Beyond Burnout: Recovery Tips for the Classical Pianist

Entering the music profession is an act of love, not logic. Logic tells us that we’d be much wiser pursuing work in more stable fields where jobs are plentiful and remuneration guaranteed. Still, many of us choose music because we can’t imagine spending our days doing anything else.  We expect that we’ll love it forever, and few resources exist to help us cope when we burn out on what we used to treasure.

I went through severe burnout twenty years ago. That was when I quit music forever. Well, forever lasted about a year and a half before I was lured back to the piano. While I’d like to report that my break from music was spent peacefully tending a flower garden and writing sensitive thoughts in a decorative journal (with a comforting cup of tea nearby), the reality was much less attractive. I worked for a temporary agency to pay my bills. I tried to figure out who I was apart from the piano. Like many instrumentalists, my identity since childhood was tied up in being Rhonda-the-Pianist. Suddenly I was in my early thirties and had no idea who I was or what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. It was one of the most painful yet rewarding times of my life. When I did return to music, playing the piano was what I did, not who I was. That enabled me to keep a healthier balance in my life and to recognize times when burnout threatened to strike again.  

Burnout is rarely spoken about in the classical music world. Since we’re supposed to love what we do, we dare not admit there are days when the thought of another gig or that full teaching day fills us with dread. I was surprised when the responses to my recent blog post (Pianists and the Art of the Graceful Exit) uncovered so many tales of burnout, along with some excellent ideas on how to cope with it. I’ve included those suggestions in this blog. 

Take a break. This is an obvious solution to burnout, although it can be a complicated one to implement. Many wouldn’t choose to do what I did and do menial office work just to make ends meet. There are still ways to get time off without completely walking away. Can you take a few weeks off in the summer? How about a month? Can you consolidate your teaching schedule to four days a week? How about giving yourself a raise? Or teaching some group lessons? At the very least, carve out one day a week that you don’t do anything musical. 

Find the “energy vampires” in your schedule and eradicate them. How much time do you spend each day in correspondence? Can you schedule a bit of time in the morning and a bit in the afternoon? Are there gigs you can walk away from that pay too little for the hassle involved?  Most studios operate on the old 80/20 rule—20% of your studio will cause 80% of your headaches. Is it possible to drop one or two of the problem students and focus on the ones who are a joy to teach?

Examine your personal life. This requires some introspection and a hard look at how many demands are being placed on you by others in your life—spouses, children, aging parents, neighborhood associations, etc. Is it possible to get help in some areas and possibly quit other things? Are you needlessly contributing to your own busyness because you feel no one else can do what you do? Maybe it’s time to risk other people’s irritation and frustration to save yourself.  

Be your own caretaker Many of my readers offered these excellent suggestions: Meditate.  Commit to exercising every day. Daoism. Qi Gong.  Yoga. Learning new repertoire just for yourself. I’d like to add, learn how to say “no.” Cultivate your friendships—inside and outside of music. Watch your diet—caffeine, alcohol, sugar, fatty foods all feel good in the moment but eventually contribute to exhaustion.  

Distance yourself from toxic individuals. I’ve learned (the hard way!) to never underestimate how draining and demoralizing some people can be. I’ve been in teaching and playing groups that are nurturing and supportive, and I’ve been in groups so caustic and competitive that they nearly drove me out of the music profession. Choose your friends and colleagues carefully. If the toxic individual in your life is someone with whom you must associate (family member, work colleague, etc.), set firm boundaries and stick to them. The other part of this equation? Create your own informal support group—people who can be counted on to support and encourage you, not tear you down. Nurture these relationships by making time for them.  

Ultimately, moving beyond burnout means falling in love with music all over again. My own return to the piano happened slowly and was accompanied by a bone-deep conviction that music is more about fertile earth, heart-to-heart talks with friends, and cooking spaghetti than marble halls and the monolith of perfection. Soul music is about playing Clair de lune at a friend’s funeral, watching a great-grandmother dance to New York, New York, and seeing a student’s eyes light up when she can play Für Elise. It’s about going to the piano every day and becoming a beginner over and over again while always waiting for glimpse of the reality behind the notes. Simply put, it’s about recapturing wonder.  


Jen said…
I took a ten-year leave of absence from piano for several reasons, not the least of which was burnout. I ended up homeschooling my daughter and just noodling at the piano, sewing, reading, and tending my personal relationships. When I felt ready to return to piano, and collaborative piano in particular, things just fell into place. I have steady work and people I love working with, and music that I enjoy practicing. Burnout could have taken the heart out of me, but I feel very grateful and lucky that it did not.
Rhonda Rizzo said…
Jen, this is a very inspiring story. Thank you for sharing it. I'm thrilled that you found your way back to the piano and that you're enjoying it so much.
Leigheternally said…
I always played piano, any kind of music, mostly classical. It was my salvation since a traumatic childhood, and I was always miserable if the piano was not available for some reason, and I couldn’t play the music in my head. Then a strange thing happened. Three heart attacks, cardiac arrest while getting a stent, and afterwards, no music in my head. No memories or regrets, just a vacant spot. A broken hip 2 years later added to the emptiness. Now 2 more years and just as suddenly, I enjoy playing again. I am 90. My time is running out, and I hope to continue in the next life. I read that doctors have learned surgeries should be treated as head injuries. I agree.
Leigheternally said…
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Rhonda Rizzo said…
What a beautiful story of the power of music to sustain us even in the worst of times. Thank you for your comment.
Marlena said…
What a lovely article. I am currently on a piano break, since I am spending some time thinking about who I want to be as a musician (and who I want to be in other areas of my life). It is definitely true that when we come back to the piano after an extended break, we do become beginners again, in that we are reminded why we love to play in the first place. Thank you for the tips. And I would also like to suggest to do finger stretches as well during the downtime, since that can help to avoid physical burnout.
Rhonda Rizzo said…
Marlena, thank you for your thoughtful words and for your excellent suggestion regarding finger exercises. I hope this break helps you sort things out. I know that my time away from the piano eventually made me a better musician (and a happier one).
Penelope said…
This article was lovely, I've been on a piano break for a year now, I've been playing since I was very young and immigrated to the United States, since then piano has been almost like a nonspoken conversationalist for me since I didn't know the language at the time. I'm not sure why it happened but at some point, it became more of a task and something I kept up with not to disappoint others who invested in me and it took everything out of it. Hopefully, I can return soon, reading these comments has me on the verge of tears.
Rhonda Rizzo said…
Penelope, thank you for your kind words. You write so passionately about your relationship with the piano that I think you'll find your way back to it at some point in your life. The trick, it seems, is to make it all yours--something that is free from the expectations and demands of others. When you feel pulled to return, it might help to play brand new music, maybe even a different genre. I learned the hard way that sometimes the old piece we learned during difficult times of our lives can be loaded with emotional "land mines". A fresh start with new stuff helps us reset our expectations as well. All the best to you as you sort this out.