5 Ways My Freelance Music Career Supports My Mental Wellness

woman playing piano at home

woman playing piano at home

By Erika Nielsen

This article originally appeared on The Sound Mind Blog

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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 other fields, too.

A few years back I was 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 a red-eye 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 developed a toxic outlook where I thought 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, and I faced the deep consequences of working myself to the point of illness.

“Because my work as a musician was something I enjoyed, I somehow developed a toxic outlook where I thought I had to work twice as hard as the average person.”

This mindset was harmful and toxic, 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 at all, and surrendered 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 health condition, caught up to me quickly, and there were major 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 crying for no reason and often 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.

After reading Dr. Gabor Maté’s illuminating book When the Body Says No, I realized my job was costing me my greatest asset–my health. I was not just working hard, I was overworking!

I took the leap and resigned from my position as principal cellist of my orchestra in order to focus on a full-time freelance and teaching career, minus the commute. While it was a big step, I still didn’t learn my lesson. Since I no longer had a secure job position I thought I had to make myself 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. Even 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 I enjoyed my work.

Then to my shock, 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 a major mental health condition 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. My diagnosis 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 major mental health diagnosis to make me reevaluate my lifestyle, but I hope that sharing the steps I took will inspire others to find more balance in their work life too.

Below are five ways my freelance career supports my mental wellness.

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hands on keyboard

1. I make sure to book at least one day off per week.

For many freelancers, taking a day off can seem impossible: we need to make ourselves available to accept work when we get the call. However, we also need time off to regroup and refresh.

While I knew it wouldn’t always be possible, it was going to be essential for me to start by aiming for at least one day off per week to manage my mental health and thrive in my career. Most people have weekends: why couldn’t I try for one day? With no boss other than myself, only I could make it happen.

“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 were 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 a day off? But now I look at my day off as putting my health first, which makes me even more effective the rest of the week.

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 students or clients if I asserted boundaries in my schedule, but I didn’t. They adapted.

Now, when I am booking rehearsals or scheduling lessons, rather than ask “what works best for you?” I offer a list of dates and times on my designated work days 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 concert 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. I used to be constantly sprinting from one activity to the next, with hardly a moment to eat or catch my breath. 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 I function best on nine to ten hours sleep. Starting early simply doesn’t work for me.

Just because some people start work at 8:00 am, and some work until 1:00 am, that doesn’t mean I have to work from 8:00 am—1:00 am to “keep up.” I work a “different 9 to a different 5”, and I still work hard: it doesn’t mean that I’m 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 10:00 am, and I try to finish teaching by 7:00 pm. It works nicely. Unless I have a late concert, I try to be in bed by 10:00pm.

+ Read more on Flypaper: “How to Develop a Longterm Mindset for Your Music Career.”

3. I can often work from home.

Because my work involves playing music, I am very fortunate to be able to work from 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 10:00 am and 9:00 pm.

Despite the fact that the pandemic demands it, 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.

Embarking on a career as a musician was a riskier choice than pursuing a secure job in another field, but I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. Over time, through hard work, ambition, being organized and easy to work with, and being great at what I do, I have earned 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 traditional 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.

While early in my career I had to accept a lot of work that was pro-bono or less artistically satisfying 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 pays a fair rate.

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 is something that I enjoy deeply. I am very fortunate to be able to earn a living by making music, and that I enjoy teaching others. For those who work in another field, try running a workshop or mentoring others 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 work as a performer fuels my teaching, and my teaching reinforces my technical and musical abilities. My students often attend my concerts and gigs, and in turn my performances inspire and motivate them in their lessons. This creates a wonderfully fulfilling and healthy musical ecosystem. The more experience and knowledge I accumulate as a cellist, the more I can give my students.

Through teaching I have also developed wonderful, wholehearted relationships with my students. I love scheduling informal performance and social opportunities for them, and being with them every step of the way in learning to play the cello. The results I see from students get better every year, and the positive feedback I receive from them is a huge boost to my soul.

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 fortunate to be able to have a freelance career that supports my well being and mental health.

Don’t stop here!

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Photo credit: Shayne Gray

Erika Nielsen is a professional cellist and writer, based in Toronto, Canada. Erika is the author of bestselling and award-winning memoir and wellness guide SOUND MIND: My Bipolar Journey from Chaos to Composure (Trigger Publishing, 2019) and a recipient of a 2019 Canada Book Award.

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