What Musical Burnout (+ finally getting real with yourself) can teach you about having a flute career

With phrases slung around like ‘music must be your blood!’ and ‘she was born with her instrument in her hands’ and ‘she would be so lost without her music!’ rife in conversations about musicianship, let me share a truth of mine with you:

Possessing a flute career is not the centre of my world and it’s not the most important thing to me.

Allow me to explain how I came to this conclusion.

Thereyoga was a time in my life that:

-I ran and did yoga because I read in some flute magazine that it would make my playing more ‘well-rounded’ and ‘musically wholesome’. Because it might help me to have better breath control for my phrasing.

-I made many romantic and friendship choices based solely on how it might ‘fit’ (or not) around my musical career.

-I spent much of my extra cash on acquiring flute ‘goods’. I am talking about flute CD’s- studying with flute gurus- finding the best flute workshops to attend- ordering the latest flute exercise books- researching the best tuner- the best flute cleaning rod (Oh,  I could go on…but I won’t).

-I tended to reject new hobbies I was genuinely curious about because ‘it would probably take too much focus away from my practice’.

-Most ‘free’ time I had went to preparing for competitions and orchestral auditions to try to grab at any job opening to add another ‘win’ to my CV (along with hundreds of other flautists who also had the same vision).

You see, I was determined.

But that’s not it. Oh, no.

Those externals were coupled with some really nasty internals that plagued my everyday:

-An unsettled ‘not good enough’ feeling that was always present.

-Constantly reaching, reaching, reaching (clawing, in fact) to get somewhere ‘better’.

-Playing the ego game because of a ‘that’s how you get ahead to make it in this field’ type of mindset.

-Comparing myself to others– constantly.

Oh, and the worst?

I was carelessly inauthentic with my musicality, trying to copy what ‘the big boys’ did so I could ‘play it the right way’.

After a good decade of that toxic concoction, well, my soul had enough. I was burnt out to a crisp. My inner fire was damp, my creativity dry. I wanted to throw in the towel and switch professions.

So while the new career training brochures that I’d ordered started trickling through my letterbox, I stopped. Playing. Practicing Auditioning. Achieving. Trying. All of it.

This isn’t a quick cure story I offer you. My ah ha! moment where the flute walked across my soul once again didn’t come in a lightning bolt moment. Nor was the process neatly packaged; mine took a while. (Actually I don’t think these type of revelations are ever finished over a lifetime, but I digress.)

So what did happen? My soul and spirit was face down in the dirt while I wallowed around digging for my own answers. My flute sat untouched in its case except for teaching flute lessons (I had to eat somehow, right?).

The upside of it? S- P -A- C- E.

One afternoon while still feeling my Big Fat Flute Career Failure, I was watching the Irish lambs frolic in the field next door (because I had time for it now, you see). This is when I had sum’ enlightenment that was part of the bigger puzzle (and where I am going with all this).

0114TeaWisdomThere was a quote on the teabag string in my teacup that read:

“Greatness is measured by your gifts, not your possessions.”

‘Dah-ding!’ This divinely sent tea wisdom suddenly seemed very relevant to my mope.

My focus in the past about my flute playing was about ‘possession’. Possession of a flute career. Gadgets. A ‘good’ flute job. Awards. Validation. An audience. The next ‘big gig’ lined up.

And even worse? It was about possessing a musical identity that was not my truth– and I made this identity the centre of my striving,  my BEING.

In other words? The fluting and my career related to it that I did was mostly about me—wait… probably all about me.

I was trying to live someone else’s dream career. But yet I didn’t really know what mine was.

Further enlightenment didn’t’ come from a guru, a trip to Italy, Oprah Magazine, or a Vipasna meditation retreat.

No. It came from hundreds of moments being face down in the manure of my ‘whys’, desperate to find a way to crawl back to the flute on my own terms.

avicii-lyrics-music-quotes-Favim.com-1016198How? By digging through the piles of musical dung I had accumulated by examining Every. Musical. Belief. I. Held. True. By shedding – and shedding– and shedding that old ‘successful musician’ identity. Not once. Not twice. Not even five times. But over and over again—daily. By peeling away layers of accumulated ‘should bes’ to get really honest with who I am.

This isn’t going to end with a perfectly wrapped Hallmark story-line conclusion. Life doesn’t refine our edges so neatly like that.

But I do know this:
Sure, I used to ‘show up’ and follow all the right ‘career rules’. I had always persevered to ‘make it happen’ as a flautist. But I did so for unauthentic, false  reasons. I was burnt out because I never got real with myself about the ‘why’ I was doing what I was doing.

Fast-forward to now, the Jessica that sits here at her little antique pine desk typing this especially for your fine eyes:

-My version of a successful flute career is now measured by the musical gifts I give. The ones that are raw. The ones that aren’t perfect.

