• Nicole Murray

revisiting burnout

Updated: Sep 11, 2020

So, obviously, the "upcoming performances" section of my website is a little scarce right now. Actually, aside from a Liminal Space Ensemble gig that's being finalized, I actually don't have any performances on the horizon for the rest of 2020. As a girl who is used to "go, go, go," looking at my blank calendar is a really sobering experience as I'm sure it is for any performing musician right now.

One of the things I hear the most is that "everything will be back" and "we kind of just have to cope for right now," or some version of that same toxic positivity, encouraging us to keep creating content, practice, and "use this time wisely." And, hey, I'm not trying to throw those people under the bus but as we head into month 5 (6?) of the pandemic, at what point are we allowed to just be BURNT OUT?

This thought led me back to an article that I've talked about on my social media before, "How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation," by Anne Helen Peterson from January 2019. Upon re-reading, my mind was frankly blown to find how poignant it has remained, especially now.

It's funny because in the times where I've experienced it before, burnout is what happens when you are overworked, stretched too thin, or have too much on your plate. For example, when I was attending SFCM, I felt burnt out from my classes, lessons, ensembles, rehearsals, preparing for auditions, working my job in PDEC, and applying for "real world" jobs/maintaining my social media presence in preparations for graduating.

And now, I have the complete opposite problem, far too much time on my hands, and yet the symptoms are still the same: overwhelming anxiety unable to be subdued with facials and bath bombs, putting off to-do lists, bailing on friends and dates, and a general world-weariness that seems impossible to shake.

Peterson talks about it more in her article, but I like how Hank Green described it in his video on burnout: you need fuel and you need a way to burn that fuel and burnout happens if there's not enough fuel OR if you've got a lot of fuel but no car to put it in.

And that's where I am / we are now - lots of fuel but no car to put it in.

Thinking back on where I was before the pandemic began it makes perfect sense. I was in my "audition flow" preparing for the West Virginia Symphony audition while working a part-time job and playing in about five or six community ensembles. Liminal Space Ensemble (the new music artist collective I co-founded) was gaining traction and planning our giant commissioning project while preparing for our premiere concert season.

Then, one-by-one, the opportunities began to disappear. LSE cancelled our inaugural concert series, orchestra performances postponed into oblivion, and West Virginia (thankfully) cancelled their auditions for the foreseeable future.

At the beginning, I felt no less motivated to practice because my ultimate dream of playing in a professional orchestra was fueling me. Then slowly and almost unnoticeably, everything, including practicing, just became more difficult. And lately, I've found myself totally drowning and not really understanding why.

I struggled for a few days and reached out to a bunch of friends and colleagues trying to figure out what changed or what happened and sought out some advice (thanks to everyone who I spoke to recently, by the way!). It was comforting to hear that all of my friends, whether they are performing musicians or not, have been affected similarly. And, obviously, due to the unprecedented nature of a global pandemic, no one really had any answers since, ya know, there's kind of nothing you can do when so many circumstances are out of your control.

But calling our collective experience "burnout" never really crossed my mind because it's a term that was so familiar in our pre-pandemic lives but our current situation seems so new and undefined.

Actually, come to think of it, I have heard the term "burnout" applied to the pandemic before but mostly in the context of "oh, don't try and be productive during this time because you'll get burnt out" but I think that misses the point of burnout a little bit. It's not the neurotic need to fill the time and be productive (although it certainly can be), it's more about the psychological toll it takes when you're working just as hard as you were before but now it's for little to no reward.

So, maybe those who have chosen to deep clean their bathrooms and learn how to bake bread are doing it right - specific tasks with an endpoint. But for those of us who instead chose to practice and keep our chops up, there's no proverbial loaf of bread coming out of the proverbial oven at the end of your practice session. No dopamine rush after you finish a concert, or have a productive rehearsal, or nail an audition. In short, no payoff.

AND, add on top of that, the "millennial" compulsion to never stop working - the constant voice in the back of your head telling you that if you aren't working 24/7, you're not doing enough. It's all of those years in school constantly pushing yourself to be the last one out of the music building at the end of the night. That old saying that there's always going to be someone practicing harder than you. And the thought that maybe, just maybe, when orchestras come back you will be the ONE person who kept their nose to the grindstone this whole time and your dream job is just around the corner...

AND, the fact that we have very little else to do than to spend time connecting with people, however superficially, on social media. I mean, that in itself is a whole can of worms. It's FOMO (do people still say that?) to the max when your own personal comfort level is having a bubble of one or two people and then seeing pictures of your friends at bachelorette parties of 15 girls out at a winery together. If supposedly all of us who are "staying in" and social distancing are doing it right, why does doing the right thing have to be so damn lonely?

Yeah. Mix all of that together and it is classifiable burnout. And, unfortunately there is no fix for what is essentially just a way of life now. If taking a vacation, changing careers, doing yoga, or becoming a Buddhist won't fix anything, how are we supposed to feel better?

Maybe there is in all of this here somewhere a lesson to be learned or at least, maybe a chance for introspection. Obviously, one of the core issues of this pandemic is that so many variables are out of our control, so when those are removed, we're left with what we can control (duh) which is how we feel.

So for starters, I feel very similarly to Peterson at the conclusion of her article in that attributing the term "burnout" here feels very cathartic. Burnout is a familiar feeling and there's oddly some comfort in that - like, even though a global pandemic is not a familiar concept, the effects are something similar to what you may have experienced in the past.

I guess for me, it felt like what I imagine getting a diagnosis for an ailment would be. Yes, it still hurts like hell but at least you know what it is and can rule out a larger or more scary problem like... having no idea what you want to do with your life or feeling like you have absolutely no sense of purpose.

I can only speak personally about what I've learned thus far but I actually had a moment where I came to understand why live performance is so important to me and why I was feeling so depressed and empty after the virtual concert we hosted on Saturday. I realized that I feel the most loved and valued when my family and friends come to my concerts, like it's my own personal love language. And yes, I had family and friends watching my concert on Saturday but it didn't carry the same weight because it takes less effort to log in to Facebook than it would to physically go to a different venue, buy a ticket, etc.

Now I've really been looking into why that affects me so much and maybe to open myself up to other ways to be able to receive that kind of love that I need in my life. It might not be as favorable but at the very least, I'll be able to replenish my spirit so I can keep my head up as we move through the duration of the pandemic.

I am really interested to hear from other people who are experiencing similar things! Let me know, send me a message or comment on the post. Do you feel like burnout is an accurate description of what you're feeling? Do you have other ways that you've been managing the losses of the pandemic? Hit me up.



musician website design © 2019