Laura Odden Quaintance

I won’t soon forget the incredible conversations many of us had at our return to Summer Dialogue in August of 2021. The time we spent conversing, sharing stories, and future planning were all key takeaways. “Why do we put ourselves through so much stress?” “Why not program less and experience the music more?” “What have we changed that we should keep?” “How are we caring for ourselves amidst this time?”

Most of us have made it through this past year, returning to performances and reconnecting with musicians. For so many, it has been a long-awaited time to hear music return to venues and choirs sing together again in person. Still, I wonder: have we returned to our “old norms” of overworking ourselves? Did a love for sourdough starters and home activities from the past two years disappear as our return to “normalcy” began to creep back into our lives?

Those that know me know about my love for Dolly Parton. Her philanthropy, love of all people, and continued positivity radiates and inspires me. I can’t forget her famous quote when thinking of this article’s topic: “Don’t get so busy making a living that you forget to make a life.” (Sidenote: if you haven’t listened to the podcast “Dolly Parton’s America,” I highly encourage it. You’ll hear the history of the piece Light of a Clear Blue Morning, a song many of us have programmed or sung from Conspirare and Craig Hella Johnson, originally written by Dolly).

In the past two years, my husband and I have celebrated becoming grandparents while also grieving the loss of many loved ones. We moved, built a home ourselves, navigated new jobs with Covid-altering protocols, and continued to plug along. Eventually, it took a toll on me, and I was inspired to research health patterns and overall well-being. Stress continued to return to my mind. Then in March, I polled a variety of choral directors, asking the question: what do we wish we knew more about regarding self-care as choral music educators, related (or not) to our work? Quickly, I began receiving similar themes in people’s answers. “I wish I knew how and when to say no to more in my calendar,” “I wish I knew how to balance the demands of our career with family values, regarding time management and priorities.” Another educator mentioned “knowing when enough is enough.” The question I started to ponder is: do many of us share these very same thoughts?

The expectations and demands are often constant in our line of work. In an article I recently found, health & wellness expert Sarah Otto wrote “did you know that about four decades ago, Time Magazine already called stress The Epidemic of the Eighties?

Today, it’s been estimated that 75% to 90% of doctor’s visits are due to stress! I’m not sure what’s more alarming: the fact that the eighties are four decades ago, or that we are still talking about stress as a top health problem in our lives.

It’s possible you’ll read this and think “I hear what you’re saying, but I can’t see how I can change these aspects of my job; it is what I signed up for.” Or maybe you are of the selfless belief that what you’re doing is a higher calling and honor. Here’s the thing: I agree with both of those things myself while also believing we can be mindful of managing stress better. Maybe learning how to process difficult moments doesn’t take as much time as we think?

In chapter one of the book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, by Emily Nagoski, PhD, and Amelia Nagoski, DMA, they write about the importance of completing the stress cycle. Have you felt stressed lately? Do you notice a stressful moment and realize that feeling carries through your day? Many of us process stress differently. Some can complete the stress cycle by simply taking a moment to stand, stretch, and breathe. Others need intentional exercise to relieve their stress (other ideas for completing the stress cycle are included in a link below). Have you thought about how you process and relieve stress in your life? If not, I highly encourage you to take some time to notice when these moments arise and focus on how you might resolve it.

If these last two years have shown us anything, we know we have little control over many aspects of this world. If we can focus on ourselves and our overall well-being, we are already leaps and bounds above the class. And maybe you’ve needed someone to tell you that your health is okay to prioritize. If that’s the case, this is your gentle reminder: your well-being matters, and taking time to care for yourself is important. Try it: you won’t regret it.

Dolly Parton’s America:

Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle

What is the stress cycle and how can you complete it?