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I Have my Reasons: in Defense of Overwork

As I write, today, Monday, November 20, is my first full and entire day off from both teaching and performing since Labor Day. Read that again, because it is true, and it is also insane. Have you noticed how much we read and hear and see these days about the need for self-care, boundaries and a four or five day work week? I know I’ve seen that, and for the past couple of months I have guiltily slunk past those stories and reels without stopping, because I know I have not been making the best choices when it comes to that sort of thing, but bear with me, because I have my reasons.

Truly, this article is not an apology for working seven days a week this semester. It’s more a chance for me to tell you, reader, that sometimes your choices in your life and career won’t be perfect and sometimes, that’s OK. When you are a musician, you are a small business owner, and when you’re a small business owner, you have to take the opportunities that come to you as they come, without too much worrying about how you’re going to make it work.

Since August 25, I have performed 38 times on six different instruments (all in the flute family). This includes 5 orchestra concerts, 24 shows of a musical, 1 solo recital at a university, 1 chamber concerto and numerous smaller performances at festivals and on other concerts and recitals, including church services. I count them, because I take my playing on Sunday morning at a church gig just as seriously as I do on the concert stage the night before.

Since August 1, I have taught 467 flute lessons. I just counted them up—I think my current studio head count is about 52 children, teens and adults. Thanks to all the performing work I’ve had, I feel like I have not been as present for all of those students as I would have preferred, but with a couple of exceptions, they seem to understand that not all semesters are like this one, and that I won’t always make the same choices I have this fall. (I let me mother read this, and she wants me to assure you all that she has listened to me teach a lot of those lessons from the other room and feels I have been just as engaged as normal. Gotta love Mom!)

Believe me when I say that I am tired. Exhausted, really, but this week is a good long break as we celebrate Thanksgiving, and Winter Break is coming soon. As things stand right now, I only have six concerts on the books for the spring semester. I know it won’t stay that way, but right now, it looks like this marathon I’ve been running at sprinting pace is about to relax.

Why did I say yes to it all? Well, I’m an experiential person, and in every case, where those 38 performances are concerned, I either wanted to play the repertoire, or play with the people I’d be playing with, or play for a new contractor or in a new venue. I may be mid-career, but I am still, always, stretching my reach out to be as versatile as I can be. Building that network of connections in a city like Nashville where new people are always moving in means building variety and diversity into my days. 

When it comes to my studio, I want to make my students’ experience as rich and fulfilling as I can. For some kids, that requires a variety of performance and competition opportunities, which of course makes more work for me. Because I am the one with connections to spaces, recording equipment and people who play the piano, allowing these events into the life of the studio means that I have extra rehearsals to attend, extra scanning, ordering, driving, uploading, etc. All of that costs time, but it builds such strong relationships and so much confidence that I can’t ignore the value of giving up that otherwise free time.

So, I have my reasons. What is the big reason I’m willing to work this hard from time to time? It’s because I believe that sometimes, there’s something more important than having two full days off each week. I’m building something that means more to me than that. In my opinion, it’s worth it because of the relational aspect of what we do. I want to be known as a reliable performer and a reliable teacher. I want to have younger students waiting in the wings as the older ones graduate, and I want to book gigs far enough out that I have some idea of the income they’ll bring. Ultimately, I am the safety net for my life and business, and something I say frequently and mean explicitly is that I will only be held back by my own willingness and ability to hustle. I haven’t dealt with burnout, but that’s probably down to the range of ages and abilities in my studio and to the wide variety of repertoire in the performing I do. My days are all different from each other, and that is a satisfying adventure in itself.

Lately, even in those terms, it’s possible I have been out of control. And when I finish this article, believe me, I’m going to go take a nap. But for me, the bottom line is always going to be about the community and reputation I’m trying to build and maintain, and I will make choices that make sense within that framework. Over the holidays and at the end of the spring semester, I will take good, long breaks, and I cherish that time living life at a slower pace. That said, as long as I’m able to keep this up…I probably will!

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