Should I Quit the Bass? A Discussion on Burn Out (and More)

Contemplative Bassist

Q: I’m a semi-pro bassist of 15 years and have been playing for about 25 now, I’ve been with my current band for nearly six years and are about to release our second album. For the past two years, I’ve not been very happy playing, and it is a real conflict because of how much time I’ve invested into music, I’m at a point where I am just not having fun anymore. I don’t look forward to rehearsals nor gigs anymore and even after a really good gig, I feel sort of down. This has been the only band I’ve played with for the last six years, and so I am looking into finding a side project just to shake things up a little bit, but I’m afraid that may just not do it for me. What’s your advice on this? Am I just burnt out and need a reset? Should I go out and play with other bands and find that spark again? Or does it come a time when maybe it’s time to hang it up?

A: I most definitely would not “just hang it up” until you’ve really explored some other avenues or, at least fully explored what it is that has you feeling frustrated with it all.

I think that it’s likely that many artists who feel passionately about what they do also hit periods where they are frustrated, feeling dejected, or hit some kind of malaise. There could be any number of reasons why and I think it would be to your benefit to fully explore what those reasons might be.

  • Do those feelings extend to other areas of your life, or are they exclusive to music?
  • Are they specific to this band or group of people?
  • Are they related to the prospects or lack of prospects regarding a career in music?
  • Do you simply find yourself extending more energy than you want to this project?
  • Are you just frustrated by your expectations in contrast to a reality? (Personal development, group development, group dynamics, financial success, recognition in the scene, etc.)

Chances are if you love or have loved making music in general, hanging it up would only add to your sense of malaise. It sounds like you need some kind of paradigm shift – something new and exciting. If you’re sensing the end of this specific project, maybe it’s just that you need to sever the cord and find something new.

Being in a band is not unlike being in a relationship (and a multi-partnered relationship, at that). Each one of you very well may have different expectations. Each one of you may have a different level of commitment. However, unlike in a dating or marriage scenario, there is no harm in branching out and exploring what else is out there. There is also no harm in finding other musicians to play with in an attempt to find something that makes you happier or gives a better sense of satisfaction.

If your feelings stretch out into other areas of your life as well, I’d encourage you to explore that as much as possible. What that means is up to you but I’d encourage you to either talk to somebody in the band that you are close to (possibly realizing that you are not alone and there are possibly other issues with the group dynamic that are at play and manifesting themselves in a vague sense of frustration), maybe just talking to a close friend or talking to a therapist. No, really, an impartial third party can be immensely helpful when working through emotions and frustrations. Sometimes it takes an impartiality to give somebody the perspective you need. I have seen therapists in the past and found it very helpful.

You might also try simply looking at your current situation with a super-imposed sense of hindsight. I do this often (maybe too often, actually). I’ll frequently try and imagine myself in 10 years and look at a situation from a distance and try to see a bigger pattern or see if there’s a bigger issue at play. It very well may not be the band, per se, but something else at play.

Regardless, I’m not a psychotherapist, so I won’t try and read too deeply into something I don’t know anything about. Maybe some of the folks in the band are driving you nuts and it’s affecting your ability to enjoy the music you’re making together (been there!). Whatever the issue, I don’t know any musician (who felt driven to make music), that has quit altogether and been glad that they did in hindsight. Sure, some folks retire from the career of music but most continue to work on music in one form or another without the pressure of trying to create art for sale or worrying about paying the bills with it.

My intuition tells me that this is something specific to this group, possibly compounded by a larger sense of frustration in other areas of your life. I’m speaking from my own personal experiences but I’ve long noticed that my level of satisfaction with my career in music is more directly connected to my larger sense of satisfaction with my life situation than it is with monetary compensation or an experience with one group of people. Our music tends to reflect our lives and personalities just as the inverse is true.

My advice is to seek out some other musical opportunities (maybe even with one or more guys from the same band that you really enjoy on every level? or not). Spread your energy out a little further and see what comes of it. I’d also explore any connections your musical emotions may have with other aspects of your life.

I’ll give a very personal account of how my life has connected with my musical satisfaction in a negative way. A few years ago, I got diagnosed with an inherited neurological condition called Ataxia (SCA-6 or SpinoCerebellar Ataxia, type 6). Long story short, I’m going to start to lose control over my muscles and it will hit between the ages of 40-60 (I’m turning 44 this summer). My biological father is in an assisted living home and is wheelchair bound. He was bassist and it hit him around 50. He had to stop playing within 10 years of his first symptoms. He’s otherwise healthy but can’t function on his own in most ways as even trying to move his arm to scratch his nose causes his arm to swing uncontrollably. Now, while it is 99.99% sure that I’ll be affected by it, the age of onset and the severity of the disease is a guessing game. There are currently no treatments and not much to be done about it – as of now. There are some positive results using stem cells in other countries.

