Although the following is written from the perspective of a self-employed freelance musician, I believe the issues addressed below provide useful insight for people who work in all fields.
I was recently reminded of the differences between working hard and overworking through a terrific video created by fellow cellist and freelancer, Emily Davidson. I only wish I had seen this video, and that this topic was more openly discussed, back when I was making myself sick from overworking!
Before my bipolar diagnosis in 2013, I was commuting five hours to my job as principal cellist of an orchestra. Each week I took an overnight Greyhound that got me home around 5:30am in order to teach later that morning. I used to think that I could easily work seven days a week, including red-eye travel, and teach from morning ’til night the next day.
After all, it worked on paper. So I did it for years, with a smile…
Because my work as a musician was something I enjoyed, I somehow got the idea that I had to work twice as hard as the average person. I didn’t yet believe that the work I was doing (hours of practicing, rehearsing, taking auditions, pouring my energy into students, etc.) was “legitimate” enough because I loved it, so I worked myself to the point of illness.
This mindset was wrong, dangerous to my health, and without knowing it I was discrediting and stereotyping artists.
Although working evenings and weekends is part of being a musician, I denied myself any time off, surrendering my needs and personal boundaries in order to prove (to my parents, to my contemporaries, to briefcase-favouring society) that I worked just as hard as anyone. The stress of my pace, on top of living with an undiagnosed mental illness, caught up to me quickly, and there were consequences.
To cope with the stress I began taking Rhodiola rosea, a powerful adaptogen herb, and I quickly got hooked. It helped, but it didn’t eliminate the source of my problem. One night I awoke to a gripping pain in my gut, and became so ill I couldn’t eat solid food for days. X-rays and testing yielded chronic gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, and I was prescribed powerful daily medication that I was told I would need to take for life.
At this time I was also preparing my first solo concerto with orchestra, and my stress snowballed. I felt nauseous all the time, especially as I was packing my bags and running to catch the bus for my commute. I would also find myself weeping for no reason and forgetting important things. I repeatedly lost my phone and wallet, and I felt like I was losing my mind. Somehow, I always managed to appear right as rain on the outside, a finely honed skill since childhood.
I took the leap and resigned from my position as principal cellist of the orchestra in order to focus on a full-time freelance and teaching career, minus the commute. It was a big step, but I still didn’t learn my lesson. Since I no longer had a secure position I thought I had to be available at every hour, accommodate everyone else’s schedule, and say yes to every opportunity. I continued to book myself seven days a week at all hours, thinking I was lucky to be able to work so much, and that I had to, to somehow prove that I had a “real” job. Friends and family with mainstream careers insisted that I at least take a day off per week, but I persevered, thinking taking a day off was lazy, indulgent, and that I somehow didn’t deserve it because my work was enjoyable.
Then I was diagnosed with type I bipolar disorder, which shook my world upside-down. It was the wake-up call that I needed.
Now that I was faced with an illness that required treatment, I gradually began to leverage my freelance flexibility to support my health, not as an excuse to work at every hour with no boundaries. Knowing I had a mental illness to manage helped me develop a healthier work-life balance, and to take my work seriously, no matter how much I enjoyed it.
I wish that it hadn’t come down to needing a medical diagnosis to make me reevaluate my lifestyle, but I hope that sharing the steps I took will inspire others to stay balanced in their work life too.
Here are five ways my freelance career supports my mental wellness:
1. I make sure to book at least one day off per week.
For many freelancers, taking a day off can be impossible: you need to make yourself available to accept work when you can get it. However, you also need time off to regroup and refresh.
While I knew it wouldn’t always be possible, aiming for at least one day off per week was going to be essential for me to manage my illness and thrive. Most people have weekends; why couldn’t I try for one day? With no boss other than myself, only I could make it happen.
As my weekends are filled with teaching and concerts, I decided that Mondays would be my day off, just like many retail businesses. At first it felt like a huge step, even luxurious. Who was I to think I deserved this? But now I look at my day off as putting my health first.
I’ve also recently shifted my teaching away from Friday because it’s a popular gig day. I use my two personal days for catching up on email, practicing, rehearsing, writing, exercising, visiting friends, or just to recuperate.
My fear was that I would lose clients, but I didn’t. They adapted.
Now, when students ask for a lesson time or when I am booking rehearsals, rather than ask “what works best for you?” I offer a list of dates that suit me, and simply do not offer Mondays or Fridays. Sometimes I have to cave, but for the most part I get to keep my free days.
