How to Avoid Musical Burn Out
by Tom Hess
Do you sometimes find it difficult to stay focused and motivated to practice guitar or play music? Most musicians I know (including myself) have had at least one significant period in their lives when they have experienced musical burn out – a general feeling of being uninspired, unmotivated, bored, or just plain lazy! I’m not necessarily talking about people who have lost interest in music, I’m referring to those who love it, but have struggled to maintain focus at some point during their lives. Let me illustrate 2 examples, an intermediate level player and a professional musician.
Here is an excerpt of an email I received from an intermediate level player:
“…..I picked up the guitar when I was 14 after seeing a friend of mine play, I was very impressed in that moment, I felt in love with the guitar.
My first goal was to get better than my friend, so I worked very hard like 6 or more hours per day, I couldn't get away from the guitar, every morning I woke and picked up the guitar and played a little bit before school. I saw BIG improvements! I soon got better than my friend, and I knew it came from ‘effective guitar practice and hard work’.
I began to realize how big improvements had come in so little time, and I began to set big musical goals. I was so happy and excited because I knew how big I could be if I continued working like I had been doing before. I began playing gigs around the country, small and big gigs, everything was going fine for me.
In the last weeks, it seems that I can’t pick up the guitar. There can go 2 days when I don't touch it. It's like I have lost the ‘desire’ to play, but not. It's kind of hard to explain, deep in my heart I want to play the guitar but I just don’t do it. I get frustrated when that happens. It's like it's boring to play the guitar though I still love it. What can I do?”
Now for the next example (also an email excerpt sent to me)
“Hi Tom! I have made much excellent progress since we began corresponding, even my wife, who knows nothing about music, has noticed a large difference with what I’m doing. The new record is almost done now. It is much better than our first, we’ll be getting ready for the tour soon. Even though the new guitar solos are much harder, I’m more confident today that I will be able to pull them off every night without such problems as I had on the southern tour last year, you remember what a mess that was for me. As you guessed, I’m in a new place now and FINALLY on the skill level which I should have been performing at last year! So you are probably thinking, ‘mission accomplished, the struggle is over, I’ve won’ or other such victorious thoughts. All is well and good for me now right? Well, not really Tom. Yes things have never been better for my career or my playing, but I have a challenge now, one that I can’t seem to get my head around. This is the reason for my email to you. All the things I wanted to happen have happened already or are happening now, and still I’m not fulfilled. It’s not that I want more success. I don’t really know what it is that I want now. All that I am certain of is I can’t push myself any further anymore. I’ve reached a plateau, not in my career, nor in my playing. I’ve reached a plateau in my mind that isn’t allowing me to find the strength to work on playing. Maybe I’ve reached a certain level on guitar and I feel I’m done now as if I don’t need to get any better because I am already as good as I need to be. I’ve made it this far and I’m doing bigger things. To be honest, I’m burned out with guitar. I still like being a musician and the life I have because of it! I can’t get myself motivated to go further on a musical level. I only need to be sure the band stays as good as it is now. I don’t know if I am making any sense to you, I make little sense to myself now. I still love guitar, but I’m burned out. This contradiction eats me alive! I want to be as great as possible but I don’t need to be any better, so why am I not finding the mental energy to make it happen… please excuse my rambling, you are only one of three people I can talk to about this. So what does the doctor say? Any cures for me in the bag of Hess tricks? Come on man, write me a prescription! Have you been through this yourself?”
As you read the excerpts from each player, what did you hear (or what didn’t you hear) in their words that might be the root of their problem? I could save you a few minutes and just tell you what I think the answer is, but I think we both (you and me) are far more interested in what YOU think their primary problem was. So I invite you to take a few minutes (or as long as you need) and think about it on your own before reading the rest of this article. So please, stop reading now, think about it and then continue onto the next paragraph
Both of these players had significant goals and challenges which they were focused on and have achieved. In both cases the commitment to achieving these goals was a good motivating force which had served them well – up to a point. Once the goals were basically realized, the motivation quickly evaporated. Both of these players are extraordinary people because they actually had enough perseverance and a strong enough work ethic to manifest their musical goals into a physical reality. Many people with similar goals may not have had the same drive to get the job done and would have probably burned out even before reaching their own goals. So, what is the answer? Why have these people struggled to move forward even though they know they have the abilities and the desire to do more? In short, what caused the burn out after a certain point?
When I replied to both of the guys, I basically told them I believed their problem was they didn’t have powerful enough REASONS to move forward beyond the burn out point. It’s much harder to force ourselves to do something every day if we don’t have powerful enough reasons to do so. Challenges in life are so much easier to conquer when the purposes and reasons are: important enough, vivid enough, and urgent enough within ourselves.
In the first example above that player had a strong enough reason to reach a certain point, but after that, what happened? He burned out because he paid attention only to reach a goal which would not fulfill him after it was achieved. There wasn’t a stronger and bigger reason in his mind to really drive him to go beyond that.... To play better than someone else was simply not a powerful enough reason for the long term.
The player in the second example did have bigger and more powerful goals than the first guy. Because I know quite a lot about this person, I also understand his personal reasons behind those goals and they were/are strong enough – this is why he succeeded. But again, beyond the goals of having a successful professional music career and becoming an excellent musician, he has other goals, but they were not backed by powerful enough, vivid enough, or urgent enough reasons – this is why he simply burned out. As his friend, we talked a lot about this and I am glad to report to you that he has focused a lot more on his reasons and has continued on to do even bigger and better things in music (both artistically and professionally).
One of my favorite quotes on achievement comes from Tony Robbins, “If you have big enough reasons, you can achieve virtually anything”. This statement has impacted my life greatly from the moment I first heard it in April of 2005.
The reasons you have behind why you want what you want are probably different from the guys in the examples, myself, your friends or anyone else. Your reasons are personal and specific to you. But whatever they are, focus on them every day and if you still are not motivated enough to take the actions you need to take, it doesn’t mean that you are lazy – it only means you need to find a powerful enough goal backed by bigger, more powerful and more vivid REASONS.
Yes, it’s as simple as that.
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