By Ken Micallef
Every veteran musician tells war stories about facing the ominous wall of burnout and coming through it wounded, but wiser. Burnout as a destructive musical force can appear in a variety of guises. It can be simple repetitive stress syndrome, an inability to progress on an instrument or as a composer, a general malaise of mind, body, and musical spirit, even a sense of failure regarding career success.
Many players deal with burnout and if they haven’t—they will.
“Burnout happens to everyone,” says guitarist Ross Hammond (shown above). “Any combination of slogging through the same music over and over, often to little or no fanfare, clashing personalities with band-mates, tight budgets and a strained home life will wear on anyone. If it hurts, stop and take a break.”
There are as many varieties of burnout as there are ways to defeat the musical menace.
Hammond, whose upcoming releases include Music for Lighthouses, played on resonator guitar and percussion; a duo recording with Vinny Golia for 12-string guitar and woodwinds; and Follow Your Heart, performed on resonator and 12-string guitars, offers practical advice to combat physical problems.
“In the past few years I’ve developed some overuse/repetitive stress issues with my shoulders and upper back,” Hammond says. “I try to keep limber and stretch out before and after gigs. That keeps the pain at bay. If it gets too bad I apply heat and ice, maybe ibuprofen. Also, I try to avoid sitting or standing in the same position for too long. To keep my wrists and forearms pain-free I’ll play different instruments with different size necks to add a variety of motion. The most important thing is to not ‘fight through it.’ If something hurts, stop.”
“If I need to practice now for something specific I will work on expression more than repetitive practice.”—Rez Abbasi
For other musicians, such as prolific New York City upright bassist Chris Lightcap, burnout can affect your career as well as your relationship with the instrument.
“In my late 20s, I took on a lot of work,” Lightcap reflects. “I was playing with a different band every night, playing a different type of music every night. I was working a lot, but I didn’t have a sense of direction or development. I couldn’t hear my own voice because the context was always changing. Something clicked and I put a band together that reflected my musical identity and extended beyond my playing. That brought consistency to my musical life.”
Acclaimed jazz guitarist Rez Abbasi believes burnout begins and ends with practice. He no longer pursues the six-hours-a-day practice routines he once followed as a student, instead blending performance with practice.
“If I need to practice now for something specific I will work on expression more than repetitive practice,” Rez states. “It’s a paradigm shift. I don’t think of it as much as practicing as expressing. I’m still practicing learning the guitar inside-out, but now I do it on a higher level that reaps more rewards.
“Say I soloed over a standard at a session, and I sounded terrible,” Rez continues. “I will practice that as an expressive solo over the standard. There are greater gains right away. The process is more musical than it was when I was just learning the instrument. It’s not so systematic. It’s not all about the tools of the craft, it’s about the expression behind the tools.”
Then, there are “better practice” procedures to stop burnout before it flames up.
“I learned the idea of practicing smarter instead of just more,” Arlene Hlusko relates. “Continuing to practice once my arms became weak was not only unproductive, but harmful. Over time, I traded in my practice-till-you-can’t routine for a more concise approach. I organized practice as a schedule, incorporated breaks, and allotted practice time to studying scores, analyzing harmonies–deepening my approach and making the process more well-rounded.”
“Sometimes, the more you try to deal with technical or physical problems head on, often the less progress you make.”—Chris Lightcap
Some pop culture strategies can rescue the musician from burnout hell. As it does for athletes, gurus and celebrity chefs, visualization can help the practicing musician escape his or her burnout-induced rut.
“I would imagine the teacher’s positive reaction to my doing great in a lesson,” says Abbasi, whose Washburn Custom Shop Fretless, Gold Star Baritone, and Songbird guitars are featured on his latest albums, Natural Selection and Intents and Purposes.
“That was a big motivator. And that happened. Once you get that it’s like a dog with a bone. You keep going there. That was a serious motivator for shedding. After college, you place that motivation on people you’re playing with. That can drive the burnout away. And establish short-term goals. The more vague and larger the goal, that’s when burnout will hit. Short term goals will keep your practice concise.”
If all else fails, leave the instrument behind and live life. Or so Chris Lightcap advises.
“Sometimes, the more you try to deal with technical or physical problems head on, often the less progress you make. With experience, you realize the ways to deal with those situations come from other areas of your life. If you think of your life in a holistic way, music isn’t separate from any other aspect of your life. It’s all part of the same thing.”
Burnout is a byproduct of the musician’s intense desire to be the best. To excel. What more holistic way to reappraise your approach than by returning to the basics? When all else fails, revisit the rudiments.
“There’s always going to be the young musician on the scene who can play ‘Donna Lee’ faster on upright bass with gut strings and the action set at eight inches high,” Lightcap laughs. “So when I practice now I work on my sound. Do I love my sound or do I hate my sound? How can I make my actual sound the best it can be? That’s the first order of the day for me. Basic sound, intonation, evenness of tone.
“We’re all trying to perfect those fundamental aspects of our playing. Focus on that, instead of burnout.”