Are you feeling rested and relaxed? Having fun with friends as much as you’d like? Are you feeling fit and healthy? For many of us, the answers to these questions may often be no.
As a freelance musician for many years, I frequently experienced a sense of overwhelm and a lack of balance in my life. I was a professional accompanist (aka collaborative pianist), and as such had an active and varied musical life. I gave recitals with singers and instrumentalists, accompanied singing lessons, played for choir rehearsals, was a repetiteur for opera companies, taught piano, conducted several choirs and eventually also taught bachelor of music students in a major conservatory. I used to fret when I was overloaded with work. I used to worry when not enough work was coming in.
Some colleagues I knew worked seven days a week, month after month, unwilling to say no to any commitments for fear of being short of money, or missing out on a great opportunity. I myself worked six days a week and three evenings, and considered myself lucky to keep Sundays free, a practice that took a lot of discipline. There were always going to be missed opportunities. There were always going to be disappointed potential clients. But I knew if I didn’t take one day a week to myself, I would be heading for burnout.
Looking back on this now, it seems ironic that in fact I did reach burnout anyway. My schedule was too much for me, a fact I did my best to ignore until I was injured and then developed an autoimmune condition that currently prevents me from playing the piano for more than a few minutes.
Fifteen years on, I now see my story as a cautionary tale. Following extensive re-training, I now work as a life coach for musicians, assisting my clients in taking care of themselves whilst also learning, growing and achieving new goals.
One of the first assignments I set for my clients is an exercise where they look at their whole lives, not just their musical lives. It is no use me trying to assist them in their careers, if there are other areas of focus in their lives that are holding them back. These are the most common areas we look at:
Family and friends
Fun and recreation
Service and contribution
If you’d like to try this exercise right now, here’s what to do.
Give each of these areas a mark out of 10, in terms of how satisfied you are currently with that area in your life. Then take a look at what you’ve written. Are there any surprises? What strikes you? Are the numbers where you would like them to be? What action steps might you need to take in a particular area to raise the number by 1… or by 3 or more?
This exercise is often a wake-up call for my clients, and in addition provides valuable information about how they are doing. For example, a client who gives their physical environment a 2 probably won’t be able to do their best work. Upon further questioning, it may emerge that they have too much clutter around them to be able to be well-organized, or they have roommates with whom they are incompatible, or they may simply find their home ugly and depressing. This information would then factor into any intentions they form about changes they want to make in their lives. They could choose to work on clearing a certain amount of clutter every week, for example, in addition to setting career goals. Of course, sometimes what may seem like a simple task to others may not be so simple for that person, and we might need to take time to clarify and work on mental and emotional impediments to change along the way.
Some of the areas listed above may merit a little explanation. Artistry is separate from career, not because it does not inform a musician’s career, but because it may not be currently present to the extent that they would wish. For example, a singer may be waiting tables full-time, and only able to practice in the evenings and give occasional concerts. She may want her career to be as a musician, but currently she’s a waitress. How is she supporting herself in maintaining her connection with her creativity and her music-making?
Spirituality and service are optional areas of focus. Some people consider them a vital part of their lives, others do not. Spirituality could include attending a religious service, meditating, being in nature, or taking time simply to sit still and breathe. Service, or contribution, would be assisting others in some way–volunteering, babysitting for a family member, or just random acts of kindness in daily life. There has been a lot of research done into the benefits of being of service, and regular volunteers often report increased well-being and a sense of being more in balance, through taking time to focus on others.
How could you have greater balance in your life as a musician and teacher? What might you need to let go of? What’s truly important to you? Are you keeping your artistry alive? Asking these questions isn’t easy, but the benefits of stopping to take a look once in a while can be immeasurable.