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Burned Out! What To Do Now?

A member of our community and I were discussing the struggles of life and how life can sometimes wear you down and non-musical things can snuff the flame of creativity.
What strategies have worked for you when the desire to create seems to have disappeared? 
Questions of balance, organizing time, prioritizing, relaxing, pushing yourself etc.
Replies (27): Threaded | Chronological
on March 30, 2014 1:34pm
Nature! Get outside into the woods - walk, hike,  bicycle.  This is my lifeline.  Make this, and enough time to sleep well, a priority. 
Applauded by an audience of 3
on March 30, 2014 7:27pm
Yes. Get outdoors. Exposure to nature has been proven to have a positive effect on both physical and mental health. Also: don't force it. Try not to fret. Maybe you actually need some time off, even from what you love most. In my case recently, I was literally burned out. Our house burned last June. We're lucky to be alive, but I didn't write a note for months. I just let it go, knowing it would come back sometime. And one day, a tune I'd never heard played in my head, and I've been productive ever since. 
Applauded by an audience of 3
on March 30, 2014 8:49pm
Personally, I find there's nothing like a nice looming deadline to get those creative juices flowing.
But whether or not I'm stuck, when I'm writing choral music I want to look at the texts again and again, to say the words out loud, and they help to reorient me back into the piece. At least, that's what works for me. I also agree with James that forcing it doesn't work; for me it's more a matter of musing about"what if": what would happen if the music went down this path or that one, if I tried this, did that, wandered here.
The composer Marvin David Levy ("Mourning Becomes Electra") once told me in an interview: "When you compose, you're just dreaming. You close half an eye. You force yourself not to think let the music take over. If you think too hard, you think about technique and form. It's better just to dream." 
Applauded by an audience of 3
on March 31, 2014 3:26am
I agree with the nature crowd - getting outside for a walk or a ride (horses) or gardening or whatever is very important for your physical AND mental health.

And while I agree in part that you have to wait to create, I don't agree fully (although, I do agree about deadlines ;) ). I find that editting, arranging, and working on layout and design help me get back to what I prefer to do - writing. 

I will also tell myself I need to write something and just sit down and force myself. It might not be any good, but it does relieve the rut.

Walking and riding are the best "get away" things to do!