-This breed of career doesn’t have to happen in an orchestra job. It doesn’t happen from attending the Best Flute Workshop Ever Given On This Planet, or possessing the latest titanium-alloy-fancy-pants head-joint.

-The gifts I want to give don’t have room for any big ego to accompany me. They might be the ones I give for free on a nondescript Monday afternoon. The gifts I desire to really give might be delivered in the most un-glamorous of venues (read: an adult care home where one audience member is shouting they have to use the rest-room; another demands to hear ‘Danny Boy’;  fluorescent lights buzz above).

courageI insist that a successful (music) career is about a soulful connection with others. I know when I’ve been successful at mine because I allowed myself to be vulnerable and openly raw when playing– but also in teaching, blogging, researching. The lot.  Even if it is just with one person. That’s enough for me.

Sometimes I still fail at it. 

Ultimately though?  I’d have the same career goals about giving to others if I played the trombone, trained dogs, painted watercolour landscapes, or was a pastry chef.

So, you see, it’s not even about being a flute player per se. It just so happens that the flute is my tool at the moment.

I am no longer satisfied with ‘possessing’ a flute career ever again. Ever.

What I give to through my art is my focus– that’s why ‘UN-possessing’  any sort of flute career is what I am all about these days.

Do you know someone who’s a burnt out musician? Someone stuck in a rut? A soul who’s lost their zesty sparkle + fizz? Share this piece to let them know they are not (+ will never be) alone. Be someone’s little miracle worker today.

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12 Responses to What Musical Burnout (+ finally getting real with yourself) can teach you about having a flute career

  1. Jamie Mulfinger August 22, 2015 at 6:40 am #

    I see you’ve written this a while back, but this article deserves a huge round of applause. Thank you for writing exactly what I’ve been trying to do all this year! Unpossess and give, and yet that calling gets discouraging sometimes when people don’t understand why. Your article has encouraged my heart immensely. The world can always use more flutists like you!

    • Dr. Jessica Quiñones August 23, 2015 at 4:37 pm #

      Jamie, thanks for your comments, delighted you found my journey finding my flute path helpful in some way. I would love to know more about how living/ being/ playing with this ethos has been for you this year….!

  2. Virtuosa Lazy December 5, 2015 at 7:16 am #

    Thank you for being honest and articulating what oh so many feel, later in careers.
    In the end you are quite right that ‘it’ (fluting) is about connection with others and
    not the buy-grasp-claw-your-way-to-the-top mentality.
    Universities are not very good at teaching alternative paths to the competitive
    route, nor are they up front about the fact that the sheer number of decent players
    out there = a life of discontent trying to get to the top, poverty in the process,
    and yes — burnout. The other unmentioned issue: age-ism. As women get older they find their flute careers shortened as younger prettier players take their previous
    spots. Men have less age-ism to contend with in general compared to women in music.
    From a been there, done that flautist 🙂

  3. Kerry January 5, 2016 at 7:12 am #

    Thanks for this! I’m glad to see I’m not alone. I burnt out 15 years ago and still trying to find ways of getting my love for music back. Part of my problem was I was trying to please others rather than do what I wanted to do. I’ve started the long journey in to discovering what I want and learning to practice in a more mindful way. Sometimes I feel I’m getting dragged back into that “I must be perfect” mindset. Then I put my instrument away for a month or so and try to rediscover what originally drew me to music. It usually works. But I know I’ve still got a long way to go!
    Thanks again!

  4. Natalie May 20, 2016 at 5:00 pm #

    Hi Jessica,

    Reading this meant a lot to me. I’m not a flautist – I’m a singer…who played in a band for almost ten yrs. I found myself in the same position – something that had always made me happy began to make me feel desperate and lonely and angry. I walked away and have been lying in the muck for a couple of years. It’s always nice to know that other people have made it thru. Thanks:)

    • Dr. Jessica Quiñones May 24, 2016 at 1:07 pm #

      Dear Natalie, delighted that somehow my own truth about being in my own dips helps you as you navigate yours. I think it’s all part of the hero’s journey and is needed to make big changes artistically!

  5. Anne Egan June 11, 2016 at 1:07 pm #

    Thanks Jessica for sharing your life journey.
    Certainly food for thought and chicken soup for the soul.For me it’s so refreshing to be starting a new musical journey..I was just waiting for the ultimate navigator ..It’s you!
    Thank you so much

  6. Aleksandra April 14, 2018 at 10:12 pm #

    Hello there!

    I’m really glad that I found your article. Let me tell you my story. I was always dreaming about being a musican, I couldn’t imagine other career path for myself, I always felt like I don’t belong to any other world than music world. I am playing classical guitar and it was always working fine for me, but last year I had to play at some important competition and it totally devastated me.

