Dealing with Feeling Overwhelmed

Bassist Thinking

Q: How do you deal with feeling overwhelmed with everything you want to/feel you should be working on?

A: I’ve written a column in the past relating to how to maximize your work flow and time management.

I thought that I’d take a bit of a different approach this time, although I would encourage you to read that column as well.

I occasionally succumb to anxiety when looking ahead at my schedule and realizing how much music I may have to prepare for upcoming gigs, compounded by the realization of how little time I may have available in my schedule to accomplish it all.

In addition to judicious use of my calendar and prepping as much as I can, as early as I can, there is one other thing which has helped me time and time again. This one piece of advise I was given also helped me while I was in school (and after) whenever I felt overwhelmed by how much I still had to learn and the path towards competence seemed beyond me. For years, I felt like I was behind in my development and would never have the time to catch up. Then one of my teachers gave me the best advice.

In essence, he said the path is infinite and in the time you’ve spent worrying about what you don’t know, you could have learned something. You can only do one thing at a time, so my advice is to prioritize what you need to work on and simply get to work. One thing at a time.

One thing at a time. It’s the simplest thing in the world but, for me, it made all of the difference in the world.

I’m in a constant state of prioritizing my workflow as well as my time in the shed. In the shed, I’ll simply decide what it is that I really need to focus on and devise a plan to take that thing apart and whittle away at it, one thing at a time. Step one, to step two and so on until I’ve deconstructed that thing and internalized each individual component. Then, I can take a broader approach and focus on internalizing that thing and making a part of my vocabulary.

The same thing goes for my workflow. I may realize that I have back-to-back tours and teaching engagements, each of which requires preparation. Instead of having a panic attack, I simply prioritize what needs attention. If one gig or tour will require more preparation than another, it moves up in the cue. Especially if there is muscle memory involved (i.e., difficult passages to learn, tricky tunes, memorization of any kind vs. reading on the gig, etc.). Once I have my list organized in my head (or on paper), I’ll schedule my time and get to work. And yes, I’ll actually block off time on my calendar to work on this gig or that. Very literally setting aside time for each and everything, sometimes marking time slots far in advance and then again right before the gig to brush up and reacquaint myself with the material.

Time management is a crucial skill when trying to make a living as a freelance musician. I may be juggling a dozen different bands, multiple tours, jazz workshops, students at home, as well as the occasional wedding gig which might require a bit of transcription. The only way to keep myself sane AND make sure that I’m prepared and keep my ‘pro’ status in check is to make sure that I think far in advance and do the work ahead of time. I know a lot of fantastic players that have issues with preparation because they take every gig under the sun but run out of time to prepare adequately. They take the hit in the long run because band leaders would rather call a B-list player who they know will have the music on lock come gig time over an A-list guy who might be winging it.

While I think that 95% of those issues could be mitigated with proper schedule management and foresight, sometimes it is necessary to turn down work to make sure that other work doesn’t suffer. (For example, I’m writing this article on the road in mid-February. I’ve already started turning down other work because, after looking at my schedule, I know that I can’t take anything else on and still prepare for what I have on my plate until June. Sure, I might lose out on some work, but to me, it’s more important that I nail what I already have on my plate (in truth, I’m pushing it already. I’ll be prepping much of my material on days off in a hotel room somewhere. I don’t normally like to do that too much because it’s important to leave yourself some breathing room as well. I try to leave myself days off here and there to recharge and think about something other than music, but sometimes you just have to grind a bit to keep everything on the tracks).

Think ahead, prioritize your work flow and simply take things, ONE AT A TIME. As I said, this is a great mantra for the shed as well. One thing at a time. With each thing you learn, the next will come easier and make more sense. The best way to attack things is by adopting a slow and steady pace and continuing to hit each thing before moving to the next. For me, this was the best way to mitigate anxiety over a full schedule or as I looked down the infinite pool of things I didn’t know. When I felt overwhelmed trying to learn jazz harmony years ago, I pulled WAY back and started working on my major scale modes. That got me Moore comfortable with my fretboard and made melodic minor modes make that much more sense (there’s only one note difference after all). This made different types of chord symbols make sense to me. And so on. If I had continued to flounder about trying to play Moment’s Notice at 300bpm without even having a grip on my major scale harmony, I’d likely still be beating my head against the wall.

Deconstruct what it is you need to do and attack it systematically.

One thing at a time!

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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