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Life Balance for Music Teachers

Do you often feel like this frog? Way too many things to do and struggling to keep hold of everything? Well, you’re not alone!

Music teachers are notorious for taking on too much, usually because they’re so passionate about what they do, they can’t say “no”. My friend Katie works in a very active music department in a primary (elementary) school. She teaches a full load of music classes, rehearses two choirs, in addition to all her responsibilities for her young family at home. For weeks she has been telling me how exhausted she feels. However, when the school orchestra conductor asked could she play triangle for the next orchestra concert, including attending four afterschool rehearsals, Katie readily agreed! Why? I suppose she felt she needed to support the orchestra (and the conductor) by helping. Was this good for her? No, not at all, she’s already stretched too far! When I suggested that although that was lovely of her to “volunteer”, it probably would not be a disaster if the orchestra performed minus a triangle, and she sheepishly agreed. All too often we want to save the day, at our own expense. Now I’m not suggesting we say “no” to anything extra, just think carefully before you answer.

For studio teachers there can be a blurry line between work and home, especially as they often teach in evenings/weekends, and many teach from their homes. If at all possible, try to designate one room, or a portion of a room as your “work” area and only go into that space during your work hours. I have a room at the back of the house designated for my teaching and for writing music books. I try to only use this room for work; I do have to go through this room to access our laundry and I also have some storage cupboards in the room, but I don’t sit in this room during my “off-duty” hours. This wasn’t always possible as my son used the room for his “office” during the first year of the pandemic. However, when he moved into his own apartment early last year, I moved my workstation from our dining table to this back room, and what a difference it makes!

Music teachers often work long hours, with rehearsals before and after school hours, or private lessons at odd hours. For years I was on the treadmill, of working seven days a week, as a young music teacher in charge of a large and very busy music department in a school. I was teaching every class in the school, taking many orchestra and choir rehearsals, and doing all the administration for the department (there are now several people doing this same role). I loved my work and thought I was doing a great job of keeping it all going. I didn’t mind working weekends, catching up on admin, marking assignments or arranging music for the orchestras.

I love teaching children, I love seeing the joy music brings to them, and it was this passion which helped keep me running on my treadmill. Until … at the age of 30 years old, I had a stroke. I’m not saying overwork caused the stroke, that was due to an auto-immune illness, but being overtired, both physically and mentally certainly didn’t help. I was forced to step off the treadmill and re-evaluate my life priorities. Especially for studio teachers, it’s easy to end up with lessons every day, trying to fit around your students’ busy schedules! Try to give yourself weekends (or any two days) free from teaching work (including work-related texts and emails!) to have an opportunity to recharge. Yes, you may still have other things you have to do, such as the laundry, grocery shopping, and family responsibilities, but at least it’s a break from teaching.

If you feel your workload is more than you can comfortably manage, have a look at what might be possible to let go. It may be that you don’t have many choices, but usually there is something which somebody else could take over. We all like to think we are indispensable, but are we? Really? In most cases, there is someone else who can step in. Will they do the job as well as we would have? Maybe, maybe not, but the concert/lessons will still go ahead.

For studio teachers, activities such as recitals can be postponed or reduced in frequency, if you feel you have too much on your plate. If you have a small studio, perhaps you could combine your recital with another teacher in your area so you can share the organization. If you have a large studio, enlist some of your older students to help; they love being given responsibility and may even come up with some fresh ideas for the event. If you have too many students, consider transferring some of them to a teacher who is starting out and needs students. If you spend a lot of time rescheduling lessons or teaching makeup lessons, consider adjusting your studio policy (see my separate article on this topic). You matter too, and you need to look after yourself as well as your students!

Self care is so important. Even something as simple as taking five minutes to enjoy a nice hot cup of tea. In your teaching day, whether you’re in a school, a studio or at home, try to go outside, even if only for 5-10 minutes. Nature has a wonderful way of calming us and helps to clear our head. Walking is both relaxing and energizing so it’s well worthwhile to find time for this. Everyone has different ways of relaxing, for some it might be reading a book or doing puzzles, for others it might be going to the gym or playing tennis.

Music teachers are very special people, we bring the joy of music to the lives of many others, but we can only keep doing this if we look after ourselves too!

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