As musicians, we work with beauty on a regular basis. It's true that sometimes we come across music that isn't appealing, and that we'd rather not do but need to for the sake of the job at hand. Regardless, we get to work with a significant amount of beautiful music in our day-to-day lives – and definitely more so than the average person.
Yet in spite of this privilege of having so much beauty in our lives by virtue of our careers, it becomes ordinary and commonplace for so many of us. Think of the last time you were struck with awe and overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of a piece of music you were performing or teaching. Can you remember it? Hopefully you can – but if you aren't able to, it may mean a few things. On the one hand, it could mean that you've become so accustomed to it that you're taking it for granted. However, it could be a sign that you're on the path of experiencing burnout. Whether it's either one of these reasons or another one altogether – read on.
According to a study done on 1500 DJs and musicians, 66% reported having experienced burnout at least once. And a 2022 Gallup poll reported that 44% of K-12 teachers surveyed experienced burnout "always" or "very often". There are a number of contributions that can contribute to burnout, among them being long hours, low wages, and lack of professional or personal support.
The question then becomes this: how do we as musicians, regardless of where we reside in the field of music, protect ourselves from burnout? And as Catholic musicians, I think an additional question could be tacked on: is there anything in our faith that can help protect us from burnout?
I think the answer is yes.
Now, of course, everyone's situation is unique. There's no one-size-fits-all answer to these questions, and I want to acknowledge that before I continue. The following thoughts are drawn from my own personal experiences with burnout and conversations with other Catholic musicians, and have been valuable enough in my own life/the lives of others that I would like to suggest them here.
Make an examen of your life. And not just one examen every once in a blue moon. Begin a new routine of examining your life once a month. What are your priorities? Has the past month reflected these priorities? Where has God been fitting into the picture? Have we involved Him in our daily lives? In our decision making? These are good questions to reflect on regularly and can help us to better understand where we're at, and what we need to change in order to better make our priorities... well, priorities. Sometimes burnout can be caused by saying "yes" to far more commitments than we can handle. Having a clearer picture of our priorities can help us avoid burnout from overcommitment.
Go back to the basics. Are you eating regular, nutritious meals? What's your sleep schedule like? How's your hydration? I love the story of Elijah in 1 Kings where he feels so incredibly down over life that he begs the Lord to let him die. Instead, God sends an angel... who tells Elijah to sleep. When Elijah wakes up, the angel gives him food, and then tells him to sleep again. When he wakes up again, he's ready to continue his mission from God. The reason I bring this up is because it highlights a really important point: if our basic needs aren't met, it is going to affect our mental health. Our bodies and souls are entwined, and the state of each affects the other in ways we don't always understand. God made us with certain needs, including food, water, and sleep. When our basic bodily needs aren't being met on a regular basis, it can contribute elsewhere. Now don't get me wrong – I'm not saying that eating good meals will automatically cure all mental health struggles and any symptoms of burnout we might experience. But healing is often made up of lots of little pieces, not just one quick fix. If we're able to better meet our basic needs, it could help prevent burnout, or be an aid in healing from it.
Develop a relationship with the Holy Spirit. At its core, burnout is a cry for help from our minds and souls. Sometimes it's caused by unavoidable factors. But there are other instances in which burnout could be avoided, but we don't notice it because we're too far into the details to see the bigger picture. As baptized Catholics, we have access to the gifts of the Holy Spirit – wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of God – which are then brought to maturity through the sacrament of Confirmation. Developing a relationship with the Holy Spirit takes time and intentionality on our parts, but He has given us these gifts and He wants to guide us onto paths that will bring us to life in God. If you don't already have a habit of asking the Holy Spirit for assistance in making decisions, whether they're big or small, I can't recommend doing so enough. He can grant clarity that we may not be able to have on our own.
Immerse yourself in beauty outside of music. Walks in nature, good literature, time well-spent baking in the kitchen, enjoying time with a loved one – any of these are wonderful ways to take in beauty in ways that aren't musical. God is Beauty, and He created us for beauty. When we've lost the ability to sense the beauty of the music we create or teach, we may need to immerse ourselves in other avenues of beauty in order to regain the appreciation we once had for the beauty of music. This point is applicable to anyone reading this, not just if you're experiencing burnout! Even if you've found yourself in a place where you take the beauty of music for granted, immersing yourself in the beauty of art, of nature, of relationships, of food, of craftsmanship – all these can help you to regain that sense of wonder and awe when it comes to the beauty of music.
Frequent the Sacraments. I feel cliche writing this, to be completely honest. Like, would this be a Catholic list without saying "frequent the sacraments"? And yet it's true. Remember how I said our bodies and souls are entwined? Receiving the Eucharist a couple more times than just on Sundays or making a routine of going to confession every other week will affect other areas of our lives. We may not see the benefits right away, but that doesn't mean the graces from these sacraments aren't at work. I took a musicians' wellness course in college where the professor repeatedly emphasized that everything affects everything. It's true when it comes to injury prevention or healing, and it's also true when it comes to burnout prevention or healing. Putting the sacraments of the Eucharist and Confession a notch or two higher on your priority list will have a positive effect on you in some way, whether it's immediately clear or not.
As I said before these points, I'm not saying any of these are a one-size-fits-all answer to the question of how to prevent burnout. Nor are they a quick fix to overcoming burnout that's already there. But it is possible that something here might be useful. Burnout is a hard cross to carry, and sometimes certain situations (including our own limited vision) can make it unavoidable, at least for a period of time. However, there is hope. Healing is possible. For we believe in a God Who is the Divine Physician, and He works in truly infinite ways to bring about our healing.* We are not just spirits, and we are not just bodies. When we seek to care for our bodies and our souls, we can work with Him to move toward greater healing.
*If you are suffering from burnout, it is possible that seeking counseling may be useful in the healing process. This is not always necessary, but depending on the level of burnout being experienced, counseling could potentially be instrumental in making a full recovery. God can work through all things, including good counselors! For a database of licensed Catholic therapists, click here.