While I’m not one to worry too much about things that I can’t control (a recipe for unhappiness and frustration, if ever there was one), I started noticing a few subtle shifts in my perception over the few years since I had the test done. I had somehow decided that I would be unable to play music in another 10-20 years and to try and think ahead and plan for that eventuality. This had the unconscious side effect of me feeling like:

  1. I had gotten just about as far as I was going to get.
  2. My musical life and career had peaked.
  3. The best years were already behind me.

As a result, I slowly found myself feeling completely uninspired to practice, completely uninspired to be forward-thinking in my career, completely uninspired to be forward thinking with regard to my musical development. I had unconsciously put myself in a place where I was pretty much just coasting until it all fell apart and came crashing to a halt. I stopped feeling as exuberant after great gigs. I stopped getting excited by musical opportunities. I stopped writing music. I had unknowingly (for a while at least), given up on the whole thing. I was just taking gigs that came along and chilling at the house most of the rest of the time (I was and am still working an insane amount, thankfully the phone kept ringing).

It wasn’t until this year, actually, that I realized that I wasn’t as happy or motivated and started wondering why. It didn’t take a lot of thinking to realize what I had accidentally done to myself psychologically. I had given up on it all. The silliest thing is that it’s exactly this mindset that would make the disease that much more impactful when it does hit. If I’m unhealthy and out of shape, the muscle in-coordination would hit me that much harder and faster. If I’m sullen and depressed, my physical manifestation would likely reflect that. If I’m not excited about music, I’ll lose it all that much more quickly because I won’t care enough to try and work with and around the disease.

Call it an existential panic, mid-life crisis or just poor crisis management skills but the important thing is that as soon as I realized what I was doing mentally, I immediately made the decision to change my perspective. I’m still very much in the midst of that process but it’s leading me quite directly to a place where I’m recognizing the beauty of everything and everybody around me. It’s leading me to realize how lucky I am to make a living doing something that I love and to realize that it’s that love of what I do, what I’ve done and those in my life, that will carry me through any tough times.

It’s all a matter of perspective. It sounds trite but the slightest shift in perspective can have a huge impact on every aspect of your life. When we focus on the bad, we manifest negativity in any number of ways. When we get mad at the world because we only look at it as we think it should be and not as it is, we become constantly frustrated by most everything in our lives.

  1. When we think we suck, we do.
  2. When we think we can have fun with this, we can.
  3. When we believe in what we do, we tend to be more successful at it.

There are countless ways in which this manifests itself in our lives and experiences but the important thing to remember is that we have the power to change our circumstances. It may not be quite as easily as flicking a switch (flick, “yay! I’m happy now! Man, I love this band!) but it’s the intention that we put into everything in our lives that leads to negative or positive results, in general. Sure, we can treat people with kindness and somebody may still flip out on us at the coffee shop for some unknown reason. We can’t control the world, but it’s our perspective that will decide whether or not it ruins our day or if it’s forgotten.

If I think, “man, I’m a good guy I don’t deserve that, the world just isn’t fair!”, that one interaction may haunt me all day long, throwing shade on everything else that happens for the rest of the day. However, if I think “man, he’s probably going through some stuff. poor guy” (or some such thing), I can both let if slid off of me while also possibly even leaving the experience happier because that person’s negativity can shine a spotlight on how positive all of my other experiences are by comparison. That may sound like a kind of “pop-psychology 101” analogy but I think it holds water.

Only we can decide if we are happy or not. Sure, there are chemical, economic, social, situational and other realities to take into account, but that’s all the more reason to explore why we feel the way we do and, if need be, explore ways to mitigate and correct it.

Back to you. Explore other opportunities for a positive experience out there. It might be time to change lanes but I would implore you not to just hang it up. You didn’t get into music to play with this one band. You likely got into it because you loved it and wanted to be able to play music on your chosen instrument, jam with friends, experience that thrill of just totally rocking that thing, whatever it was. Try and rediscover what it is that led you to music in the first place and foster that.

Have fun with it! If you’re not having fun with it, change directions, explore some new music or opportunities but, as Andy Samberg said, “Never stop never stopping!”

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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