Applauded by an audience of 2
on March 31, 2014 2:07pm
I love this question. For me it's sometimes a matter of simply seizing the moment while it lasts. Long drives, hot showers, sometimes a brisk walk outside alone...all of these help me reset. I actually considered getting a set of shower crayons for this purpose. I'm a home schooling mom of 2 so when ideas strike I usually have a very limited time frame in which to develop them. When I hit a wall I have to be willing to drop it and find an activity that is totally unrelated. Physical exercise and the outdoors work wonders.
Also-- my brain needs creative food as well. I get a lot of inspiration from scripture as well as documentaries about the human existence, and as an alto in the Cascadian Chorale. The real truth of it is, in my case, I can rarely predict when ideas will flow and when they will not. I can stare a text for days with no result, but then see a single photograph or different text and have the main body of a piece down in 5 minutes.
You may all find the related article interesting:
Applauded by an audience of 3
on March 31, 2014 7:16pm
For me, consistency and emotional energy are key to regular composing. As a nature/outdoors lover (like many here), I do recharge my emotional energy by "getting out". However, regular writing (even if it is only sketching some possible melodies) gets the ideas flowing for me. Deadlines have often spawned compositions.
I don't know if this will make any sense, but while I love composing, and it is so fun and satisfying, I find it both energizing and draining. I love to exercise and there seems to be some comparisons with composing. When I exercise I get physically drained (even though I really enjoy it), but the more regular I am with exercise, the more energy/stamina I have the next time I exercise. Likewise with composing, while it is draining, the more consistent I am, the more creative energy I have on a day to day basis. I also notice that I am ready to write again more quickly after finishing a major project.
Now a confession: the last year and nine months have been a very low production time for me (the lowest period of time in many years, and on the heels of a very high production time). However, I've moved twice (moves of 800+ and 2000+ miles), wrote very intense graduate comprehensives (I attended a graduate program with highly rigorous comprehensives compared to average), started two jobs (enjoyable, but time consuming and draining), and am currently attempting to build a choral program from scratch. So it is no surprise that production in composition is down. Yet, everytime I have some downtime that allows for recouping, I find that the creative juices are flowing again. I am looking forward to being settled for a while and hitting the compositions more aggressively.
I appreciate everyone's thoughts, because I feel like I've teetered on the edge burnout just from all of life's changes. Patience and taking care of myself and my family seem to be doing the trick though. 
(The topsy-turvy change of the last two years is largely why I haven't been as active here either. I am enjoying getting energy back for composing, choralnet, and life in general.)
Finally, I must say that most of all I believe God has really blessed me and given strength to handle the change in my life, and has given me energy for music and composing even if at a slower rate of production.
God Bless,
Michael Sandvik
Applauded by an audience of 2
on March 31, 2014 8:57pm
Michael --  With the year or two you've just had, it would be a miracle if you didn't feel some burnout! Here's to a recovery of equilibrium and a new phase of musical productivity for you.
Best wishes, Melinda B.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on March 31, 2014 8:50pm
Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
Though I posted this at the request of another, I too am pretty burned out.  I wrote a big long post explaining my situation but for legal reasons will spare you the details.  Don't worry about me, these are things that have passed.
I believe it is grief that is preventing us both from being creative.  This is a difficult feeling to shake.  Counseling can be helpful but I think time is the big thing.  I lost someone close to me years ago and it was only after two years I was able to write something to help me deal with my fellings.  When I did, it was mostly on paper in just 30 minutes.   I am hoping something similar will happen this time around. 
Here's the piece I wrote back then.  I will leave it in the library for a couple of days.  It and this comment will self-destruct so reply to the post, not this comment or your words will also be lost.  I think many of you will understand why I can't leave it up.  I would like you to hear the piece all the same.
Applauded by an audience of 4
on April 1, 2014 3:12am
This is a lovely atmospheric piece, Jack, tinged with sadness, but also expressing some hope, I feel.   Thank you for sharing it.  (Incidentally, it took a long time to download, but this may just be my computer.)
I'm inclined to agree that at times of emotional turmoil, even though some creative ideas may come, it is often hard to give expression to them at the time.  It may be necessary to let these thoughts and ideas drift into the subconcious for a while - perhaps a year or two - before they emerge again: rather like Wordsworth lying on his couch and recalling that 'host of golden daffodils'...
Applauded by an audience of 2
on April 1, 2014 2:51pm
My nephew Jon (named after me) was a student of mine in 4 Year old Kindergarten.  He loved a song called the Ghost of John.  John was the kindest soul on Earth.  He was the only one of my many nieces and nephews that loved to play with my cognitively disabled daughter.  He told his mother everyday how much he loved her.  He was as golden as they come.   He was 9 when he got hit by a truck while he was riding a bicycle.  I was teaching High School.  
Many people including strangers received a visit from the spirit of this little boy.  A woman in my sister's grief group was awakened by her husband one night.  He wanted to know who she was talking to, sitting up in bed.  She said "Don't you see that little white boy sitting on the end of the bed?"  She had never seen Jon, but when she saw pictures and heard his voice she swore it was him.  My visions were more explainable.  When you want to see something bad enough sometimes you do.  I saw him sitting at my piano one morning when a sun beam had pierced the curtain.  When I looked again it was just my cat.   The freaky part is that my daughter talked to him for years. She still does at times. This especially happened when she was riding in the car looking up at the sky. 

