Mindfulness in Music

This is a subject which I've been longing to write about for the longest time. It's a quite personal one for me, but I think it will certainly resonate with many other musicians and teachers.

Mental health, not least amongst industries which require a great deal of emotional input and stress, is a topic which is thankfully increasingly being pushed into public view, but it still needs talking about more! So this is aimed perhaps at up and coming young musicians - some warning signs to watch out for and some advice along the way.


As an adult in my mid-20s, I sit at a strange crossroads; from generations before who may never have spoken openly about the subject, to generations new who are much more comfortable on the topic than many of my generation would have been.

Unbeknownst to me, for many years of my study through college and university I developed a fairly deep rooted anxiety disorder which I only really started to come to terms with once it had reached such a breaking point that work became difficult to manage. I'd never really heard much about this whole topic, so when I was having dizzy spells whilst conducting or an unusual amount of nerves before a gig, I just passed it off as being anaemic or overtired (probably not untrue at the time either, but that's not the point!). I'm happy to say after some years of work I've managed to achieve a much calmer and happier, less anxious place. But how did I get to that point without realised? Well, here's some examples, and some tips.

1. Work-life balance


(you'd never guess I love cats, would you?)

This is a big one. For the first 5 odd years of my working life, I was working' 7 days a week, often getting up at 5am to commute in for work from 7:30/8am, and usually getting back about 11pm or later if rehearsals overran. I'd eat parked on the road for the most part, which usually wasn't the healthiest petrol station diet either. And for many, this isn't such an unfamiliar story. As a self-employed musician starting out, you very much feel that you must take all the work you can get - it's not a competitive field for nothing. And from a certain point of view, this is very true. If you aren't taking on enough work to a) network and gather more contacts for work, and b) actually cover your basic living costs, then it makes the prospect of making a living as a musician very unsustainable. As you get more networked and a somewhat regular income, this dynamic has more potential for shift.

However, we often get so wrapped up in this way of life, saying yes to everything, that we seem to forget how to say no when the opportunity arises. Having an actual day or two to rest makes an incredible difference. It's all well and good taking on all this work, but how on earth are you supposed to function working nearly 100 hours a week, with barely 5 hours sleep every night?

In addition to this, you have to set boundaries, both for yourself, and for those who you work with/for. Don't keep answering e-mails and texts until midnight - turn that phone off! Replying to people at midnight sets the expectation that you will be contactable at that time. Having separate devices for work/personal life is a simple fix for this.

2. Giving yourself enough time


This follows on from the issues with commuting and booking multiple engagements at distance and back to back. Sometimes, we have to accept that, yes, maybe driving across a city at rush hour and expecting to get to the opposite site in under 20 minutes is impossible. There's no point in booking lots of rehearsals back to back in the hope that your car might go full Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and sprout wings.

Sometimes you need to sit yourself down and admit to yourself, and to others that perhaps getting to all these engagements just isn't feasible, or good for your wellbeing (more on that later!). People are more understanding than you think.

3. Be honest with yourself and others


As a musician that has 3 jobs, balancing your time and expectations is a really important thing to get right from the outset. Choose what and where your priorities lie, and stick to them. If you're a producer, but you also want to run seminars on the side, if your seminars start taking up more time than music producing, that needs to be a notice to take a step back and reassess the situation.

Also if you're in a collaborative project (as most musicians tend to be), and you're doing more of the workload than is feasible, nip that straight in the bud! If you let it slide once, it'll keep sliding until the problem is so far down the road that confronting it head on gets much more difficult and out of reach. Set clear expectations of what your role is, how much time you will be allocating to it, and how that stacks up against the rest of the team. This leads me onto...

4. Contracts and Safeguarding your Income


Part of the stress of being a self-employed musician is the insecurity of not necessarily having regular income if you are purely gigging. Having written agreements between yourself and the hiring party is crucial for both parties' peace of mind. The Musician's Union and the ISM have example contracts which can be adapted to serve your needs. This not only sets the expectations from the outset, but gives you a solid backing should a discrepancy over details or payment arise, especially if it goes down a legal route.

Be organised and proactive with your invoicing - stay ahead of the gigs and make sure payment is received before or on the day of the job - you don't want to be spending the next month post gig chasing up dozens of payments. That admin and contact time chasing people takes time away from the rest of your business.

5. Be kind to yourself


I heard a fantastic quote recently whilst practicing my mindfulness:

Your mind is your instrument. Learn how to play it well.

As musicians we probably spend a goodly amount of time servicing and maintaining our instruments, but we much more rarely do this with ourselves and our minds. Even taking 5 minutes to just do some gentle breathing exercises is an act of self-care. When we practice sometimes the inner critic comes out above all else ("this was too slow" "bad dynamics" "not enough X/Y/Z") and we don't spend enough time balancing this with our positive reflections ("I enjoyed the character of this section" "I'm proud that I got this section up to Xbpm"). This goes for non-musical things too - if you make a mistake or forget something, be mindful of the thoughts that come straight into your head! Be aware of your automatic thoughts and the tone/language that our mind takes. We would never talk to a colleague like that, and for good reason!

I'm no guru when it comes to achieving that personal balance and contentment, but if you can take even a few moments to tell yourself something simple and inescapably true: "you are enough, and you are doing the best you can.", we can establish a healthy mindset to base our day/week/year from. It's not easy, and requires constant reminders, but give it a try and see if it makes a difference for you!


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