Why Do the Arts Matter at a Time Like This? Part 1

Sewanee Summer Music Festival 1997  I had played oboe for about 6 months at this point!

Sewanee Summer Music Festival 1997

I had played oboe for about 6 months at this point!

"Every child is an artist. The problem is remaining an artist when he grows up."

Pablo Picasso

Shortly after finishing graduate school, I was asked in an interview: "If face-to-face with someone aiming to end arts programs in schools, what would you say to them? In other words, why is music education important?" I sat there, conservatory trained oboist, Juilliard grad, Doctor of Musical Arts...and I wasn't sure of my answer to that question.

Sure all the statistics I'd heard ran through my head--music makes kids smarter. Schools with art programs have fewer discipline problems. The arts have been known to keep kids in school. These programs enrich lives, they beautify the world-- I'd seen that with my own two eyes.

But somehow, that didn't seem like the truest answer for me in that moment. The reality of my burn out was sinking in. I was so tired of convincing everyone (and myself) that I was ready and capable and good enough to "enter the field" after hiding in graduate school forever. I had been running on the fumes of my own fear for so long, I had lost touch with what I had loved about music. I had forgotten why that 14-year-old girl in that picture above had longed to be a professional oboist in the first place.

I believe naming and claiming why the arts matter in a time like this starts with each artist answering that question for themselves. Without a deep sense of joy and gratitude radiating from what we do, how can we make a case for the arts that rings true to others?

This burn out is something I encountered again years later as a college music professor. Students within the schools where I taught had somehow only heard us when we spoke of technique and method. One young student once told me, "I started oboe because I loved music, now I just feel like a note-reading-robot." Us profs were no better. Pushing for contract renewal or tenure, programming extremely difficult repertoire for faculty recitals, presenting at conferences, complaining/boasting about horrible work-life balance...How many of us had undoubtedly sought accolades to out-run that ensuing sense of emptiness or fear? Climates of perfectionism were where I thrived, I breathed that air like oxygen.

Many of my colleagues and friends have shared this sentiment with me in a hushed tone over coffee or wine. To admit burn out or lack of inspiration felt explicit and laced with shame. To complicate matters further, fear can be a big motivator, so it becomes an insidious cycle. That was why this addiction to perfectionism in me went untreated for so long. As long as I kept achieving, those feelings remained at bay....but no matter how fast I ran to out-achieve them, they always seemed to find me. 

I didn't realize it then, but in that interview, the search for why the arts matter to me was just beginning. More on that next week. 

Have you ever experienced burnout? If so, what helped you feel motivated or inspired again?