Finding Balance

Just a heads up to any regular readers that this blog post is going to be more reflective, a little personal, and not necessarily the usual fare here on this blog. However, I do think the thoughts are valuable, both to piano students as well as just in general. Or maybe I just need to process them out loud somewhere, and if that's the case, thank you for indulging me. 

Some context:

Several years ago I was working 6 days a week as a traveling piano teacher, then waking up early for rehearsal to play piano in church on Sundays, and often taking a shift or two a week at my second job at an independent bookstore. I also had plans most nights keeping up with friends & family. I was hustling with a capital 'H'. All the time. And I loved everything that I did. Teaching was rewarding, and the bookstore was my happy place. This was a pace I'd kept up without any trouble for almost 10 years starting back when I was in college, and I didn't have a strong reason to change it.

Then I started to have pain in my right shoulder. I thought it would go away. I'd been an athlete through high school and a little into college, and my body hadn't really let me down in the past. But a year later, the pain had spread to other joints. After doctor appointments, tests, and physical therapy, it seemed it was there to stay. I had chronic joint inflammation with a side of nerve pain. We could manage symptoms to an extent, but the cause was deeper:

Long Term Stress. Not Enough Sleep.

(Plus a few old athletic injuries for the inflammation to really hook into.)

We can probably all relate to being overworked and under-rested. I had gone down that road long enough that I'd apparently worked myself into a chronic pain disorder. I needed to make some major changes. I hung on for a few more years, but did prioritize sleep more and stepped back from a few volunteer commitments where I could. At the recommendation of my PT, I transitioned my exercise to activities like yoga and ballet to tend to my joints better. 

And in the meantime, I dreamt about what my ideal work/life balance would be if I could afford to make all the changes I wanted. I had a journal of ideas about how I could enhance my teaching for my students, and make sure that I was caring for myself at the same time. 

When we decided to move to Kansas. I had the chance to hit reset and adjust my pace, and I took it. I cut back to 4 days of teaching a week, and no second job. I actually had time built into my work week for admin, curriculum planning, professional development, and even some volunteer teaching with a local non-profit, without having to sacrifice sleep or family time. I implemented a lot of the studio practices I'd been dreaming about like group lessons, piano parties and things that I believed would really enhance my students' learning and studio community. 

For the first time in my life (since middle school anyway), I had whole weekends to rest. We didn't have a busy social calendar yet being new in town, so I learned how to do nothing. I bought a hammock. I fell back into reading, one of my first real loves. I savored my weekends, and I guarded them fiercely as we started to get established in our new home.

Sadly, my chronic pain didn't magically go away, some of that damage is probably permanent, or at least going to take years for my body to unlearn, (and accepting that is a whole other conversation). But these days I generally get enough rest, have a good care team, and the right kind of exercise to tend to it. So most days, it's manageable. 

Enough life story, what's the point?

I didn't just wake up one day and decide to work so hard it made me sick. I learned it. Somewhere along the way a lot of us learn to capitalize on every moment, monetize every hobby and make the most of every experience. And that's just exhausting. I think we may have realized just how exhausting that is this past 18 months as living through a pandemic may have rearranged some of our priorities. I've spoken with so many people who, while knowing that it was an incredibly difficult time, also recognize how they enjoyed the opportunities to stay home and do small things, or just . . . nothing. 

So, here's the point. As we head into another school year, let's take this as an opportunity to check in and make sure we're mindful about your piano kid's commitments. Be aware that we are shaping the practices that will carry them into adulthood. Let's help them learn how to find balance.

We also want to make sure that when we sign up for an activity like piano lessons, we account for the practice time necessary! I know that I am a better teacher when I'm well-rested, and I can make time for my own growth. That's true for piano kids too. It's ok to have a lot going on, it's just important to be mindful about our own balance, make time to do things well, and to know that different seasons may call for different priorities. 

I've shared in the past how some seasons piano kids may need to focus on music as a release from other stressors, so we ease off on the forward push and work on some truly self-expressive playing. Connecting with the music in a deeper way is an incredibly valuable area of growth for a young musician, so focusing on just that for a season is good. And some seasons we may be ready to charge ahead full speed and take on harder repertoire. As you notice these seasons change for your piano kid, be sure to check in with your child and their teacher so communication is open when choosing what music to study.

Why am I sharing all this? I shared my story with a friend on a piano teacher forum discussion about work/life balance. And he encouraged me saying it would make a great blog post, so here we are. Maybe it gave you something helpful to think about, maybe you're way ahead of me on this learning curve and thought 'well, duh!' In any case, thank you for reading.

Want to think about this more? Shelly Davis over at the Piano Parent Podcast calls has a great episode with some thoughts on helping piano kids choose their commitments.