A letter landed in my inbox last week…
Hi Dr. Quiñones,
I am currently a graduate student in flute performance. I have always had a drive & joy about choosing this career path. It’s always felt relatively easy to connect with why I want to be a musician or an educator. Lately, though, I’ve felt so. apathetic. I don’t want to practice or go to class. I don’t even want to teach. I don’t see the point in music, and when I listen to the news, I feel selfish for spending hours alone making music when others are suffering.
I’ve been considering a change of careers. I have investigated becoming a therapist, a physical therapist, a performance psychologist… But this apathy has invaded my life, my relationship with my fiancée, and even the way I spend my free time. I find myself not wanting to even binge Netflix (unthinkable!!!!).
I googled “musicians burnout” today, and your article is the reason I’m trying not to cry in the middle of the music building. I can’t imagine what it feels like to regain that passion right now, but thank you for helping me to see that it doesn’t have to be the end.
If you don’t mind sharing, what kept you from leaving music altogether? You talked in depth about the battle you had to fight to find your musical joy again – But why did you decide to fight it? Why didn’t you leave?
I appreciate you and I am grateful for you today. Thank you.
First off, thank you for writing and sharing– and by the way, no need to apologise. There is a reason that piece is one the most visited on my site —you aren’t the only one battling this, trust me.
Your letter struck a chord as I could’ve written a similar letter 10 years back. Allow me share a bit more…
Shortly after finishing my Master’s Degree, I was disillusioned with my flute career set-up, too. Numerous times I would cry on my yoga mat after a session because I was so dang unhappy. I would cry while walking to my flute teaching at various schools. I would cry in the bath tub. I would cry on the way back from orchestra rehearsals.
Yet on paper it should have looked ideal:
I was able to pay my bills with my teaching, had my own flat in a lovely UK city, was getting masterclass and recital gigs at various universities, and was playing with various orchestras. By the way, I had a killer shoe collection, had discovered the beauty of UK clotted cream teas—and had even met my lovely British man (sigh).
So what was my big problem?
Here’s what was really happening for me in a musical sense:
When teaching in numerous schools most of the lessons involved helping students sit their graded music exams. I felt like a box-ticker and part of an educational ethos that didn’t always sit right with me.
Though the UK city I lived in was postcard gorgeous, I felt stifled. I longed for a more diverse cultural / musical backdrop, and a more populated area in which to draw inspiration.
While playing in orchestral gigs, I felt like I was in a metaphorical ‘musical box’ that I wanted to break out of when playing in such settings.
When hired to perform as a soloist, I found myself choosing repertoire that would prove how ‘good’ I was as a flautist—instead of choosing pieces that I really loved.
And like you have written, I felt so guilty about my chosen career path in the face of devastating world events. I remember watching that famous Michael Moore documentary on the Iraq War and weeping afterwards on the couch. I felt so helpless: here you are playing your little flute tunes while this goes on? Talk about a low-impact career you have chosen, Jessica!
In short, you might guess that it got to the point where I felt like a flower who was wilting in the shadows, waiting to eventually disintegrate. Insert my story of flute career burnout, and months and months of daaaaark times.
So, to answer your question ‘what kept you from leaving music altogether?’, here’s what happened next.
Once I was able to pick myself up off the floor (it did take a while, mind you), I said to myself that if I was going to continue on this career path, then I had to find a way to do it that reflected more of well… ME.
I asked myself, ‘can I be a flute player who chooses to solely play by her own (unorthodox and mostly quirky) rules and still make a living?’. I promised myself that if I couldn’t make it work THEN I could change careers. I also gave myself permission to really fail at it (and to be honest, thought that I probably might).
So, you also asked in your letter, ‘why didn’t you leave?’
Truth be told, I did leave. I left most of what I had been doing with it behind. Here is some of what I stopped immediately:
Teaching at schools where the music departments seemed to value a ‘music-exam factory’ ethos
Said ‘no’ to the orchestral gigs that I found stifling, even though I knew I’d probably never be asked to again by the fixers
Stopped playing ANY music that I felt no connection with (even if it was pieces I had been playing for years)
What I did instead
Went to go see a psychotherapist to really hash out what was going on (a gloomy depression had set in by that point)
Took a 30-day long self-imposed sabbatical to Andalusia during my summer holidays. I read Erica Jong, ate Spanish tortillas and watched ‘Friends’ re-runs on DVD.
Discontinued seeing the flute teacher that had an excellent reputation, but was never that encouraging or supportive, and found a more wholehearted teacher instead
Decided to pursue a Doctorate in the only music I could bear playing at the time. In this period of my life I gravitated towards sultry, slow tango music
Committed to keep undergoing my own ‘artistic recovery”. I read the classic books like ‘The Artists’s Way’, ‘Women that Run with the Wolves,’ and anything by Pema Chödrön, just to name a few
Hired a genius creativity coach to act as my sounding board
15 gloriously unexpected things that happened as a result of these changes
Received full-funding to undertake a PhD in tango flute music study
Part of the funding meant I could move to Argentina in order to take tango music and dance lessons (so I did)
Started improvising at every practice session instead of playing off a score
After Argentina, moved to the east coast of Ireland and started playing concerts at mostly un-glamorous venues to ‘build my concert legs’ again. I started this little concert series.
Toured academic institutions playing music I wanted to play —and carefully chose like-minded musicians to do these concerts
Offered flute lessons on Skype to connect with students all over the world that would be suited to my teaching style
Was asked to offer this course to train other Skype music teachers to be confident enough to teach online, too
Blogged about my experiences in a very open way even though I thought it might be career suicide
After the PhD completed, I took a contract to be Bollywood flute player in India for 40 concerts, and travelled the country through performance
Created a personal website that would unashamedly display who I am — and what I do
Moved to beachy Cornwall and started sending out a newsletter on flute playing, creativity (and LIFE!)
Delivered small group flute workshops in cities across the UK on issues that I was passionate about teaching
Designed Boho Flute Retreats in Cornwall to be the style of flute course I would have loved to try years back
And perhaps, most importantly——started showing up to my playing (even when I’d rather be doing anything else) in the ups and downs of my creative life across the decade.
Before you roll your eyes and think that this is all so dramatic —or seems smug —let me reassure you that none of these changes or decisions happened quickly. In fact, this list encompasses a 10+ year course of the actions that I tried.
And, please don’t get me wrong, there are STILL ebbs in my work where I want to throw in the towel and change careers. But the difference is that nowadays I don’t get stressed because I know it’s just part of my wily creative process (see this short video I made about THAT issue).
Which leads me to the next question you asked ‘Why did you decide to fight it?’
As you might notice, for me it wasn’t a fighting of anything but a letting go. A surrender to what I am. A clearing out. A truth-telling. Once I was able to get honest with myself I could then rebuild, create and share the way I actively choose to sit in this career.
In other words, the formula for figuring out what works for me looks like this
Surrender. Rebuild. Create. Share.
Surrender. Rebuild. Create. Share.
Surrender. Rebuild. Create. Share. (not just once, but all the time)
You, too, might ask yourself these 5 questions:
What brings me the most happiness and peace in my fluting life? What am I doing that DOESN’T? Could I do less of these things? Could I create something new with what I have learned from these answers? Is there anything that I can share about this whole process to help others in a similar situation?
I’d be curious to know what might manifest in your flute playing as a result of such soulful digging?
Keep me updated on it all— even if it’s months, or years down the line. Looking forward to hearing what happens.
Yours with much affection,
P.S. Have you been in a similar situation to ‘R?’ What would your answer be to this flautist? Please feel free to share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.