The Musician’s Guide to Overcoming Burnout and Amotivation

Being a musician is pretty awesome most of the time. You get to work with talented colleagues, play amazing repertoire, and share your art with audiences.

But then there are those times when being a musician is stressful, invalidating, and downright lonely. Musicians can experience crippling anxiety, self-doubt, and constant pressure from listeners. But usually, this pressure comes from within.

I’ve gotten quite a few private messages on social media the last few weeks from people who are lacking motivation and feeling burnt out:

“The fire is gone.”

“I’m struggling to find the same drive I had when I first started getting serious about music.”


If this sounds all too familiar, here’s my advice to regain motivation using the 3 Rs:

Regroup

  • Learn the ebb and flow of burnout. Summertime is great for enjoying barbecues with your family and friends, day trips to the beach, sleeping until noon, ordering iced drinks at Starbucks…and burnout. Music students face a jam-packed schedule of concerts, lessons, recitals, exams, and juries, and after a stressful semester is finally over, burnout is nearly inevitable. Professionals aren’t immune to this seasonal phenomenon either – since many orchestras are not year-round, professionals are also prone to bouts of summer burnout. Study the ups and downs of your motivation to see if there is anything you can do to predict and prevent unnecessary burnout.
  • Take a break (and don’t let anybody break-shame you). I don’t understand why some musicians act like the word “break” is synonymous with “slacker and absolute failure as a musician.” Your body needs time to recover physically and mentally, so don’t let anyone break-shame you. As for how long of a break you should take, that’s up to you. Depending on how I feel, I’ll take a few days (or heck, even a few weeks!) off to recallibrate. I use this time to catch up with my to-do lists, read a book or five, travel, or just relax until I feel like I’m able to return to the clarinet energized and motivated.

Re-evaluate

  • Set definitive goals. For me, I experience amotivation when I have no concrete goals or performances scheduled. I am always most passionate when I have upcoming engagements, and it’s easy for me to lose excitement when I don’t have clear goals for myself. When I start feeling more apathetic than Snorlax, I know it’s time to set some new goals. Examples: Learn the Mozart Concerto for the state competition. Sign up for an audition with a regional ensemble. Take a lesson with a new teacher. Learn all your scales. Play through all 416 Kroepsch Studies. Make the goals as specific as possible – “work on articulation” or “improve technique” are great starts, but go a step further and map out just how you plan to achieve these goals.
  • Make a bucket list of repertoire and/or subjects to learn. Along the same lines as setting goals for yourself, make a bucket list of pieces that you would like to perform. Long-time readers know that I love lists, so it’s no surprise that I keep a bucket list of pieces that I hope to one day perform, along with another list of cool pieces which I should keep in mind, but aren’t necessarily bucket list material. I also keep a list of music subjects I’d like to learn more about, such as jazz, Klezmer, violin virtuosos, etc. When I’m feeling blah I’ll look through my lists and see what inspires me.
  • Hold yourself accountable. It’s easy to feel unmotivated when you don’t have daily or weekly rehearsals, so make sure that you still hold yourself accountable to maintain a consistent practice routine. Set specific practice goals – you don’t have to practice every single day, but try to aim for consistent practice. My advice: Practice first thing in the morning so it’s not hanging over your head for the rest of the day. (My clarinet-phobic cat now starts whining when I turn on the Keurig, because she knows I’m about to start practicing once I have my morning coffee.)

Re-energize

  • Surround yourself with inspiring and passionate people. They don’t have to be musicians (although that’s certainly a plus, because we all know that musicians are awesome!). It’s easier to regain your momentum when you’re around motivated people. Use their positive momentum to buoy yourself back to motivation.
  • Keep a music gratitude journal and/or inspirational quotes book. Use your gratitude journal to write down your favorite musical memories or anything that music has made you thankful for. When I’m feeling unmotivated, I love to look back at pictures from all the places music has taken me. I remember all of the amazing friends and people I have met because of music, and I remind myself how different my life would be if it wasn’t for music. I also keep a quote book where I write down quotes and words of encouragement from teachers, mentors, friends, colleagues, and anyone else I deem quote-worthy (aka Leonard Bernstein).
  • Listen to music that you love. Listen to your favorite pieces, performers, and composers, whether classical or not. Listen to what makes you happy, and don’t apologize for your musical tastes. (I was once teased for liking Tchaikovsky because “he’s so basic.” Can you imagine calling one of the greatest Russian composers to have ever lived BASIC? The nerve!)
  • Be a musical detective/explorer. Peruse the web to discover new pieces. Fall down a YouTube rabbit hole of obscure clarinet repertoire. Browse forums to ignite your interests. Read books about the history of your instrument. Most importantly, ask questions and maintain curiosity. The kiss of death for creativity is complacency.
  • Be patient with yourself. It’s easy to become frustrated with yourself if you’re experiencing burnout. Don’t be too hard on yourself as you navigate your way back on track. Avoid comparing yourself to others – everyone operates at different speeds, so follow your own timeline.
  • Fake it until you make it. I’m not going to lie – there are some days when I would rather complete a triathalon than have to practice. Hopefully the good days outweigh the bad, but on the bad days, just power through and do the best you can. I can’t think of a single occupation with a 100% happiness rate every single day – musicians are no exception.
  • Don’t be afraid to reach out for help. If you are still feeling burnt out and unmotivated after a few weeks, reach out to your friends and family for help and consider talking to a therapist or trusted confidante. Here’s my advice on mental health for musicians.

If you’ve experienced amotivation or burnout, share your strategies for getting back on tracks in the comments below!

As always, good luck and happy practicing!

2 thoughts on “The Musician’s Guide to Overcoming Burnout and Amotivation

  1. My experience is not music related, but I think it still applies: when you really don’t want to practice, just get your instrument out.

    Play something. ANYTHING.

    Whether it is that piece that you have played a hundred times but still love, maybe it is some etude, or just doodling around. Do something. Play something. Even for 10 minutes.

    You have still played, and the next day you do the same. It may be easier, it may be harder. But it won’t be worse than knowing that you have skipped the last X practice sessions.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I completely agree – sometimes the hardest part of practicing is just opening the case and doing it!

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