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Thoughts on self-care for musicians

Thoughts on self-care for musicians

Cartoon of overworked and exhausted pianist

One of the topics the ABRSM have asked me to explore is self-care for teachers as part of professional practice. I thought I would write a few of my initial thoughts down here.

Isn’t it interesting that as a working professional meeting another working professional (or perhaps this should be self-employed working professional) the first question each asks the other is: “Are you busy?” I remember this even from music college days, when busy-ness was nothing to do with earning money, just simply whether you were in demand or not, even if it just meant within the music college community. The answer to the ‘Are you busy?’ question is expected to be “Yes, I am very busy,” and of course this is considered to be a good thing.

In our society, being busy or being in demand shows that you’re successful in your life, but on another level what it really means is that we see busyness or rather productivity as a sign of self-worth. We might be exhausted, emotionally strung out, physically ill and other parts of our lives might be falling apart, but if we’re busy and productive, that’s seen to be ok.

Smiling Balinese woman

The Balinese view

A few years ago, I went to Bali. I was physically, emotionally and mentally exhausted from working too hard, partly from having to initiate everything in my career all the time and especially in an area in the musical world that is still relatively unchartered. Bali I knew was somewhere where I could not only give myself some time and space to completely switch off and let go of work, but also somewhere I could immerse myself in a rich, cultural life that is totally different from the Western world. And of course, it’s a beautiful place too!

When you get to know the Balinese, the questions are completely different. They never ask: “What do you do?” or “Are you busy?” Their questions are: “Where are you going?” “Have you eaten yet?” or “Are you married?” For us Westerners, this is a little odd. “Are you married?” is way too personal for us, but for them it is part of their very formal, social structure. “Where are you going?” is just curiosity in the moment (although it did get a little annoying when that question was asked everytime I went out) and “Have you eaten?” is how they structure their day – around food!

For the Balinese, what you do in terms of work is utterly irrelevant as long as you earn enough money to feed and clothe your family. The father of my homestay (B&B) family was a security guard in the Monkey Forest and B&B owner, who had previously owned an art gallery, worked in an instrument shop, was also a superb painter and excellent gamelan player. To him, all those occupations were much of a much-ness and those skills and experiences certainly didn’t define him. And as for me, they didn’t care what my work was. They cared about whether I smiled, whether I played with their kids and whether I was happy to go to a Balinese ceremony with them.

Sunset in Bali

Bali taught me so much. The relief of not being measured by what I did was wonderful – I don’t think I told anybody what my work was for weeks. I came back rested and enriched, very clear that I would let go of the striving that had become a habit and start carving out time and space to rest and look after myself on a more regular basis. So now when people ask me if I’m busy, I usually find myself saying something along the lines of: “Busy enough, but fortunately not too busy!”


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