Believe it or not (I’m not sure I can), I just finished my twentieth year of teaching at the university level. I started as a terrified twenty-two-year-old teaching assistant with nine students and no experience, spent time in both the part-time and full-time adjunct ranks, won two tenure-track jobs…and got tenure at both of them. (I hope never to go through that process again!) While some of my friends and former classmates who became public school teachers are deciding when to retire in the next 5-10 years, college and university retirement looks quite a bit different in that most of us have a 401(k)-type plan rather than a defined benefit plan through the state. Long story short, I have way more than 5-10 years left, God willing, so I had better make sure I enjoy it!
And yet, there have been times when I did not enjoy being a musician all that much. I earned my three music degrees in only eight years. Two of those years I was teaching half-time, and two of them I was teaching full-time, either in a single full-time position or in a combination of part-time positions. I was rather burned out when I finished my doctoral degree, and while I have no regrets about the path my life and career took, it did take a while after finishing school for me to learn to really love music again. And even in the years since then, my love of what I do has ebbed and flowed, usually due to external circumstances such as health concerns (I had a long struggle with back and neck pain that I have sometimes discussed here), budgetary concerns, frustrations with administration, and the like. Interestingly, I made it through the COVID-19 event with my love of music intact, even though the restrictions on teaching were sometimes frustrating.
I have been teaching undergraduate music students long enough now to expect most of them to experience a serious professional crisis, usually in the junior year. At that point, they start to struggle under the heavy workload, experience a greater or lesser degree of burnout, and wonder for the first time if careers as music educators (most of them are education majors) are right for them. While I tailor my advice to each individual student, my counsel to them through these struggles typically follows the following outline:
1. It is okay to wonder whether a music career is “for you.” As a profession, music education has a way of cheerleading for itself (through professional associations, journals, etc.) that extols the meaningfulness of music instruction as part of the educational experience and the importance of having quality and engaged educators. A perhaps unintentional side effect of this is that those who doubt whether they want to enter (or remain in) the profession can feel demonized for reconsidering. This same tendency is present, but more muted, in music performance and other areas. Students should be reassured that these thoughts are normal, advised that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” as Socrates (c. 470-399 B.C.) said, and encouraged to seriously work through their doubts to determine if they really need a change of major/career, or if they are simply momentarily overwhelmed by the workload. That brings me to my second point.
2. Get a non-musical hobby. Despite the insistence of music educators that music should be considered an academic, or at least “co-curricular” subject, the reality is that in grade school most students, parents, and schools consider music to be an extracurricular activity. In other words, it is a hobby, something done at least in part as a release from one’s “real work.” This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it can become a bad thing when students enter the university studying to be musicians or music educators…and they have cultivated no real hobbies other than music. The difficulty comes when the thing that one formerly engaged in as an escape from work has become one’s work, and there is nothing else to which that person can escape. The answer is to let music be the job and find another hobby. I began my habit of reading and studying theology as an undergraduate student and have only broadened my reading habits in the over twenty years since. I either know or know of top-level musicians who have all kinds of non-musical hobbies, including studying trains, racing cars, and making craft beers. While non-musicians often come to our concerts or listen to our recordings in order to “unwind,” good mental health demands that we musicians find something else for the same purpose.
3. Expect your love of music to ebb and flow, and accept that it will do so. I mentioned this already with regard to my own experience. It is not possible for a person to be supremely excited about anything all the time. As I am writing, the top Mississippi high school band students are in the middle of the three-week-long Mississippi Lions All-State Band event, which includes rehearsals, training, multiple concerts, parades, and a trip to perform at some exotic location. A student in the band just wrote me a very nice email thanking me for my help in his preparation and really riding the emotional high of playing great music with great musicians. And that is great, but it won’t last. Emotional highs never do. Some days I am so pleased that I get to make music for a living that I can’t wait to practice and perform. Some days I have to make myself put the trombone to my face. Most days are somewhere in the middle, though even on the “middling” days I am very thankful to be playing and teaching music, just not on the “super emotional high” kind of level. It is just fine to normally have only this kind of “low-level thankfulness,” as my pastor calls it, and students should be told that.
4. Make sure it stays fun. When music is your job, I really do think that a balanced life and good mental health demand taking up one or more other hobbies. Even so, it is still possible to experience burnout if one plays music only for training or performance. Finding some music to play just for fun also helps one to maintain joy in the whole musical enterprise. One way that my wife (also a music educator) and I have found to do this is by making home recordings of tunes that we enjoy. We started really doing this in earnest during the COVID-19-related lockdowns (see an earlier post about this here), but have occasionally made other videos since then, and hope to continue doing so. Here are a few samples.
If you’re a music student, teacher, or other musician rethinking your career choices, know that it’s okay to wonder about this. If you are burned out, get yourself another hobby, and don’t “freak out” when your love of all things music goes up and down from time to time. And whether you stay in the music business or find some other job, make sure you find some fun music to play and sing, both for yourself and to share with others. Have fun!