What Happens When You Hustle Too Hard

Let’s talk about Burnout, baby, let’s talk about you and me, let’s talk about all the good things and the bad things that can be.


It’s the plague of our times, it seems, and particularly bad in Sydney, where I have lived most of my life. Perhaps it’s rife the world over? Perhaps it’s just rife for Millennials? Who knows. I can only reflect on my own experience, and that is one of a 20 something year old Australian opera singer, so here we go.


It would be fair to say that my career really started to ‘take off’ in 2017. This was when I started to do really well in competitions (stupidly, hysterically well. I still can’t believe it) and I had a lot of (albeit unpaid) work to do with smaller companies – three main roles, actually, in the space of six months. As none of this was able to be paid (Strayaaaaaa) I was still only making money through retail and teaching. So that’s a rather full schedule, wouldn’t you say?


Don’t get me wrong, it really was extraordinary fun, and there was something very simple about that period in my work/life because I just didn’t have time to even consider having an existential crisis because I was far too busy making art (and I hope it was good art? I think it was…). Things were going so amazingly well, I thought that pace was normal and necessary to keep up my momentum.


Then it all stopped.


Right after two huge comp finals in July, it was all over.


I got really sick. REALLY. SICK. The sickest I had been for many, many years, and I could barely sing anymore, let along get up and do human stuff on any given day. As I’m sure you can understand, when that happens to someone who had been defining herself by her singing (and the quality of her singing – remember that old saying about how you’re only as good as your last performance?) I became completely lost. I was unwell for six full weeks – way too long for anyone, not least a robust young woman.


So why had this happened?


We can all agree, I think, that it was a particularly bad case of burnout. Burnout at it’s very worst; and epitomising why it has been so aptly named. So much of me was totally ‘burnt’ to the quick, there was barely anything left. I struggled through some auditions and performances in August, but I hated what I was producing the whole time because my poor instrument was under so much strain, it was only performing to 30% of it’s capabilities. I kept my appointments and did all those things because I thought I had to – that saying no would fling me into oblivion forever and I would NEVER EVER have opportunities like that again.


Ridiculous, in hindsight.


Understandable, on the other hand. Because there is so precious little work in Australia for classical singers (and, I believe for all classical musicians, but I can only speak from my own experience). We are therefore all expected to jump at every possibility of stage time, and god knows we will be judged harshly in the courtroom of the populus if we don’t take these opportunities, or complain about ‘exposure’ not being an adequate means of payment, or god forbid we don’t IMMEDIATELY succeed because of the prize money you’ve won. Guilty as charged – I used to perceive better artists than me in this way, because I desperately wanted the opportunities and backing that they had.


One can only actually earn these successes, of course. My jealousy of better artists than me is actually what bolstered me to working very hard and very effectively for many years. This paid off in spades, but I had never worked out how to balance myself when success did actually come. There are plenty of terrific articles by Olympic athletes about this on the internet and the crux of most of them is to make sure you don’t lose sight of what is actually important – which in my case is making great art. Producing beauty for others to enjoy. Planting little seeds of joy and catharsis in this dark, difficult (but also fiercely wonderful and absolutely extraordinary) world.


It’s also important to make sure you don’t stop entirely after something gargantuan – like a big competition or the Olympics, for example – so you have something to put your mind to once you’ve finished. Even if it’s a smaller project, like having tea with a mate and working on some secco recits every Tuesday evening, you’ll be doing yourself a favour.


Once I had recovered from my drop into oblivion, the momentum started again. 2018 was a wonderful year, which set me up to (FINALLY) move countries. In 2019 I made the move (another blog is coming soon on this topic, stay tuned!) and much of my life changed… as you might imagine.


So there is always a light at the end of the tunnel, and if you’re burned out take some time to relax. Even if it’s an hour of phone off, lying on the beach, the world ain’t gonna end mate. Take some time to consider if there are some gigs you can pass on to your friend who’s looking to build up their network in your area. Yes, we all need the stage time (and the money, when it’s an option), but consider the rehearsal time and the company you will be keeping. If they’re people who you know will be awesome to work with, then go for it! Go make great art!


Nicole Car was quoted once as saying ‘What you say ‘no’ to in your career is just as important as what you say ‘yes’ to’, so with that in mind, I encourage you to do all the things, by all means, but make sure you have recovery time, and keep an even keel with your days off.


If you’re seriously struggling with time management, I’d recommend a little educational afternoon on YouTube with Matt d’Avella and from there, by all means go down the self help rabbit hole. Some of it’s quite entertaining.


Jess xx


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