There’s been an interesting transformation over the last decade or so between what is now known as “Hustle Culture” (complete with those horrid rose gold embossed “Boss Babe” mugs—cringe) and today’s current “Self-Care or Bust” mentality.
Don’t get me wrong–we need to take care of ourselves, and thank god the pendulum swung away from the self-inflicted punishment of the 2010s, but I wonder if the pendulum has veered too far in the other direction.
I wrote about how I think the “Self-Care” movement is costing us in more ways than money a while ago, but today I want to view this struggle for balance through the lens of being an artist–and particularly a classical musician, for which a certain amount of discipline is (sorry!) needed in order to play at a high level.
There has been an influx of musician + wellness accounts over on social media lately–talking about everything from mental health to physical health. Exercise for musicians, Nutrition for musicians, and I am here for all of it! Because you WILL perform better at the audition if you have fueled your body the right way, you’re feeling great physically, and have built the mental stamina to push through the stress of these situations.
But I’m also seeing and hearing from people who are feeling torn between the artistic work they know they need to do, and the self-care they are being told to perform on an alarmingly constant basis. Colleagues are seeing it with their students–canceling lessons last minute because they didn’t get enough sleep the night before and they’re tired, and–wait, this one killed me–my friend had a student ask to reschedule a COLLEGE LESSON 10 minutes before it was supposed to start because they had had a late brunch and needed more time to digest “because gut health = brain health” and they didn’t feel their brain would be able to focus for at least another couple of hours. OMG.
On the one hand, students know they need to get their concerto learned for their jury/audition/competition/performance, and on the other, they’re being told they *shouldn’t* practice more than a couple of hours a day, and that they’ll get more accomplished if they sleep more (and, apparently, properly digest their eggs benedict.)
We need to get familiar with what is an excuse, and what is a problem. The problems need to be addressed as soon as possible, and the rest are just excuses. Take a moment and think about your current working/practicing environment:
In other words, take the time to make your workspace as optimal as possible so that you are comfortable, and set up to work well and undisturbed.
Once that is in place…
Look, we ALL have “days”. It’s part of being human. We are not all functioning at our best 365 days a week. I have a client, in fact, who, due to some extenuating circumstances has more “bad” days than most, and she worried they were holding her back.
Together, we came up with a list of tasks she could do even when she was feeling crappy. Some of them were longer, but super easy (like organizing a music cabinet) and some of them were shorter, but more intense (like working on a tough passage, but only for 10 minutes)
Make a deal with yourself that on any given day (aside from the days you have purposely set aside as non-working days) you will make SOME progress on your work. Promise yourself that every day, something about it will be better.
Keep a simple log (and keep it near you) to track how much you’re actually working. We musicians tend to have a number in mind (I practice 3-4 hours a day!) but if we tracked it, we’d see that one day we stopped early, the next day we started late, the third day we spent the middle hour scrolling TikTok videos, and the 4th day we bailed completely.
Personally, I am so glad to see that things in the arts industry are changing. The increased mental health support we are seeing across the board has been long overdue and will save many careers, and more importantly, many lives. I’m glad that the overly-romanticized version of the starving artist who needs nothing but their art, and does nothing but practice their craft 24/7 has been stuffed in the trash and set on fire.
But being an artist DOES require us to show up, do the work, and be disciplined about it (and yes–that means different things for different people.) The more we as a collective can learn to combine the two. To take care of ourselves in such a way that we CAN show up and do the work, and not simply use the need for care as an excuse not to do it.
I believe that the two are NOT mutually exclusive. That balance point is there, we just need to get honest with ourselves, put some tools, support, and accountability in place, and figure it out.
Imagine what kinds of glorious art could happen then!
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Music is the one incorporeal entrance into the higher world of knowledge which comprehends mankind but which mankind cannot comprehend.
Ludwig van Beethoven