The Caffeinated Flutist, Vol. 13: An Epileptic’s Take on “The Hustle”

By Mary Hales

Hey there, flute-trepreneurs!

So I haven’t talked specifically about my epilepsy very much in this outlet, partly because it doesn’t stop me from making music and doing what I love. However, as I get ready to start a new year of school before I gear up for the “Real World,” I wanted to have a conversation about something that I spend a lot of time thinking about when I consider my future career.

Musicians, especially those of us who freelance, like to talk a lot about “the hustle” - basically, doing all the things you can to get your name out there, get jobs, get paid, and move on up in the world. The hustle takes on a variety of forms, from private teaching to studio work to almost anything else you can think of. Some people will even work around the clock to get the gigs they want and that pay.

But what if you have a condition that requires you to safeguard your sleep like I do?

For those of you who may not know exactly where I’m coming from, let me take just a minute to talk about epilepsy, how it works, and my experiences with it. The dictionary defines epilepsy as “a neurological disorder marked by sudden recurrent episodes of sensory disturbance, loss of consciousness, or convulsions, associated with abnormal electrical activity in the brain.” According to the Epilepsy Foundation of America, “[a]n epileptic seizure is a transient occurrence of signs and/or symptoms due to abnormal excessive or synchronous neuronal activity in the brain.” The easiest way to put it is this - “a seizure is an event and epilepsy is the disease involving recurrent unprovoked seizures.”

My first seizure took place in the early morning hours of September 25, 2014. I received some treatment in the ER and spent about a year on medication. Gradually, my doctor and I reduced the dosage, until I was no longer taking it. 14 months after the first seizure, I had two more within four hours and wound up spending most of the day in the hospital. I have stayed on medication ever since, and I have stayed seizure free.

However, I did walk out of the hospital that day with the lifetime diagnosis of epilepsy at age 20. Even with the help of my medication, I still spend a lot of time looking over my shoulder, especially when the semester gets hard. One of the things my neurologist has told me he can’t stress enough is the importance of safeguarding my sleep. I’ve repeated the words he used to my friends more times than I can count - “A tired brain is an irritable brain, and an irritable brain is an epileptogenic brain.” Basically, in order to stay less prone to seizures, I have to make sure I’m getting plenty of sleep at night, which is incredibly difficult to manage while working on a stressful, work-heavy degree in an equally stressful, work-heavy environment. My daytime hours are pretty strictly regimented in order for me to get my work done so I can take my medicine and get to bed at a reasonable time every night. If I wait too long to take my medication, I start to develop a very particular headache behind my eyes - I think of it as my brain’ss way of telling me “It’s time to be done for the day, Mary.”

So if I want to be a professional in this industry going forward after graduate school, how much can I participate in “the hustle” while still being mindful of my condition? Obviously, there will be gigs I’ll have to say no to, no matter how much I want to take them - if the hours aren’t workable, I can’t put my health in jeopardy. But, this doesn’t mean there aren’t some other steps I can take:

  1. Find ways to balance your health and your work. As I just said, I can’t put my health in jeopardy for the sake of a gig, but if a good opportunity arises in your life that might push your hours, you can find a way to make it work. (I’ll bet I could too!) This is where you have to gauge the type of gig it is - can this put you in touch with other folks who can help you find daytime gigs in the future? If so, it might be a good idea to take the gig.

  2. Find other niches to fit into. I’ve talked on my blog before about having more than one specialty and working them into your brand. If you can make your niche (or niches) work into a daytime hustle, you can really put yourself out there during the daylight hours and find ways to make money. Like I said above, you can make good connections with the occasional late night gig, and translate that connection into a hustle that works for you during the daylight hours.

  3. Use your pre-existing connections to your advantage. If you’re like me and will be leaving school in a year or two to start your career full-time, it’s time to take advantage of the connections you made during school, in all of your specialties. If you’re moving to a new place, talk to someone who might be from around there, or who currently works there, and see what opportunities you might have, how you could make a name for yourself, and the not-so-obvious mistakes you’d need to avoid. This is always a process to start sooner rather than later - work on trying to line something up for yourself before graduation so that you can transition smoothly out of school life into full-time working life.

That's all for now, folks! 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; find her on social media with the handle @maryhalesflute.

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