A Return to Love

Bronnie Ware, an Australian Nurse, asked her dying patients about their biggest regrets.  Coming in at Number One was “I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”

It’s a big problem in the creative arts.  I sense that most burnout starts with a disconnection,  a feeling that what we used to love has been overwhelmed by tasks and expectations.

It starts early, when we want to learn a song and we’re given scales and rhythm exercises instead.
It continues as we compare our abilities to other musicians.
It hits fever pitch when we try to please ego-driven private teachers.

If we’re not careful, we can soon forget why we got involved in music in the first place.

So how can we reconnect with our core love for music? How can we can stay true to ourselves, and honor our own motivations?  The answer is to connect and reflect.

At its root, music is emotional connection.  If we stay focused on that key idea, it can help us identify which tasks are essential so we can dispense with the cruft, and it can transform repetitive exercises into purpose-driven acts of generosity.

It is connection with ourselves: as we express ourselves creatively, struggle productively, discover our unique voice, and learn to manage ourselves.  

And it is connection with others: as we perform “in concert”, put our unique voice into the world, and interact with an audience.  As much as the culture loves to lionize and demonize big egos, music is, at its heart, a generous act of community.

If you don’t connect, not only will your performance suffer, but you’ll miss the point and the joy of music.

-Remember your early years:  What excited and inspired you?  How does that compare to now?  Are there common threads?

-Mentors and heroes: Did you have a music teacher who influenced you?  What was it about that person and their love for music that made you want to start or continue in music?  Was there a performer you wanted to emulate?  What was it about them that inspired you?

-Favorite moments:  What moments kept you involved in music?  Who was there with you? What feelings did you experience?

-Pause before you begin—what do you want to accomplish?  More importantly, why?  What feelings do you want to create, in yourself and in your audience?

-Listen: when’s the last time you listened to a piece of music for the pure pleasure of it?  Really listened without distraction?

-Notice the negativity: The pressure of teachers, audiences, our own comparison to others, perfection, self-doubt, and self-criticism are all common pressures that take us off-course.  When you notice them arise, don’t beat yourself up.  Instead, simply bring yourself back to your larger purpose of emotional connection.  This is one of the uses of a good support team.

-Pay attention to discomfort: Frustration, boredom, anger, dejection and pain are information.  What are they telling you?  The formula for Flow says that the challenges should be right at the edge of your skills.  If you feel these strong emotions, you may be too far out of the Flow Zone. Adjust the challenge until you can enjoy yourself again.

-Practice good self-talk: There seems to be a belief among many musicians that improvement requires harsh self-criticism.  This isn’t only false, it actually impedes your progress, leads to burnout, and can cause horrible performance anxiety. Stay aware of your self-talk, and begin to replace any judgments with kinder, fact-based language.  We’ll cover this in more depth in an upcoming article.

And a couple ideas that combine both

-Make time for fun—in The Practice Habit daily logs there is a space to list something you’ll play just for fun.  It’s a daily reminder that at the center of your music practice is a person—not a musical commodity, but an actual human being—who needs to be nurtured and valued.  Before you can create something for someone else, you must be able to create something for yourself.

-Enjoy your progress: This one’s a little different than playing for fun.  After you’ve done the hard work of improving and honing a passage, play it through with the intention of simply enjoying the fruits of your labor.  One of the keys to building a rock-solid habit is to reward yourself.  Don’t deny yourself the reward of hard work by speeding on to the next thing—relish your work.

Have you ever faced burnout?  How did you reconnect with your love for music?  Share with us in the comments.


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