Having now spent over twenty uninterrupted years in university music departments as a student or faculty member, I have observed and have come to expect certain rhythms of life which are more or less uniform at all of the institutions with which I have been a part. In about the fourth or fifth week of every semester both students and faculty begin “dropping like flies” due to illness, as pathogens from students’ various places of origin mix, adapt, and grow in the dormitories, apartment complexes, and classroom buildings before overwhelming the immune systems of all but the hardiest among us. The latter weeks of November and April are essentially sleepless for students and nearly so for faculty, as exams, term papers, and major performances come upon us simultaneously. In the midst of preparing for these responsibilities, many music students begin to experience a sense of burnout, wondering if all of this effort to become a musician (whether in education, performance, or some other specialty) is really worth it. Although students usually experience this questioning as a crisis, the question is reasonable and worth asking, regardless of the answer at which one ultimately arrives.
This “what am I doing here?” crisis is perhaps most acute for freshmen, who are for the first time having something that had heretofore been a hobby—an “extracurricular activity”—become instead a “job.” Suddenly music is about more than the simple emotional highs of high school ensembles, and practicing is a daily necessity whether one feels like it or not. Sophomores and juniors have moved beyond the shock of being a first-year music student, but once music is not always superficially “fun” they wonder if they really want to enter the profession after all. Seniors (and “super-seniors”) have usually moved beyond these crises, now wrestling with how to view, present, and comport oneself as a professional adult. Graduate students are freaking out about everything, but are too tired to acknowledge it even to themselves. Faculty members aren’t immune to burnout, either, but have learned from experience to accept as normal that their love of the musical life will ebb and flow. This is, after all, to be expected with any career choice.
I’d like to share a few pieces of advice to music students who are wrestling with the “what am I doing here?” question.
1. Know that occasionally questioning your choice of music as a career is normal, acceptable, and “okay.” Many high school performing ensembles are built upon an ethos that emphasizes “hype” before big performances, and this is what often leads students to choose to pursue careers in music. Once they reach the university, they find that publications and articles aimed at future music educators in particular are full of “rah, rah” that focuses on how meaningful it is to share a love of music with children. To be sure, getting excited about a big performance is fun, and sharing music with children is meaningful, but every single day is not going to be pregnant with existential significance. Some days you are going to be struggling through your third sleepless night studying for a music theory test, or writing drill, or, later, attending seemingly endless parent meetings. It is okay to acknowledge to yourself that after the “flash-bang” passes the musical life involves a lot of lonely drudgery, and it isn’t always exciting or fun. But please know that these feelings of questioning or burnout are normal, despite some musicians’ habit of making those who choose or even consider another path feel like traitors of some kind. Every sane person questions their choice of profession at times, especially one that is as challenging, poorly-compensated, and misunderstood as the music business.
2. Make sure you find yourself another hobby, or at least a part of your life that is not wholly defined by music. The transition of music from “extracurricular” to “job” can be especially hard for music students who have not cultivated other hobbies or interests. While success in a university music curriculum necessarily demands that the majority of one’s time be devoted to musical pursuits (and success as a music educator or performer is little different), if you never cultivate other interests you will find burnout to be a much more likely outcome. Regular readers here know that I enjoy reading, writing, and sometimes teaching on topics related to the Bible and theology. This is an interest that I began to cultivate in earnest as an undergraduate music student, and which has only deepened over the intervening years. While my writings on theological and devotional topics here do not receive nearly the traffic that my music-related writings do, occasionally focusing my thoughts on something else is refreshing and enjoyable for me. Related to this is the rarity with which I participate in any prominent manner in the music ministry of my church (though I do help out in some “behind-the-scenes” capacities)—I like having a part of my life which is not dominated and defined by my work as a musician. (I have also written about this here in the past.) As retired Boston Symphony Orchestra bass trombonist Douglas Yeo has said, “Trombone is something I do, it’s not who I am.” (Mr. Yeo, by the way, is also a committed Christian, and his website and blog are well worth checking out.)
3. Don’t be jaded. There’s an old joke that goes as follows: “How do you get a musician to complain? Give him a job!” In some of my early freelancing experiences I was so turned off by the older musicians’ negative attitudes that I began to reevaluate my career choice all over again. To be sure, sometimes the music isn’t very good, or the strings are out of tune, or the conductor is incompetent, or whatever, but instead of trying to score brownie points with other musicians by talking about how “everything sucks,” focus instead on what a blessing it is to participate in the creation of beautiful sounds for yourself and others to enjoy. As a low brass player, I often find myself counting rests in the back of the orchestra. This is a great opportunity to hear and relish in some of the most sublime sounds in existence, if only I will allow it to be so.
4. Serve God and others. I am fond of saying that “music is a service profession.” Our place as professional musicians and/or educators is to be other-centered rather than self-centered. If I am a performer, then even in the lonely hours in the practice room I am to glorify God by my diligent efforts and by cultivating beauty, so that I can then turn around and give performances that are uplifting to others. If I am a composer, it is much the same, except that I am creating the music that others will perform to the same end. If I am an educator, I am training my students to do the same. In none of these scenarios is my first priority “what I get out of it.” The creation of beauty is a good in itself by which God is glorified (Philippians 4:8), as are diligence in one’s work (Colossians 3:23) and the upbuilding of others (cf. Ephesians 4:29). Being other-focused is one great way to deal with questioning and/or burnout when they occur, as the joy of service endures long after the shallow motivation of “because it’s fun” passes.
5. Remember why you do this. Dear confused, questioning, and burned-out music student, we’ve all been where you are, and it is okay that you are there. While your exhaustion can make it hard to think in this way, remember why you do this. Are the “warm-fuzzies” from high school band good? Sure they are, but they are infrequent and fleeting. Is there a place for idealism about inspiring students like the music educators magazines talk about? Yes, but idealism is a tough sell when you’re sleeping four hours a night. Focus on deeper things, too. Remember what a joy and blessing it is to create beautiful music, and to teach others to do the same. Whatever part of the profession you enter, direct your efforts to the service of others and, if you share my Christian faith, to the glory of God. Avoid those whose jaded attitude toward the profession is a constant turnoff, and make sure you can step away into some other hobby or pursuit from time to time. Not only will the time doing “not-music” be refreshing for you, but it will most likely also inform and enrich your music making.
In the end, I guess I really am encouraging you to remember that “music is fun,” but the fun I am encouraging is not of the fleeting kind that lasts for a few hours after a great performance and then subsides. Rather, it is one that is deep, rich, grounded, mature, able to endure the vicissitudes of life, attitude, and work, and ultimately enriching to yourself, your students, and your audiences. Is that a pursuit worth making your life’s work? I think so!