I felt a need to write something but words and music wouldn't come.  Then I remembered a special poem. 
His mom and I were the youngest 2 of 8.  Our older sister read The Outsiders to us as a bedtime story when she was in high school and we were very little.  My sister and I often quoted Shakespeare to each other and when we heard the poem near the end of the book it became a favorite for us to share.  When I remembered the poem everything fell into place.  He was the first gold of spring and that beauty could not last. 
I had my freshmen girls sing the melody to be as childlike a timbre as I had access to.  My concert choir struggled hard to learn the atmospheric parts.  The whole song is based on the pitches of The Ghost of John sung in ostinatos of various numbers of eighth notes. It is incredibly hard to sing. 
Similar to a famous piece by Whitaker, I will have to write a new text with a similar feel and the same prosidic inflections if I want it ever to be sung again. 
Applauded by an audience of 1
on April 1, 2014 3:32pm
A truly moving account, Jack, and thank you so
much for sharing.
Applauded by an audience of 3
on April 1, 2014 7:31am
Thoughts on grief and composing:
I lost my significant other two years ago as the result of a tragic accident. He lingered in intensive care for two weeks and, with my blessing, he decided to remove his own life support. Grief is a different pilgrimage for everyone, but I am still recovering.  It has severely hampered my ability to compose. The "short bursts" idea is one I relate to very much.
The passage of time has helped, but I find myself adrift, even with the many excellent suggestions here. Jack Senzig, thank you for the Grief piece. I hope my compositional skills are self-renewing, but I can never be the same.
Applauded by an audience of 2
on April 1, 2014 9:33am
Jack, I was very impressed by the quality of your composition.  Although I knew that you wrote little songs for your choir, I was not aware that you were a "composer," in my understanding of that title.  Your piece is "literature," defined by someone as "that which comes from the heart."
NO!  I do NOT believe that grief has anything to do with one's ablilty to composer fine music.  When someone asked J. S. Bach, "Where do you get your inspiration?" he replied, "My inspiration comes from the first three notes that appear on my
manuscript paper."  How you do think Bach felt each time he had to go to bury one of his MANY children?  How did he have the power to compose a major piece of music for his church 300 Sundays in a row? 
How did Beethoven feel when he was in pain most of his life?  Still, he managed to compose magnificent must of every mood.  Shall I go on?  Now, get to work; leave "grief" behind.  Writing happy music will help to heal your emotions.
Wallace De Pue, Sr.
on April 2, 2014 6:11am
Bravo! I’d love to see a score for this!
Robert A.M. Ross
Chair, Music Department
Community College of Philadelphia <Robert Ross 11>
Applauded by an audience of 2
on April 1, 2014 4:37am
I've found that immersing in other art forms—poetry, visual art, literature—can be wondrously re-energizing—especially, for me, visual art.
Robert A.M. Ross
Chair, Music Department
Community College of Philadelphia <Robert Ross 11>
Applauded by an audience of 2
on April 1, 2014 12:43pm
Hi Jack,

Thanks for sharing a bit from your heart. The piece was beautiful.

