September musings on self-care in academia (or not!)

As the month of September rolls to an end, things are in full swing for me back at school as a student and a teacher. Below are a few self-care tips geared towards those in school, but can also be applied to anyone, really!

Self-care tip #1: make plans with people who understand exactly what you are going through.

Entering the second year of the DMA program feels really different than first year; one of the biggest differences is that my “classes” right now are independent research projects. That being said, it is very easy to not bump into any other DMA students, which can create a cycle of isolation. As both a teacher/TA/student I do have contact with many people every day, but having a quick wave with an acquaintance is very different than having a coffee (or going for a walk, or having a glass of wine) with someone who understands the ins and outs of the program you are in and is going through a similar experience as you. It feels really cathartic to talk with someone who truly understands what you are experiencing, whether it be in school or in another aspect of your life. A lot of people half-joke about grad school making them “crazy”: grad school can be a breeding ground for isolation, competition, depression, and anxiety. This is a very real situation for many people, and the more it can be talked about openly, the better.

For an interesting article on grad school, mental health, and burnout:

Self-care tip #2: Cross-train!

As creatures of habit, one of the best things we can do for ourselves is to switch up our regular patterns and habits. This can be applied to all aspects of life. If you have an exercise/movement routine that consists mainly of yoga and running, experiment with doing Pilates and swimming. If you always go for massages, try acupuncture or osteopathy. To apply this to music school: if you always take lessons from the same instructor, seek instruction from a different teacher (and possibly even a different instrument! See my last blog post on my lessons with a vocalist). It can feel so refreshing and insightful to get a different perspective than what you are used to. We all have “blind spots” in our performance habits, our movement patterns, and our mental processes – switching up the method of training we use can help eliminate these blind spots.

Self-care tip #3: Sleep well. Eat well. Exercise. (Duh?!)

Sounds so trite, but did you know that leading up to a big game/match/race athletes will get a lot of extra sleep and carefully plan out their meals. What do you do leading up to a big recital (or presentation/audition etc…)? Usually sleep, food, and exercise are the things that get shoved aside right before a busy time period or intense practice period, when in reality, these are the types of things that need to be prioritized if we want to be at the top of our physical and mental game in order to ace our recital/presentation/audition. So how can we shift our thinking as musicians to include the whole instrument and prioritize things like getting more sleep and nutrition? We all know that exercise is proven to be extremely beneficial for alleviating anxiety, depression, or just general stress – how can you “stack” your daily activities so that you are moving more throughout the day? (For more information on the queen of stacking, Google “Katy Bowman + Stacking”).

Self-care tip #4: Take time off.

As musicians we are often afraid of stopping. Taking regular time off is crucial for avoiding burnout and giving our body and mind a time to rest and assimilate information. I recently read a great book that I would highly recommend for any artists: Birds Art Life by Kyo Maclear. The book is like a little meditation. At one point Maclear writes about how artists are afraid of “lulls.” She says:

“A lull can be soothing, tranquilizing, and even restorative. It can be a time to retune and replenish. A lull can suggest a state of peaceful hovering, a prolonged mental daydream, a weightless interval. On can be lulled to sleep or lulled into a trance.
Yet for many artists I know, the word lull signifies the exact opposite: the absence, the flaw, the incompleteness, something lethal and dangerous, a source of fear and melancholia.”

She goes on to explain the reasons for this, and then says, “What if we could imagine a lull as neither fatal nor glorious? What if a lull was just a lull?”

For sake of keeping this (relatively) short I’ll stop the list here, but of course there are numerous other self-care tools – what are some of yours?