I don’t think anyone has ever assumed that pursuing a degree in classical music would be easy. Despite a love for the craft, there is also the understanding that it requires hard work, including long hours practicing, composing, or studying scores. But what isn’t discussed is the unhealthy practices in music education that prime young musicians for failure from the beginning – particularly the belief that burnout-inducing schedules offer an accurate representation of the professional world, a test to see if we will crack under the pressure.
When I began my conservatory training in 2017, I found my overachieving, people-pleasing self constantly striving for more hours in the practice room and more accolades to populate my resume to demonstrate that I was “good enough” to have a career as a musician. Even during the height of the pandemic, my family can attest to my 7 a.m. wake-up calls to drag myself into our basement to practice for graduate school auditions and recording projects.
Over the last few years, the mix of navigating degree programs in clarinet performance while building my career as a multidisciplinary artist has looked something like this:
I wake up one day feeling ready to take on new projects, gigs, and commitments. I joyfully fill my planner with rehearsal dates and scribble down a mix of productivity systems that I picked up on YouTube: time-blocks to optimize tasks like learning music and submitting funding applications, lengthy to-do lists that take up many a notebook on my tiny desk, and setting timers to get all of it done. I run with this, almost high off the thrill of my own hyperproductivity, until I suddenly can’t anymore. I burn out, barely staying awake long enough to remember to get off the Tube to walk home. My muscles ache along with my mind as I go to bed wondering when I became so angry about the thing I love the most.
You’re not burnt out… You haven’t lived enough to earn that badge of honor yet.
During a recent visit to the high part of this cycle, I met with a potential collaborator to discuss a new project. As we caught up about our lives, I was beaming with pride as I shared about finishing my master’s degree and developing my new music collective, standard issue. But I also made the mistake of admitting that I felt burnt out. I had been struggling with high anxiety, lack of focus, and intense irritability at the thought of checking my inbox, and while I was thrilled to be doing so much, I was also tired. His response? “You’re not burnt out, you’re only in your twenties. You haven’t lived enough to earn that badge of honor yet.”
I remember leaving this meeting comatose, plopping myself down on the Piccadilly Line back to South Kensington and reminding myself that I needed to practice for an upcoming audition. I couldn’t waste time questioning this encounter – except I did just that. Was I an overdramatic and entitled twenty-something, as alluded to, or was I actually burnt out? As I wiped my tears with the back of my sleeve, I realized that I didn’t want to live in a society where burnout is seen as a rite of passage, to be earned only after one surpasses “early-career” status.
This is not my first experience with feeling alienated because of my age – the balance of developing a career while pursuing a degree means I am not “allowed” to complain because of my student-musician status. The classical music education system has taught me to keep my head down, coffee close by, and work tirelessly to “make it.”
As artists, we’re expected to say our names, where we’re based, and what our artistic goals are upon first meeting. We read out the laundry list of accomplishments for new faces and surprise old ones as we align ourselves with growing interests and allow our artistic practice to blossom. However, in this performative act, we often forget that we are also humans beyond the identities we create for ourselves through our work, regardless of age, degree, or experience.
Jenn Pelly’s recent article in Pitchfork on the mental health crisis within music effectively dismantles tropes about the so-called glamorous lives of touring musicians. I found myself resonating with the alarming statistics about the financial stresses and mental struggles of artists, and the author’s way of bringing attention to the chaotic schedules that artists maintain outside of their performances each night.
What isn’t addressed in the article, though, is that the institutional model of classical music education engineers us to fall in love with burnout from the very beginning. By stepping into a conservatory, we are encouraged to maintain packed-out schedules, work beyond the point of exhaustion, and have pristine social media accounts showcasing our highlight reel of repertoire in order to justify our choice in career. Even though I love what I do immensely, I have been conditioned to feel anxious when my days aren’t jam-packed as a result of what I was taught in school: that learning the notes on the page takes priority over my rest.
Much of the research on musicians and burnout focuses on college students. A small collection of articles and studies on the stress experienced by music students populates the website of the National Association for Music Education (NAfME), though the strategies outlined to combat the stress cycle are no different than we’ve previously heard: learn to “manage the burdens” of your schedule, set boundaries, and take time to rest. But generalized wellness advice isn’t going to improve the welfare of young artists if institutions keep trying to “simulate the real world” with 14-16 hour days that don’t allow us time to eat, sleep, or think.
Accepting the fact that classical music education has an issue with burnout is the first step in addressing the problems within its practices and treatments of students. While the upcoming generation has started to share practice “hacks” and time management tips online, this is not enough. One possible solution would be to look at how athletes condition their bodies, with periods of intense training coupled with ample rest and rejuvenation. Music education course schedules could be modified to include similar time for breaks and socializing, and acknowledge that a student’s time is valuable.
This restructuring might look like reevaluating what is truly essential for students to succeed beyond school, reducing the number of required classes or ensembles in a degree program, or admitting that it simply might take an extra semester or two to complete a music degree without sacrificing one’s personal health or wellbeing. Instead of handing students overly packed schedules, incorporating apprenticeship-style coursework within conservatories could better simulate life after school, giving musicians more autonomy to realistically rehearse and perform, and helping us build better boundaries and time management skills from an early age.
Since meeting with that potential collaborator a few weeks ago, a lot has happened. I felt myself burn to the ground and finally had enough. I flew home for Christmas to spend time with my family and eventually realized my career would still be there even if my instruments were in their cases and my phone across the room. I listened to the Things Musicians Don’t Talk About podcast on walks through my neighborhood, where I found myself jotting down ideas on my phone from time to time; a sound I stumbled upon and liked, or a sentence that popped into my head and made me smile.
I found myself excited to work again, but made a promise to myself to work intentionally and slowly, something my impatient self is resisting. A few months ago, I would have said there wasn’t time to stop, but now I am quicker to catch myself. I zoom out, I shift things in my schedule, and I slow down and come back to who I am; a human, who also happens to be an artist.
Sadly, with the way our institutions currently are, I know this “healed” version of myself will not last. Schedules will become busier, the balance of school, gigs, and travel will start to eat at me, and I will be tempted by the fear of not being “good enough” if I don’t continue in this way. But I am learning to trust my intuition in wanting to live healthily while developing a career in the arts.
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