Breaking Point

Orchestra lockouts. Job scarcity. Diminishing numbers of students seeking private music instruction. The present state of the classical music industry may lead many newcomers to ask the question, “what is the point?” and many veterans to wonder if all of the time, effort, energy and stamina invested in this career is worth the trouble. Many of the traits required to be a talented musician, however, are the same as those that make one highly susceptible to professional burnout.


Professional burnout has numerous signs and symptoms, some easily recognizable and some reliant on individual perceptions and feelings. The following chart summaries many of the symptoms identified over the past 30+ years of burnout research and contain both psychological and physical identifiers:

Imbalance between job resources and client demand Physical/Mental
Anxiety Mental
Tension Physical
Fatigue Physical
Exhaustion Physical
Tendency to treat clients/co-workers in a detached, mechanical fashion (distant) Mental
Preoccupation with gratification of one’s own needs Mental
Increasing expectation to fail, give up quickly Mental
Lose interest in work Mental
Blame others for lack of success Mental
Inability to predict important events or inability to control one’s professional environment Physical/Mental
High job role conflict and ambiguity (not knowing exactly what is expected of you professionally) Mental
Low level of autonomy and variety of tasks Mental
Becoming very upset when others do not treat them as competent Mental/Emotional
Enjoy job less, focus is primarily on controlling stress level Mental/Emotional
Loneliness and isolation/withdrawl Mental/Emotional
Frustration/Anger Mental/Emotional
Feeling of hopelessness Mental/Emotional
Loss of caring for clients’ needs Mental
High Blood Pressure Physical
Feeling “trapped” in a job where one is overqualified and have little opportunity for advancement Mental
Excess of responsibility/workload Mental
Perceiving oneself as unqualified Mental
Lack of input in decision making Mental
Becoming impatient and/or cynical Mental
Significant weight loss or weight gain Physical
Unable to concentrate Mental
Lack of reward system in profession Mental
Decreased authority and status (low salaries) Mental
Reduced Self Esteem Mental
Deteriorating Social Relationships/Lack of social support Social
Failure to get what one wants out of job (goal impediment) Mental
Feeling inadequately prepared for work tasks Mental
Frequent misunderstandings with co-workers Mental/Social
Lack of creativity Mental
Reduced personal accomplishment Mental
Having the idea that what one is doing is “meaningless” Mental
Receiving little praise or recognition from supervisors Mental
Poor relationships with co-workers Mental/Social
Frequent crying, yelling or screaming Mental
Boredom Mental
Increased drug or alcohol use Mental/Physical
Chronic illness Physical
Sleepless night Physical
Migraine Headaches Physical
Not enough work to do (work underload) Mental
Inability to regulate schedule Mental

Although an individual may not have all of these symptoms at the same time, a combination of several of the above ailments may indicate that one has reached a state of professional burnout. For musicians, many of the symptoms listed above may be present as successful requirements of the industry and, again, younger musicians or even older musicians who ask themselves “what is the point?” may fall victim to professional burnout.   An orchestral musician, for example, may develop a low sense of autonomy for the music they make if always under the interpretation of the all-seeing conductor and may look at their meager paycheck as little reward for a job well done. Loss of interest in practicing may also be a large indicator of burnout. Competition and blaming others, whether that be colleagues, conductors or parents, for one’s lack of musical advancement may also be another significant predictor of burnout. This list of symptoms therefore becomes a handy check for many musicians that may be asking themselves, “Why am I doing this?”


Cary Cherniss suggests 4 essential methods to eliminating burnout. These include 1) Reduce or eliminate external job demands, 2) Change personal goals, preferences and expectations, 3) Increase resources for meeting job demands and 4) Provide coping substitutes for the withdrawal characteristic of burnont. The first step is to change the job. Increase skill and ability to work by seeking outside opportunities to learn new skills from qualified experts in your field and set realistic and attainable daily goals. Also take inventory of how your time is spent each day.  Are you devoting too much time to a particular facet of your music making career? Is your time consumed by the practice room at the expense of the stage or vice versa? Does teaching distract you from performing? Do you find yourself trying to de-stress by avoiding opportunities to perform and network with other musicians. When one achieves a work-life balance, the stress of one area of life, such as career, melts away in light of the joy and stimulation found in another. A deliberate change in work responsibilities will require letting go of unnecessary attachments to professional activities, objects and titles that are not essential to the proper functioning of the worker. Are your goals significant and challenging enough to push you to a new position in your career? Dot sell yourself short! Secondly, it is important to know thyself. How are you reacting to your job, or lack thereof? Perhaps you would benefit from a vacation. Journaling will also allow you to uncover and identify the source of your stress and help you to explore creative way to change the situation. Realize that nobody is perfect and that all-or-nothing thinking limits professional growth. Networking is also a great way to explore new ideas and make connections that may either open doors to new professional opportunities or inspire fresh, new creative approaches to job aspects formerly perceived as tired and dull. This may also uncover outlets to discuss burnout and methods to correct the situation. Finally, relaxation and stress management are key. Exercise is imperative. Not only does exercise improve your health, it also offers regular moments to escape the frustrations of work or the helplessness of no work. Finally, support systems and activities outside of your job will provide alternative sources of joy.


Musicians are facing an economic crisis today that leads even the strongest, most experienced artist to question their inner motivations. The pay and benefits often do not reflect the endless work and dedication necessary to achieve even the slightest passing spotlight of the stage. It is quite natural for newcomers and veterans alike to feel a sense of being “stuck” at best or “burned out” at worse. It is therefore important to recognize the symptoms of burnout before career disillusionment destroys dreams and silences ambitions. Change is necessary and available to all who seek new ways to experience what they love.


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