A number of years ago, I had a student who was determined to become the world’s greatest drummer. He practiced as much as eight hours a day. He became increasingly tense. To make matters worse, his parents were continually telling him that he would never make it. In response to their negative pressure, he tried harder and harder. He developed headaches and muscle tension, while his improvement as a drummer came to a standstill. This led him to try even harder. He was probably on the verge of a nervous breakdown when he decided to leave home. He got married, and fortunately, his wife was very supportive of his drumming and his career. He got into yoga and learned how to relax. He developed a more realistic view of himself, his abilities, and his drumming. Today he teaches, plays professionally, and enjoys himself. He has a family, a nice home, and makes a good living. He had a close call with burnout, but he has managed to over-comit.
A good friend of mine in the Midwest has a 12-year-old son who loves to play the drums. His teacher recently told him that, if he was going to continue studying drums with him, he would have to give up baseball. The boy was shattered. A choice like this was too much for the 12 year old to make on his own, so he talked with his father. His father, who also played drums at one time, had been forced to practice as a child and, as a result, became discouraged. He didn’t want this to happen to his son. He called the teacher and told him in strong terms that he felt that the teacher was wrong. His son is still studying drumming and still playing baseball. Fortunately, the father was able to see that a balance of activities is healthier than a very narrow approach. The attitude represented by the teacher is an old-fashioned one at best and an unproductive one at worst. It created unneeded pressure. When you are young, playing the drums should be fun.
Drummers who become successful in studio work often become burnout victims. After years of effort, playing, and studying, it is quite gratifying when the phone starts to ring. Suddenly, you are in demand. Gary Chester told me that he was on a hit record in the early ’60s. The week after this record hit the charts, Gary did 18 record dates: 18 three-hour sessions. That is 54 hours in a studio, under pressure, sitting on a drum throne. And this happened to Gary quite a few weeks for a number of years. He will tell you that it was great at first, but this kind of activity can really burn you out.
The first time I met Hal Blaine, he was at the peak of his career. He was virtually living in recording studios. He looked so tired that I wanted to give him a hug and tell him to go lie down. No matter how much fun it is and no matter how much money you make, you have to rest.
Traveling can also burn you out. The waiting, the strange food, the unusual hours, the lack of rest, and the stale air in airports can really get to you. The worst part is probably the boredom. Standing in line at the airport, standing in line to check in at the hotel, and standing in line to get a cab gets old fast.
The years that I traveled extensively gave me the opportunity to read. I read literally hundreds of books. After all, there is not much to do on an airplane. You can only look out the window so many times before it becomes boring. Reading was a big help to me in overcoming some of the strains of traveling.
Burnout can also come from playing the same music the same way, night after night. Imagine playing a hit Broadway show. A hit can run for several years. Can you imagine playing the same music every night (plus matinees) for three years? I think I would go crazy. The money is good, but you need a special temperament to do this kind of work and remain interested in playing. This type of work is not for everyone. Here are some ideas for avoiding burnout.
1. If you are young and you are practicing a great deal, give yourself at least one day of rest each week. Remember, it’s the quality of practice time that counts, as well as the number of hours.
2. If you find yourself becoming bored with practicing and drumming, seek out some variety. Go to a movie, a basketball game, or read the Sunday paper. Remember, variety is the spice of life.
3. If you are busy working, recording, and doing a lot of studio work, get out and play live. You can visit a number of nightclubs on the West Coast, and see and hear great studio players for very little money. They do this because it is a creative outlet. As Conte Condoli, the great trumpet player, said, “Playing live recharges my battery.” It balances the pressure of playing in a studio. It puts the “fun” back into music.
4. Choose your jobs carefully if you can afford to. Pick the ones that are the most challenging, and don’t be afraid to pass up one if your heart just isn’t in it. After all, you can’t spend the money if you are sick. You’ll just give it to your doctor.
5. If you are busy and you find yourself taking alcohol or drugs just to “get through” the job or the day, remember this: “Fly now, pay later.” Your body will let you know sooner or later that it can only take so much abuse before it begins to break down. There is nothing sadder than going to see one of your heroes, only to discover that the person is too drunk to play. Booze and drugs have a way of sneaking up on you before you realize it.
Last, but certainly not least, enjoy each day if you can. You will never get it back.
Working hard is fine, but reward yourself by taking an occasional day off. This is the best prevention for burnout that I know of. As the old song says, “Enjoy yourself . . . it’s later than you think.”