The Caffeinated Flutist, Vol. 7: When You Just Want to Give Up by Mary Hales

Hey there, flute-trepreneurs!

I shuffled through a few different topic ideas for this next column, but none of them really felt fitting. I’m currently writing this on Halloween, which is one of my favorite holidays (I celebrate it the entire month of October). Around this time of year, the stressors continue to pile up. Imposter syndrome can kick in like we’ve talked about before; I had a couple of serious bouts over the month of October. The holidays are approaching, but somehow, there’s always more work to be done. Like me, you may find yourself looking around and saying, “I give up! I can’t do this anymore.”

As a graduate student in music, this has happened to me over the course of my career more times than I can count. This time of the school year is always difficult for me, but I found myself dealing with a much more severe case of burnout this year than ever this time last year. Life and personal problems were bleeding over into my playing, affecting my schoolwork, and my mental state. By the end of the month, I was sitting on my couch, crying, ready to call my mom and tell her I was giving up on school - all because I didn’t think I deserved to be a musician anymore.

But I haven’t given up.

As musicians, we experience burnout all the time. It’s a terrible thing to feel, but in many cases, it becomes unavoidable. We face constant pressure to make ourselves stand out, but also to fit into a niche, all while trying to find enough jobs to pay the bills and put money on the table. It can quickly become overwhelming and detrimental to our mental health.  Every great musician has, at some point or another, thought about giving up, but they never did. Many would-be fantastic musicians find themselves pursuing other careers due to this kind of severe burnout; the thought has even crossed my mind more than once this year. But I still keep my goals in front of me, and I know the life I want will be worth it.

So when you find yourself facing extreme burnout and wanting to quit, here are some things you can do:

  1. Step away. Sometimes, when your emotions are running high, the best way to start is to step away and give yourself some time to calm down. As hard as it can sometimes be, I try to never make any life-changing decisions when I know the strong emotions I'm dealing with will cloud my judgment. Which leads me to #2...
  2. Breathe. This is when I find yoga and meditation to be the most rewarding. Contemplative practices like these are always useful, but especially when you’re trying to keep your emotions in check and bring yourself back to earth. If you follow a particular religion, you can also talk to your spiritual advisor about different kinds of prayer; I’ve been working on centering prayer with my Episcopal deacon, and I always come away more grounded.
  3. Call someone you love. Or if you have zero time even a quick phone call (like me the last few weeks - sorry Mom!), it never hurts to text your support system and keep them up to date on how you’re feeling and what you need. For me, at this point in the semester, I always need to see my family. The push from August to November is hard, but even from a distance, I have the best support system ever.
  4. Write down what you’re feeling.  Sometimes, you just need a good old fashioned brain dump. Get a piece of paper, your favorite writing utensil, and just write, stream-of-consciousness, whatever words or feelings or emotions you need to process. It may not look or feel very coherent, but if you can get it out on paper, it can be easier to sort through your emotions.
  5. Listen to a recording you love.  If you remember the piece that got you into music in the first place, go back and listen to it again. Some favorites of mine to go back to are the choral recordings my dad and I listened to together when he would take me to school in the mornings, or the Mahler recordings my parents bought for me during my undergrad. Remembering why you got into this industry in the first place can be a real wellspring of comfort and inspiration when you need it.
  6. When you’re feeling better, go back.  Time away from the flute isn’t always a bad thing; during burnout spells, it can be just what the doctor ordered. You won’t get any good or productive practicing done if all you can focus on is how upset you are that you keep missing notes or rhythms. Give yourself time to recover, figure out what you need, then pick up the flute again.

All of the above can really be boiled down to this - when you feel burnt out and upset with yourself, the greatest act of self-care is to recognize what you need to do for you, and then follow through with it.

Until next time!

Flutist Mary Hales is a native of Conway, Arkansas, currently studying under Alice K. Dade at the University of Missouri School of Music for her Masters in Flute Performance. Follow more of her writing at maryhalesflute.wordpress.com; find her on social media with the handle @maryhalesflute.

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