The MMEA session went pretty well yesterday, and I personally enjoyed doing all the anti-stress activities. It’s rare I get to lead something that doesn’t drain me at least a little, but this was a real pleasure!
But there’s never enough time in these things. I did, at least, get to go through the book list (sorry, Allegra–I’ll send you a copy!), which is important because most of anyone’s burnout prevention will happen on their own as they work slowly towards discovering what helps them.
I was glad to have so many people there, and thrilled for the opportunity to tell you the things that I wish to god I had known ten years ago. But it also gives me some dismay that so many teachers feel what I felt, are in as much need of renewal as I was.
Anyway, I intended to talk about conducting Western District Chorus. Several people at the session were also at the Western District festival and saw me work. The vast majority of the feedback I got was “you have so much energy!” and “you’re so positive and upbeat!” And I want to say that no one in the world can pour out energy that way every day and survive for very long. I had the opportunity to do it at the Festival because it was two six-hour bursts separated by a week.
By the way, in full disclosure, my shoulders were sore for days after the first rehearsal. I had to get a deep tissue massage to get my trapezius muscles to recover. And no, I don’t think it’s from the mechanical strain of conducting for six hours. I’m young and healthy; waving my arms is no big deal, physically. I think it’s my body trying to protect me from the emotional strain of conducting for six hours. You see, my body discovered a few years ago that if it put tension in my trapezius muscle and it would slow me down. It started causing chronic tension and nerve pain that made a chiropractor blame a herniated disc in my neck. Nothing to be done but go back to the chiropractor to address the symptoms… twice a week for a month… I started doing Tai Chi at that point, and took Alexander Technique lessons… Then I read Mind-Body Prescription and Resonant Leadership and decided that it went deeper than muscle and bone.
By the way, pouring out positive energy and pouring out negative energy take equal amounts of work. Getting mad and frustrated and yelling doesn’t help you feel better, doesn’t make a choir sing better… it’s more efficient to stay positive. A learned behavior and a manifestation of hope, I think, rather than necessarily coming from innate optimism.
Anyway, if you’ve seen me work, you know I commit wholly to whatever I’m doing. I did at Western District, I do when I conduct any time, I did when I was teaching high school. The difference between now and the years that burned me out is that now I have found the things that renew me. Now I make the choice, whenever I can, to renew–as you will read in Resonant Leadership, you need renewal, not just rest. I didn’t know how to do that eight years ago.
And I had a funny thought: almost all of the books on that list were recommended to me by my sister, especially the sciencey ones. (Her blog is more popular than mine because it’s about sex, which is a slightly more universal topic than conducting, wouldn’t you say?)
And I had an insight: I said wasn’t sure if I was an optimist or pessimist, so I, naturally, went and took an online quiz to measure it. The answer came out mildly pessimistic. And that reminded me that, when I took the Meyers Briggs personality test (as most of us did in our undergrad music ed courses to help figure out our own teaching and learning styles) my answers came back quite middle ground on everything except introversion/extroversion (strongly introverted!). Also, when we did multiple intelligence type tests, I tended to rate more or less equally on everything but math. Even the temperament evaluation in Raising Your Spirited Child, I score in the middle ground of spiritedness (granted, spiritedness itself is far from the middle ground). The insight is that this middle-ground, across-the-board personality stuff is probably related to my commitment to interdisciplinary work.
I really like that I keep learning new things. That’s the other thing I wanted to say. I suspect it’s pretty universal, given the popularity of shows like Radio Lab, but learning new things is renewing for me, as I expect it is for most teachers. Like returning to the ensemble (they’re thrilled to be in charge for three minutes, and you’re thrilled to sit down for three minutes: win/win!!!), learning new things puts you in the passenger seat for a minute, feeds you. You benefit from someone else’s expertise. And you can do that by listening to NPR, or even just by listening to your students and friends and family talk. They’ve all got experiences that are interesting and lively and informative and different from yours.
And this brings me to the last thing I wanted to say but didn’t, that’s about emotional contagion. There are whole books about it, and I write about it here. The storytelling we did was an exercise in emotional contagion–all those teachers and students telling us how they experienced something powerful and wonderful, their amazement and happiness radiating from them like heat: we all catch it.
And here’s another insight I got while writing the last two paragraphs: listening. It turns out listening is a thing a lot of these renewal techniques share in common.
I really like that I keep learning new things.