Being a professional musician is regarded as one the top five most taxing professions, along with nursing, teaching, and social work. Entry into the profession comes to only a select few, after years of rigorous study, often beginning in childhood and continuing through college. Regardless of whether a student’s major is in performance, composition, teaching, or business, studying music in college is particularly hard at the undergraduate level.Students pursuing degrees in music suffer the same stresses and distractions as all college students, whether they are studying in a conservatory, liberal arts college, or even an online school
. Emotional and physical exhaustion, information overload, constant distraction, sleep deprivation, and lack of time to pursue social activities are common.Yet oftentimes Music students have additional stresses
on top of the normal load. Emphasis on solo performance, thousands of hours spent in solitary practice, and extra hours of outside private instruction create added personal stress. A study conducted by San Jose State University notes that 66 percent of undergraduate music students report extremely high levels of stress. An even higher percentage said that their music classes were far more stressful than their general studies.
Economic difficulties further add to the load of stressors. Music education is expensive, scholarships are few, and students may be of modest means. This leaves many music students offering private instruction as a way to make money, or performing at local bars, nightclubs, and other venues to make ends meet.
The combination of these factors can lead to burnout, due to the brain’s attempt to protect itself by refusing to absorb new information. Consistent overwork in the competitive arena of music, where memorizing large amounts of information and participating in auditions are common, can cause adrenaline overload, placing the student in a constant fight-or-flight mode.
Burnout in turn can lead to poor physical condition. Back and neck pain, tension headaches, stomach problems, carpal tunnel syndrome, and eyestrain are common physical aliments among music students at the college level. Similarly, a student may turn to unhealthy habits like substance abuse for relief. Unfortunately, music culture and the music industry take this for granted, and habits learned during college can be come entrenched, causing further problems down the line.
Music teachers who know what to look for can see concrete, observable symptoms of burnout. For instance, apathy, fatigue, boredom, and depression are clear signs. Thus, a student who is feeling burned out may appear cynical, detached, and talk about quitting. Panic attacks and feelings of inadequacy, hopelessness, and despair may also be frequent.
How can a music teacher help? Awareness of the many factors that influence a college music student is key, and understanding the underlying causes of burnout is critical to helping a student recover from or avoid it altogether.
Gentle questioning about the student’s experience of classroom instructors is one way to start. If it reveals that the student receives constant negative feedback and tactless, even angry correction, it may be a major factor behind feelings of low accomplishment and progress.
A music teacher may then examine his or her own methods by comparison. Are they similarly negative, or do they counteract the problems of an overstressed student? Many students report feelings of dread before class with a particularly difficult instructor and will often form feelings of self-recrimination in order to beat that teacher to the punches they are sure to receive. An outside instructor who creates an atmosphere of calm, constructive work combined with support for the student’s personal commitment to music can do much to alleviate these feelings.
Caring for the whole student and not just technique is another key point of awareness. Encouraging good health, diet, and hydration helps an overloaded student cope. Very few colleges offer courses in wellness for undergraduates, and it is an area in desperate need of improvement. Exercise, meditation, and deep breathing can alleviate stresses ranging from physical tension to performance anxiety.
More often than not, music students choose their field for love, not money. If their emotional investment is not recognized or rewarded, but rather denigrated and undermined, that emotional investment diminishes. Performance becomes a task done by rote, and the art of it is lost.
Therefore it is imperative to keep goals clear and demands reasonable. Recognize success and praise it. Sharing the joy of music does far more to increase engagement and avoid the depersonalization that causes student burnout. In fact, one of the main coping strategies music students employ comes in the form of spontaneous, informal jam sessions with peers. Though a student doesn’t take on additional instruction to jam, that teacher can reconnect the student with the joy of music in after-hours instruction.
Encouraging this kind of social activity will also help students cope with feelings of isolation and depression. Interaction with family, friends, and loved ones is proven to reduce stress and anxiety. Due to the fact that students must practice for long periods in relative isolation in order to progress, that isolation should be counterbalanced by healthy social activity.
Ultimately, music teachers and their methods are a critical part of preventing student burnout, and that includes non-faculty instructors who may only see a student after a stressful day. Teachers can model behavior and influence attitudes toward music study more than anything else in the student’s life and their influence, good or bad, lasts a lifetime.