Realizing that I could create my own boundaries and didn’t have to offer every cell of my being to clients was incredibly empowering.
You can’t pour from an empty cup. If you don’t respect your own boundaries, no one will.
2. I take advantage of my flexible work hours.
Although I can’t control the timing of rehearsals and concerts, I can generally set my own hours. When I have gigs I can usually schedule lessons around them. When I know that a show will run very late, I adjust my teaching schedule the next morning to make sure I get the rest I need.
I also schedule breaks in between lessons and appointments, so I can catch my breath and prepare for my next activity. Not rushing has made a huge impact on my stress level!
For years I compared myself to other type A’s, thinking there must be something wrong with me for not jumping up at 6am to go running before work. Finally, it clicked: I often work late, and my medication has me sleeping up to eleven hours a night. Starting early simply doesn’t work for me.
Just because some people start work at 8am, and some work until 11pm, that doesn’t mean I have to work from 8am—11pm to “keep up.” I work a different 9 to a different 5, and I work hard: it doesn’t mean I am lazy. I am remembering back to when I worked the 11pm—7am shift at Denny’s during my undergrad… there are many ways to carve out a work day!
I decided that my earliest start time would be 10:00am, and it works nicely. Unless I have a late show, I try to be in bed by 10:00pm.
3. I can often work from home.
Because my work involves playing music, I am very fortunate to be able to do so at home, and to have a bright, spacious studio space for teaching and rehearsing. Many of my musician colleagues have to teach for music schools or rent studio space because playing music at home disturbs their neighbours. Our downstairs neighbour is very understanding, and I in turn keep the music between 10am and 9pm.
Working from home is convenient, and it allows me to easily make healthy meals to support my dietary needs. My work is close at hand as soon as I wake up, and it is nice to not have to drag a cello across town to teach! I am also available for deliveries, and I am able to quickly change my clothes, or be able to go straight to bed when I need to.
It’s easy to feel housebound, so at least once a day I take a walk around the block to refresh. When I leave the house for gigs it is always a welcome change of scenery, and different every time.
4. I am able to choose projects carefully.
I could have gone a safer route and pursued a more secure job in another field with a boss and benefits. Embarking on a career as a musician was a riskier choice, but I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. Over time, through hard work, ambition, organization, being easy to work with, and being great at what I do, I have developed an excellent reputation and created a reliable freelance career with steady income.
I get hired for a wide variety of projects, including performing and recording with many different groups, and playing and teaching within all genres of music, from baroque and classical to contemporary and pop. This makes for a very enjoyable palette of work experience.
As a freelancer, I need to be extremely skilled in time management to allot the necessary amount of preparation for each project, and keeping a foolproof professional calendar helps me achieve this.
Some projects are more artistically satisfying, and some pay the bills. While I had to accept a lot of work that was less worthwhile early in my career to get started, I am now at a point where I do not have to say yes to every project that comes my way. I am able to focus on work that is worthwhile, both artistically and financially.
I am doing beautiful work that I love, for an industry that I believe in, and that makes for personal satisfaction and overall well-being.
5. I get to share my passion.
Sharing my love for the cello and making music with others is incredibly powerful and enjoyable. I am very fortunate to be able to earn a living by making music, and that I enjoy teaching others. To those who work in another field, try running a workshop or mentoring someone to strengthen your skills and enhance your work life. While teaching is not for everyone, it is something I truly love to do.
As someone who both performs and teaches, my skills as a performer feed my teaching, and my teaching strengthens my technical and musical ability. Students attend my concerts and gigs, and my performances inspire and motivate them. This creates a wonderfully fulfilling and healthy musical ecosystem.
The more experience and knowledge I accumulate as a cellist, the more I can give. The results I see from students get better every year, and the positive feedback I receive from clients is a huge boost to my soul.
Through teaching I have also developed wonderful, wholehearted relationships with students. I love scheduling informal performance and social opportunities for them, and being with them every step of the way in learning to play this beautiful instrument.
Being able to teach what I love is as good for my well-being as it is for my pupils, and I am reminded daily that I am on the right path.
I am extremely lucky to have a career that I have designed to support my mental wellness. How does your career support your mental wellness?
All rights reserved. Copyright Erika Nielsen @ Sound Mind 2020