Self-Care for Musicians Caught in the Holiday Hustle

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December is a notoriously busy month, especially for musicians. For me, the beginning of the month was pretty busy, with two big concerts that included pretty demanding repertoire, but now my obligations (involving others) are winding down. Compared to many musicians I know, I don’t have a lot going on this December (I don’t have a church gig or many holiday gigs), which in theory feels good, but then the thoughts pop in: “I could use more money,” or “Shouldn’t I be doing all of that stuff, too?”

The problem is in those two little words: “compared to.” Way back in music school, it felt like we always had a never-ending parade of things to do, which, of course, led to complaining about how many hours you spent in the practice room, how many credits you were taking, how little sleep you got last night, etc., which is kind of a series of unrewarding humblebrags that say, “LOOK, I AM DOING SO MUCH!” (Ugh.) These habits get ingrained, though, so this is the culture we still find ourselves in, often ending up in survival mode rather than thriving. First of all, I definitely don’t have the energy I had 15 years ago, and most importantly, I don’t want to live like that!

It’s so easy to get sucked into the feeling that we need to do ALL THE THINGS, in terms of teaching, gigs, promotion, creative projects, and even our personal holiday preparation, parties, etc. This is the point where you’re probably thinking, “I thought this was about self-care. When is she going to start talking about epsom salt baths?” Don’t get me wrong, I love those, and they play a helpful part in my self-care, but we need to go deeper.

What’s stressing you out?

Besides the general feeling of overwhelm (I hear you!), step back and figure out what specifically is stressing you out: Is it money? Too many gigs? Not enough gigs? (That balance of time vs. money is always a work in progress.) The wrong kind of gigs? Students that don’t seem motivated? It feels like we have to take all of the students and all of the gigs (and believe me, I’ve been there), but if you really hate some aspect of your work life, you don’t have to do it anymore, or you can do less of it.

If you’re an introvert who teaches way too much, think about dropping a day of teaching and find some other work to fill in that gap, or, for something you can do right away, take a couple extra bathroom breaks that allow you to take some deep breaths.

If you hate driving to far-flung gigs, set a personal radius that you will no longer take gigs outside of.

If you’re financially stressed, look at what you’re spending money on that doesn’t make you happy. (Sarah Von Bargen has a great free bootcamp about this! )  

If you’re teaching/gigging/whatever-ing too much, you could consider getting a part-time non-music related job (that takes less energy) to fill in the gaps.

Realistically, we can’t always make changes as quickly or drastically as we dream about. Maybe that looks like doing a little bit less of that thing and decreasing it over time, but there are always other options to shift the mosaic of jobs that most of us have.

Hit delete!

So, in the short term, what can you delete that’s not that important? We have so many expectations on ourselves this time of year (and all of the time) - what can you let go of? For example, I traditionally have made holiday ornaments for my students, but this year I made prints of a piano drawing that was already done, and didn’t make holiday cards, but just cut up red paper to write on. Easy. It’s amazing what I do without thinking about it, because I’ve assumed that I HAVE TO.

When all of those “requirements” pile up, you’re headed toward the land of burnout. For me, it was the worst when I continued to be busy for the sake of being busy, without questioning why I was doing all of that. (Because it’s way easier to distract yourself from big questions by being so busy!) Megan Ihnen wrote a great article about avoiding burnout by taking time to set really meaningful career goals, including a really actionable goal-setting exercise. Take a look at the article, and schedule some time to think about your big goals, the work that makes you feel the best. (Seriously, put it on your calendar right now.)

Resources!

But, you probably don’t have time for deep thinking right now - it’s December! So, back to self-care in the traditional sense. If you’re in the trenches trying to survive the next couple weeks, you might be looking for some actual (and quick) self-care strategies. I have 10 survival strategies for busy times right over here, some inspiration for when you’re feeling unmotivated here, and some wellness resources for musicians here.  

Self-care isn’t all about bubble baths and spa days (although it could be if you want it to) - it’s about doing things that make you feel better, and it’s incredibly personal, so you have to figure out what works for you. For some excellent resources in this department, check out Christy Tending’s offerings. 

So today I invite you to take 10 minutes (or more, but we can all find 10 minutes), and decide what one little action you can take to lighten your load and make things feel a bit easier. Do something, anything that FEELS GOOD. If even figuring that out takes more mental bandwidth than you have, pause for just 2 minutes, close your eyes, and take some deep breaths - I guarantee you’ll feel better, and you’re going to make it through December, too!

What’s your biggest challenge during this busy month? Let me know in the comments!

Rebecca Hass

Pianist and composer