Burnout is a word coined in the mid-70s, and its use as a description for ‘physical, emotional, spiritual, intellectual and interpersonal exhaustion’ became popular in the 80s as a by-product of a lot of contemporary research into job stress. Though the focus of such research was the corporate world, clearly high job stress, personal frustration and inadequate coping skills are just as likely to affect performing artists.
A clear indication of this is seen in Cary Cooper and Geoff Wills’ book ‘Pressure Sensitive’ (Sage Books, 1988) which documented the stressors experienced by popular musicians, and was founded on a questionnaire circulated to Musician’s Union members working as freelancers, mainly in the popular music field.
Age at onset:
The age typical of burnout is popularly assumed to be middle age, though earlier onset may occur for a few reasons:
Reasons for burnout can be:
In rehearsing rock bands, because of the long and impecunious lead up to ‘making it’ the problem is chronic underwork stress leading to low self worth and depression. With this is a subjective feeling of having no actual influence on anything - from agents to record companies - that will get them a decent contract.
In successful popular and classical musicians it is often the opposite - overwork stress from schedules most people would consider ridiculous, e.g. up at 7.30, teaching in the morning, afternoon rehearsal, extra teaching in late afternoon then evening concert and not in bed before midnight. That may be a good day, out of town concerts or tours being worse.
Burnout as a loss of Passion
I believe that most - but by no means all - performers start their love affair with their art form, often at an early age, with somewhere near 100% passion. The exceptions are those forced by parents or others into a routine of practising before any independent motivation or love of music has shown itself, and in these cases the roots of burnout may start at a very early eage. But for those that start with a natural love of music, burnout represents the gradual development from 0% knowledge and disillusionment with the profession to the critical mass of 51% disillusionment. After that the passion for performing goes into negative equity and progressive burnout ensues - performing becomes more disagreeable than agreeable. This is ‘spiritual and emotional burnout’.
Without knowing it, the performer has hit a career plateau where the typical work schedule is fairly similar day in day out, and this applies equally to international artists as to rank and file performers. Energy of youth burns out revealing any number of underlying tensions from performing nerves to worry about the future. Ambition gives place to apathy and low performing buzz as careers becomes more predictable and less varied and challenging.
Burnout through prolonged performance anxiety
This describes the effects of stage fright and other performance anxieties over time, coming to a stage of ‘I can’t stand it any more - either I reduce the anxiety or I’m giving my career up just to keep me sane’. Loss of motivation may have caused a fall in professional standards which is bringing the performer down close to the minimum acceptable level. This may have been noticed by others before it really hits the performer. To the performer it may be a sudden awareness that denial no longer is an adequate defence - technical elements are suddenly much harder than they seemed, and there is a realisation that one is only just coping. This sudden ‘peak’ in anxiety may be dramatically worse in performers who have become well known and have heavy schedules in the public eye, sometimes stretching ahead for months and years of advance bookings. Fear may become alarm and the performer fights against a desire to ‘call for help’ such as getting permission from a doctor or other specialist to have a short, long or complete break.
Symptoms of Burnout:
Is it depression?
Burnout may mirror apathy in other areas (marriage, sex, lapsed hobbies, lapsed sport due to overweight). There may be several common depressive features, such as a sense of ‘not looking back to birth but on to death’ - fantasies one wanted to accomplish in one’s lifetime may no longer be possible - particularly in career terms. Remember that the biggest stressor of popular musicians, which probably applies to all performers, is ‘reaching and maintaining the standards you set for yourself’. In successful performers this is seen as a challenge, but when spirits are low and a career is perceived as hitting a trough, it can share depression’s sense of anguish and ‘futilitarianism’.
Recovering from burnout
Life on the ‘mid-life plateau’ can be successfully managed so as to give variety and enjoyment, but not in the same hectic all-consuming way of the ambitious performer straight out of college, and not either in the apathetic and jaded way where actual standards become progressively worse. Increasing passion means reviving interest and commitment, while decreasing disillusionment means managing your life to prioritise pleasure, creativity and variety and decrease all sources of stress.
Dealing with Burnout
Health priorities and stress reduction
‘Feelgood factors’ to schedule into your life
Performing again after burnout
Burnout may result in an avoidance of work in general, or self-imposed periods of not working. This breaks the ‘golden thread’ of passionate motivation that exists from the first love of our art which sets us on our path. Coming back to our art after a break may not feel at all the same. That youthful energy may be replaced by a much more sober and adult type of motivation, with genuine worries whether the same high standards can be achieved again. This insecurity may cause self-doubt, and this may trigger performing anxiety.
One positive result from time out, besides recuperation and recovering emotional strength, is the chance to do something else for a period of time. If this is done well, confidence may be gained which carries back over to performing. Such confidence may be a welcome indicator that one has other potential talents besides performing, and this then acts as a firmer basis to the ‘performing self’
References and Recommended Reading:
‘The Secrets of Musical Confidence’, Andrew Evans, HarperCollins UK, 1994. Please note that this book is presently only available from Performance and Media Health, price £8 including postage and packing.
‘Secrets of Performing Confidence’, Andrew Evans, A&C Black UK 2003. Please note that this book available from Performance and Media Health, at special price £10 including postage and packing.