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Still on fire or burning out?

W​hat type of music teacher burns out? Often she is an idealistic, "on fire" individual who does not have a firm pedagogic sense of what is real and what is fantasy. Someone who believes that all children can achieve a high level of mastery at the instrument, regardless of their level of intelligence, talent, discipline, and parental support. He may be a teacher who is driven to demand a high level of performance from himself and his students—an individual who cannot compromise with reality. Many are highly disciplined perfectionists who have an intuitive gift for music. It is often difficult for these professionals to understand average, below-average, or non-intuitive music learning because they have never experienced it themselves. If these descriptions seem familiar to you, you may be experiencing some symptoms of burnout.

We spend a great deal of time reading about and discussing the best teaching approaches, new materials, and a myriad of other student-centered topics. But we also need to take quality time to examine our own well-being, and learn how to achieve a healthy mind/body balance in our professional and personal lives. Dr. Lesley Sisterhen McAllister completes our two-part series on recognizing and coping with burnout.

Keeping the fire burning: How overworked, under appreciate music teachers recover from burnout      

by Lesley Sisterhen McAllister 

T​eaching music can be one of the most exciting, dynamic, and inspiring career choices. Opportunities for new adventures constantly present themselves: watching young students take their first steps of discovering music; choosing repertoire; isolating problems and helping students come up with solutions; and getting to know so many distinctive personalities. This sense of excitement is especially characteristic of new teachers, who are making discoveries each day as they teach. But for those who have been teaching for a longer time, finding this enthusiasm can sometimes prove more difficult as the "been there, done that" attitude sets in.

​The symptoms

​Have you experienced either of these scenarios? A student finishes playing, eagerly looks up at you for guidance and wisdom, and you realize that you have not heard a note that she played. Or you find yourself repeating the same things over and over, week after week, to a student who never seems to improve. These two situations demonstrate symptoms of burnout, a condition that is most likely to arise when you have expended too much energy without giving yourself enough time for restoration.

Constant levels of high stress can lead to the physical, mental, and emotional symptoms of burnout. You may expect too much of yourself and feel overworked, underappreciated, and overcommitted. Physical symptoms such as headaches, high blood pressure, fatigue, and muscle tension can occur. Burnout is a danger in any demanding field, but people in the human-service professions such as teachers, clergy members, health practitioners, and caregivers are more susceptible.

While your own health and well-being are of primary importance, it is also vital to remember that you cannot be an effective teacher if you lose your energy and love of teaching. Musical knowledge and ability are crucial, but it is your intensity and genuine enthusiasm that cause students to pay attention, remember key points, and continue music study.

​Making some changes

If you seem to care less about your students' development, are easily annoyed and irritated with them, or dread the teaching day, then it is time for a change. It is possible to return to the positive feelings of your initial "honeymoon period" of teaching, but it requires taking a good, long look at your lifestyle and making some changes in your priorities. Here are some ideas for initiating change and restoring your lost sources of energy.​ 
  • ​Exercise 
We have all heard about the benefits of regular exercise, yet when burnout strikes it is sometimes very difficult to summon up the needed energy. Once you have taken the initiative to begin a regular regimen, it becomes a habit that brings more energy to your everyday life. Exercise stimulates the production of endorphins—neurotransmitters that produce feelings of well-being, provide pain relief from chronic tension, and even help you relax. Regular exercise can reduce depression, help you sleep more soundly, and strengthen your stamina for long days of teaching.

When you start a program, don't select it based on the number of calories it will burn or the amount of time it will take. Choose something you enjoy that will fit easily into your lifestyle, because the last thing you need is to add another unpleasant activity to your "to-do" list. Your goal is to bring more joy to your life, just as you did when you took ballet lessons, roller skated, or rode your bicycle as a child. The benefits of even light exercise, as long as it is done regularly, have a profound effect on general well-being. (Even gardening, vacuuming, or washing the car can count as exercise!) The key is to become physically and mentally involved in an activity in order to break away from the stresses related to teaching.

Long hours of teaching can leave you mentally exhausted, and your body tires when sitting or standing in the same position for extended periods. Classes in yoga and Pilates have the added benefit of promoting relaxation and reducing muscular tension. Plan to spend about 150 minutes engaged in physical activity and spread it over three to five days each week.

  • ​Take a break 
It is always interesting to talk with amateur adult musicians who come home from work looking forward to sitting down to practice. It is their "down" time when they can absorb themselves in the activity that gives them the most pleasure and satisfaction. Surely they must look at the lives of professional musicians with a certain amount of envy, thinking that our work consists entirely of "down" time!