    I was like “you have to practice more, practice, practice, practice, you won’t be well prepared if you give up practicing for one day!”. It was a big frustration. What’s more, my teacher was pushing a big pressure on me, he said something like “you work so hard, you have to go to this competition and show your repertoire! Show your best side! Don’t give up and practice more and more!”. And you know what? I got some good result, but I didn’t feel like I am a “winner” at all. For me, it was a total disaster. I was like “OK, it is nice that my teacher is proud of me, but why am I feeling so bad? Was this my goal, or my teacher’s goal? What was this whole pressure about? I got a good result, but this whole sacrifice was terrible. It wasn’t worth it.”

    Now I am a few months after this whole competition thing, but the feeling is still with me. Now I am like “OK, the guitar was always my everything, and now I feel like my everything is cheating on me”. What’s more, my teacher has a specific manner – to talk only about things that you have to improve. He never talks that something is done or something sounds better. It makes you feel that you are always “just a step before” – like a Sisyphean.

    I totally understand what you mean by being true with yourself and with your identity. I simply realised that you can’t make an instrument your only identity. Becasue a human being is so much more complex creation. I realised even that a guitar was like a shield for myself. I was feeling a valuable person only if I was naming myself “a guitarist”. But then, a little failure (some bad exam or something) at your music path can ruin your whole sense of being valuable. So this is why you can’t identity yourself only by a musical instrument. But with music it is really hard, I guess. Because it takes hours and hours of your attention and free time, and a lot of your feelings etc. And it is really easy to identity with this – only with this. At some point I was prepared for this kind of sacrifice, I was telling myself that this specific career looks like that (music isn’t just a job, it is a lifestyle!) and you have to agree or you have to change your career plans! But this philosophy (true or not) doesn’t work anymore.

    I was always thinking that my dream career is being a guitar teacher. I was so enthusiastic about playing and about a perspective that my passion will be also my job. And now I feel like everything is lost. Everything – because I let the music be my everything (and I had some fantastic years with this philosophy, until now). This is the moment, when I don’t know who am I if I don’t want to be a guiarist in this way I used to be. Because I can’t any longer. Not in this way. But, on the other hand, I feel like I am giving up my dreams.

    I was so concentrated on music and on my career plans that I missed an important signals, that something is wrong. After so many years I started to lose the most important part – I forget why do I play. I started to realise some plan – to end a school with a diploma which will give me the opportunity to teach guitar. I was so tied to this idea that I simply missed the moment, when everything was shouting in my head, that the idea is simply just out-of-date. My personality and prioritaries were changing and my life-career plan – didn’t.

    Now I feel like standing on the crossroads. I am frightened that I am going to make a mistake – whether if I quit playing or if I don’t. I am afraid that I’m gonna regret that I gave up fighting about my dream job. Or on the other hand, I will regret that I was still sitting in the same career-idea with musical burnout growing day by day. I can’t say to myself that I don’t want to be a guitar teacher anymore, cause it feels like a failure. It feels like a divorce with your identity. So, so hard time!

    For me it is a time to re-define many fundamental things. I can be upset, I can be angry, but I have to face it.

    Thank you for your story. Hope you don’t mind telling mine!


  7. Miriam April 11, 2019 at 4:13 am #

    This article came at the perfect time for me! University studies have been leaving me feeling stressed and empty lately, and I’m glad for this article which allowed for a bit of a reboost. It’s always comforting to be reminded that other people have the same struggles and conflictions.

    • Carla September 17, 2019 at 4:28 pm #

      I’m so glad I’ve found this article since I can totally relate and can’t thank you enough for telling your story. You see, I’ve been playing flute since 5th grade and later during the year I was inspired by my older cousin’s high school concert being that, that was my first experience in seeing a concert with flute players and stuff. So in middle school I pushed myself to meet my goals which I eventually did around 7th grade, but during 8th I began feeling burned out but did keep pushing because there was one more goal to accomplish and did reach. Then 9th grade came around and I was burned out (I did practice but less than the previous years) and felt like I did everything there was to do, despite being in marching band. Sophmore year came around and I almost never practiced except to memorize music and now being a junior I still feel the same. I don’t really know what I should do, I want to pursue music because I am talented but I’ve lost my way ya know.

      • Jessica Quinones September 18, 2019 at 8:19 pm #

        Carla, one of the ways that I keep falling in love with my playing over and over is by playing only things that bring me a lot of joy! If there are certain songs you love playing as a way back to your playing again??? Perhaps commit to only those for a while and only those! When I work with burnt out players who come see me, this is one of the first things we sort 🙂 Sending tons of good vibes your way!

  8. Dr. Jessica Quiñones April 11, 2019 at 12:32 pm #

    Dear Miriam, I am so glad it was divinely timed for you to read! 🙂 J

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