Music is Best When Surrounded by Rest:

Choral Conductors’ Suggestions to Choral Conductor Wellness

Jerry Upton

Jerry Upton

Happy New Year! As I write this, it is January 2, and all is… well, awfully quiet! Sometimes, I like it that way. Quiet. It happens so seldom during my school year. Especially after the December holiday concert rush. I love my job(s). I wouldn’t trade my profession for any other trade. It really is wonderful to make music with students and adults that love to sing. But I’m exhausted. By the time I get to Christmas with my family, I have almost forgotten what Christmas is about. I love my singers, but sometimes I just need to get away from them for a while.

Throughout my career, I often remind myself of the phrase, “Music is best when surrounded by rest.” I picked that phrase up in college when we were performing one of Paul Brandvik’s Madrigal Dinners at Bemidji State University. Brandvik used it as one of the punch lines from the Jester in one of his scripts. But I find this phrase an important personal reminder as I strive to be an effective choral conductor.

Lately, I have been obsessed about the strategies choral conductors use to recharge and stay well in their profession. I asked several choral conductors and other music teachers around my region the question, “What things do you at home that keep you rested and healthy in your professional job?” In this article, I will share some of their suggestions. I am appreciative of the people who gave these suggestions and I hope you will consider them helpful, though I hope many of you are already doing some of these. It is my hope to try new things I haven’t done in the past. I have loved their responses, and I am happy to share some of them with you:

Get outside for fresh air-even in the winter! – Really? Baby, it’s cold outside! Okay, so I tried this suggestion. On Christmas day in Waubun, Minnesota it was -25 degrees. So I bundled up and went outside. Though I thought I would hate it, I loved it! The best part of this outdoor experience was the beautiful sun dogs that were surrounding the sun. I didn’t even notice the cold! I stayed outside for 30 minutes and walked down an old dirt road. It was so refreshing- very unexpected. I have made a point to do this every day since.

Exercise – Yup. Glad that’s works for you. Next…

Yoga – I know. For many of us, this is the last thing we would even consider! But being of an open mind, I thought I would try this. Two things came out the experience:

  1. I actually enjoyed it;
  2. I am really bad at it. But since I enjoyed it, I am pledging this year to try and keep doing it. I love the fact that they offered this at dialogue last year and hope that they do it again!

Nap – Now this one I can handle. Not a long nap, just enough to clear my head. It really would be nice to find 20 minutes every day, though not realistic in my world.

Read – This seems like such a simple thing to most of you, but not for me. I was such a poor reader in school and college. I used to measure my reading by how many pages I would read. If I got to twenty pages (30, with pictures), I considered it a good read. I vowed some day to be a better reader, and I have gotten much better. What I didn’t expect was that I would ever enjoy it as much as I do now. To me, it’s about what I read versus how much I read. Find literature about things you like.

Separate from your screens – If you teach music in the schools, you are aware of just how much students are addicted to their smart phones. What scares me is that I look at my smart phone more and more. My generation watched a lot of television, and I still find myself doing that too much as well. Computers, laptops, phones, tablets, television- so hard to separate!

Listen to something other than music – I love music, especially choral music. I listen to music often. But when I am in the car, I don’t listen to music. I need to get away from it, if only for a bit.

It’s okay to say “no” – Oh, boy. This one’s difficult for many of us. It’s so flattering to be asked to take on new professional projects. We direct our own ensembles, and then we are asked to direct more ensembles, perform solos, sing at weddings and funerals, direct community choirs, direct church choirs, judge contests, serve on boards, volunteer. Oh, and if you have time, don’t forget to spend time with your family…

It’s okay to say, “no.” If we are not careful we can fill our plates with more than what is healthy. We shouldn’t have to measure ourselves by the number of things we do. Saying “no” is a healthy choice.

Spend time with family – As much as you can. They are everything that you work for. Enough said.

Enjoy the quiet times (This is my suggestion) – Have you ever stopped to think about how much noise is going on at any given time? If you are like me you get so little quiet time in life. It is like we are afraid that if it is quiet, nothing is happening and therefore it’s wrong. Silence can be deafening. But to me quiet is necessary now in again to really appreciate the music we create. I have been very diligent about finding quiet time in my day. It helps me calm down, allows me to think on matters one thing at a time. “Music is best when surrounded by rest.”

Whether you choose to follow any of these remedies, one thing is certain: You must find ways to allow yourself to destress from your work. Set aside intentional time to do things that are far removed from choral conducting. You’ll find that you are a better choral conductor for it.

Take care, my good colleagues! Be well!