Unfortunately, practice for many musicians is more of a task. We expect ourselves to spend a set amount of time each day at the instrument, just as we expect to perform chores like brushing our teeth every morning. How can we retrieve this joy that seems to come so naturally to non-professionals?

Sometimes, we need a break from an activity to fully appreciate it. This can be true of practicing as well as teaching. In fact, students might also need a break. If you teach through the summer, give yourself some down time after the spring recital. When putting together your schedule for the year, allow yourself breaks in addition to regular holidays—such as a spring break during the same week as your local schools. Having one day a week when you do not practice or teach also provides a much-needed "breather."

  • ​Pick up a new hobby 
Why do amateur musicians have the desire to learn music, and often seem to get more enjoyment out of it? Perhaps the answer is that their professional success​ does not depend on their musical ability and skills. Finding a hobby that is unrelated to music can provide the escape for us that amateurs find in music practice. Take a class about something new, such as knitting or making pottery; or designate time for an activity that is solely intended for leisure, such as writing in a journal or reading. What would help you "recharge your battery"? See yourself as a whole being, not just a musician. You will be healthier and have more enthusiasm and energy when you return to making music.

  • ​Drop something 
Taking on more than you can handle is one of the most common causes of burnout. Music teachers often wear many hats—as accompanists, church musicians, and even taking on additional part-time jobs. Take a good, hard look at the life you are leading—what might you leave out? Can you pare down the number of students in your studio? Begin with students who do not practice enough and seem the least interested in music study. Your studio policy should warn parents and students of the potential for termination due to lack of practice or behavioral issues. You may want to communicate with another teacher to facilitate your student's transfer when lessons with you have ended.

  • ​Try something
Burnout often occurs when teachers have been doing the same thing year after year—teaching from the same method book, using the same anthologies, assigning the same repertoire. Using the same material is the safe thing to do, but the challenge of finding new, useful teaching repertoire can be a stimulus for broad changes.

Trying new approaches such as group teaching may enable you to discover hidden strengths that you never knew existed. Teachers who are unsure about their ability to work with larger groups might experiment with partner (dyad) teaching. Teaching a new age group with materials such as Kindermusik, Music for Little Mozarts, or RMM also provides variety and can bring back that initial rush of adrenaline—the "teaching high" so often experienced by novices.

  • ​Do what you love
Most people would be much happier if they had more choice and freedom in their daily lives. Independent teachers have a great advantage in their ability to decide what types of students they teach, materials they employ, and approaches they use. Seize the freedom to do what you love—assign only the music that you want to hear, and concentrate on the teaching population that you most enjoy. Some teachers love working with children, while others are inspired by the relationships they have with their adult students. Whenever possible, advertise your specialty so you can gain more students of the type you like the most. If you need to transfer some students to another studio, emphasize the benefits they will gain from working with a teacher who has more expertise in the area of their particular needs or skills.

  • ​Laugh! 
Both teachers and students often feel tension during a stressful lesson that is marked by slow progress. When it manifests itself as physical tension in the student, it exacerbates the problem. Conscientious teachers often feel rushed during lessons, wanting to include as much content as possible in a short time span. But taking time during the lesson to help students feel comfortable has its own advantages—when a student feels comfortable rather than stressed, his emotional needs are met and learning is more likely to occur.​ 

Humor, in particular, can alleviate pressure and help relax both parties. An unexpected joke adds intimacy to the lesson, improving the rapport between teacher and student. Smiling or speaking in a lighthearted way can take some of the seriousness out of the lesson. Students will be more likely to pay attention and remember concepts that are presented in an engaging and entertaining way. If you make a mistake or say the wrong thing, being able to laugh at your own error helps students feel more comfortable and takes some of the pressure to be perfect off of you.

  • ​Nurture your relationships
Good relationships with your partner, children, and friends help alleviate the psychological effects of burnout. When stressful emotions fester and grow without open communication, it may cause rifts in your ties with loved ones.

Professional colleagues offer a great deal of support for independent teachers who feel isolated. Close connections with fellow teachers allow you to vent frustrations and brainstorm solutions. Joining your local music teachers' organization helps create a social network with other musicians and enables you to transfer students to other studios more easily.

​Never enough time 

​When people choose not to engage themselves in any of these healthy activities—such as exercising, finding a new hobby, or taking a break—their excuse is almost always related to time demands. There never seems to be enough hours in the day, but planning ahead will help you to carve out more time for yourself. The issue, after all, is one of priorities. Schedule time for "self-care" and keep the appointment as faithfully as you would keep a doctor's appointment. A teacher's emotional health is just as important as the musical development of his or her students, because all of these areas are interrelated. When we place ourselves first, we will bring more energy and enthusiasm to the lessons we teach, and that is a win-win scenario.

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