God bless,
Michael Sandvik

Applauded by an audience of 2
on April 1, 2014 4:08pm
Hi Jack,
Thanks for sharing your piece, and its inspiration. Quite moving.
There are so many great suggestions here for ways to try to shake off a rough period.
One I don't see yet is simply listening, really listening to music.
Not the casuall radio in the car or headphones on the subway listening, but choosing something great, concentrating and totally surrendering listening.
Attend a concert. Or shut the doors, turn out the lights, and hit play.
No gurantee it will kickstart the next masterpiece, but hopefully it will feed your soul.
Applauded by an audience of 3
on April 1, 2014 7:21pm
Thanks for sharing your beautiful piece, Jack. Your choir did a great job.
Applauded by an audience of 3
on April 2, 2014 7:09am
Thanks for sharing the piece and its moving history, Jack.  I don't pretend to understand grief, but I have observed that it affects all kinds of functioning and evolves over time.  So while I appreciate Wallace De Pue's comment that one can write fine music through pain, I'm not sure one always must or should press on that way.  Your response to a terrible situation led to profound creativity; your resulting art moves listeners who don't know the circumstances, i.e. it works as universal music.  I wrote pieces that, I realized later, resulted from sadness and difficulty, from situations I have never been able to discuss with anyone.  But I'm sure those acts of composition helped me move on, unconciously.  Isn't it wonderful that composers write great music when they are happy, when they are sad, and when their moods change?  Thanks for being such an inspiration.  chris 
Applauded by an audience of 2
on April 3, 2014 6:47am
I don't have any magic answers for the burnout question.  Life just gets too stinkin' hard sometimes, and for some of us it's just too stinkin' hard all of the time.  But one of the things that I've discovered this past year that helps me cope and also affirms the composer in me at the same time is a WONDERFUL program called "The Score."  It's produced in Portland, OR, I think, and is a weekly, hour-long, public radio program that showcases cinematic scores, the music in movies: 
Well-chosen excerpts of movie scores are played, composers are interviewed, fascinating information about the music and the context and the composers is imparted, and the program is just a truly delightful way to kick back for an hour every once in a while and just let the rest of the world and all your troubles disappear temporarily.  You can stream the show online, and many public radio stations across the country carry the program, as well.  You can stream any of the archived programs--there are many.  And just listening to Edmund Stone's heavenly bass speaking voice is enough to calm stressed-out nerves, honest.  
Just wanted to let you all know about this amazing show.
Oh, another thought just crossed my mind.  If part of anyone's burnout problem is simply not having enough TIME for composing, I can recommend a book called "When I Say No, I Feel Guilty."  (I'm pretty sure that's the title--I haven't read it for a while.)  I think that highly creative people in general tend to be very kind and sensitive and helpful and want to please and do what other people ask them to do, much more than "normal" people, and this book helped me to get out of the automatic "of course I will do that" trap and value my own time and needs as much as I value other people's, to achieve some balance there.  I think this struggle to learn how to say "no, I'm sorry, but I can't" and stick to it is especially difficult for women. 
Applauded by an audience of 1
on April 3, 2014 8:03am
Only about 7 bucks, and well worth it.  An "oldie but goodie."
Applauded by an audience of 1
on April 5, 2014 8:18am
@Robert Ross and the nature crowd,
   Here's the website of an artist I really enjoy from Seattle.  His works are often on wood panels which, for me, brings it closer to reality.  I love walking in my woods, hunting, fishing, and gathering wild food.  I keep a journal and try to learn a name, whether scientific or colloquial, of every living thing I encounter on my farm.  I am always thrilled to meet something new or learn a new name,
Applauded by an audience of 1
on April 5, 2014 1:01pm
Thank you, Jack, for your comments about Rick's art.  I suspect this was a test to see whether I am paying attention!!  As Jack knows, Richard Hutter is my husband.  We each maintain our own website, and his ( is full of images of his art.  
For those in the Seattle area, there is a fun event tomorrow at the Seattle Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park where Rick will be among more than 20 artists displaying their work in the Seattle Print Arts second annual Open Portfolio Session.  It is a fun event and a great way to see a lot of art with a chance to talk to the artists.  Sunday from 1pm to 3pm.
Applauded by an audience of 2
on April 5, 2014 1:10pm
Nope, I meant every word.  I love that Rick uses wood and found objects. The one he did for the new owner of a house with found printed materials from the former owner is pretty amazing.
on April 5, 2014 2:59pm
I love the fact we're having this discussion in APRIL, the month from heck for musicians...
I don't know if I've recommended this book on this forum before, but "The Creative Habit" by choreographer Twyla Tharp is a great read on what it actually means to be creative for a living.  She doesn't put creativity on a pedestal, but instead discusses all of those obstacles we have to deal with in creating art.  I don't remember if burnout is specifically one of the topics she discusses, but she does talk about what to do when the well runs dry.  Good summer read, if anyone's looking for one.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on April 10, 2014 2:09am
I've just bought this book on your recommendation, and am looking forward to reading it!  Thanks for bringing it to my attention, Justine.
on April 10, 2014 5:58am
Just ordered it for my Kindle. Thanks!!
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