“Sorry, I can’t… I have to practice.”
This is a phrase that I’m sure lots of you have heard or said many times… As musicians, performers, artists, or any other highly skilled professional, to achieve a high level of ability requires a massive amount of time to working on our craft, often at the expense of things like time with family and friends.
But at what point does life become out of balance?
When I take a step back to take a look at this for myself, I consider three things:
How much have I been sleeping? – Often times this alone is enough to throw things out of whack and add unnecessary stress and anxiety to situations.
How much have I been practicing? – Practicing too little can add stress, and if I’ve been practicing more than usual, I look at how efficient I’m being with the time spent practicing.
What am I doing outside of practice and work? – Physical activity and reading are very important for me to stay centered. Making time for things purely for personal enjoyment is also vital! For me that’s good coffee, good beer, and time with family, friends, and my cats.
This balance between your personal life and profession is a part of every career but for whatever reason, it seems to be particularly difficult to control for musicians. In my experience, it is especially vital to being a complete musician! Without life experience and the perspective it provides, it is much more difficult to communicate with our music and much easier to fall into the trap of simply playing the notes. Granted, most people do go through a phase where this balance is shifted in favor of practicing or gaining skill in your profession; for me it was while I was in college, especially during my undergraduate studies. Putting in hours and hours of practice early in the morning and late at night drastically shifted my focus into high gear and helped me develop a solid foundation to build upon.
But one can only last so long functioning with a one track mind like that… Over time I kept increasing the amount of time I was practicing and taking playing work at the expense of personal relationships and life experience, until I crashed and burned. This lack of a healthy relationship with my instrument definitely contributed to both personal and playing difficulties. And from talking with other musicians, I’m far from a unique case.
Yes, we do have to devote a massive amount of time and focus to improve our skill level on our instruments, but let’s do that while still seeing the bigger picture. We’re human beings who play music. It is not who we are as people. I love this quote from Doug Rosenthal, trombonist with the Washington National Opera and Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra in his blog post about winning two major Orchestra auditions in the same weekend, which you should definitely check out. It’s a seriously inspiring testament to being aware of this distinction between career success and personal happiness. http://www.tobyoft.com/featured-a-tale-of-two-auditions/
“My happiness as an individual is not dependent upon employment in any of these orchestras.”
This served as his mantra that helped him through the difficulties of the Orchestra audition process. Personally, I would expand that to “my happiness as an individual is not dependent upon any professional success as a musician.” Because at the end of the day, that’s usually why we put so much pressure on ourselves to practice at the expense of other areas of life, to win that audition or become a more successful player in any number of ways.
Obviously this is a deeply personal thought process and everyone is entitled to their own view, but I would rather be happy as a person without being dependent on professional success because that comes and goes. To depend on something so inconsistent to be happy is a tough road to travel. I would rather depend on things like strong personal relationships (which help massively with professional pursuits), good coffee, and my cats for my happiness. This thought process has lead to a much deeper appreciation for the incredible privilege of being a professional musician.
Once again, if you’ve taken the time to read this far, it truly means the world. My only goal with this blog to share my perspective as a musician who has recovered from a near career ending injury. As always, at the end of each post…music. One of my absolute favorite pieces recently has been “i carry your heart” by Connor J. Koppin. Since my musical beginnings were in a church choir I’ve always loved choral music, and when I heard this piece live by the Michigan All State Choir last month I was absolutely floored! Do yourself a favor and take five minutes to listen. I promise you won’t regret it.
MUSIC. It's good for ya.