becoming increasingly irritable towards not only others but yourself, it is a sign that you may be burning yourself out. One thing I have learned so far in music school is to work as hard as possible but also never to apologize for giving yourself a break once in awhile. It is easy to become so consumed with the act of practicing to the point where you feel guilty if you are doing something else instead. You need time to unwind, and you need time to take your mind off of music once in awhile. Social activities once in awhile have become crucial to my sanity, and often I will come back from seeing my friends feeling extremely refreshed and prepared to work again. One of my friends dedicates every Thursday night to watching cartoons. Another one of my friends is involved in a social activist organization. I make time for a few yoga classes each week. Whatever you can do that helps you take your mind off of music-related things for awhile will be extremely beneficial to your mental health in the long run. However, there is a very fine line between too much work and too much play; finding a balance between the two is an absolute necessity, and it is important to keep giving yourself mental checks. "Am I being as productive as possible on a weekly basis?" "Do I find myself overwhelmed with the amount of homework I have to do Sunday nights?" That may be a sign of too much "play" time. "Am I constantly irritable and emotionally numb?" "Am I beginning to doubt my choice in pursuing a career in music?" Those may be signs of too much "work". Every person is different in this respect and will have a different schedule. Finding yours early on in your career will help so much later on in your life.
Discovering sources of inspiration is also a very intimate, personal journey you must urge yourself to experience early on in your life. Much like the balance between work and play, be mindful of the moments you experience where you are absolutely happy. Is there a specific place that you love to visit? A scene of a movie that makes you laugh until you cry? A vocalist whose voice is so beautiful that you can't stop listening to it? A piece of music that brings you to tears? Keep those moments, and even write them down somewhere. In my dorm room at BGSU, I have an "inspiration board" of photographs of my favorite people and places, letters people have written me, and graduation cards from my private music teachers that I can come to when I am feeling down. I also have posters of my favorite musicians and celebrity role models, and photos of my family. I plaster things on my wall that invoke happiness so that my own room can be a source of inspiration. I also have a playlist on spotify dedicated to my favorite flutists and instrumental pieces that I listen to when I need a surge of musical inspiration. Sometimes when I am driving, I will play that playlist and envision myself on a big recital stage playing that piece like my idol is playing it on the recording. I even have a playlist of my favorite rock and pop hits that take me back to moments earlier on in my life where I felt completely happy that I play also when I drive. I have songs dedicated to happy moments in personal relationships, successful moments in my career, and even ones that remind me of my favorite places I have visited. Anything you can do to create an atmosphere of inspiration is highly encouraged. It is so easy to get discouraged and to feel down about yourself in this field, and it is so wonderful to have ways to build yourself back up when you experience these feelings. My professor told us yesterday that studying music is a true test of character. You spend years and years studying with people who point out your every flaw and constantly tell you what is wrong with you, and that it is very easy to begin feeling extremely insecure when you play. He also told us that if you can't take pride in what you are playing, your audience won't be able to either. Personal success comes from within, not from what others decide that our fate is. Building up your own sense of pride with your surroundings and the people you spend your time with is the first step to a lifelong career of personal success.
Questions? Comments? Personal Success Stories? Please leave them below, I would love to hear what you have to say.