Reflecting on Life Balance

Published 23 Sep, 2019

Since moving to Hong Kong and starting a new job in arts administration, I’ve been struggling with balancing music and the rest of my life. It reminds me forcefully of my undergraduate days: as much as I attempted to squeeze in practicing piano between classes, after lunch, or before club meetings, I often found myself faced with mounting dread as the day grew later, and I still had not made it to the practice rooms. The “balance” I found then often resembled bowing out of a social gathering with regrets. “My lesson is tomorrow morning, and I haven’t practiced in ages,” I’d tell my friends before biking in the desert’s darkness to the fluorescent chill of the practice rooms at Scripps College. Or even more likely, sacrificing sleep to squeeze in another 45 minutes of the Sibelius Romance. There were fewer students past 10pm, which made it easier to score my favorite room, but also much more eerie. 

This isn’t exactly an original problem. Every professional or aspiring-professional musician I know struggles with how to fit in practice on top of sleep, staying healthy (if you don’t count arpeggios as exercise), eating, part-time jobs, other school work, self care (Netflix), calling grandma, and having a social life. It’s like those Venn-diagram memes. You can only choose two: sleep, practice, social life. But now there are even more options to choose from, and the windows of time seem to be shrinking around us. 

The modern obsession with balance — “work-life balance” in particular — doesn’t play well with musicians. There are two possible explanations for this. The first is that the distinction between “work” and “life” isn’t clear when it comes to music. Music sustains us. It wrecks us. Our relationship to music is aggravating and beautiful. The second reason is that we like to think of ourselves as a tad unbalanced. We’ve all met the type: the edgy, strung-out, struggling musician who wears their lack of sleep like a badge of honor. There’s more than a little glamour in unhealthy coping mechanisms. Maybe we don’t actually want to be perceived as balanced. It doesn’t fit into what our ideal of what real musicians should look like. 

Lately, I’ve started to think about this obsession with balance as a ruse. It’s less about maintaining the perfect, pie chart ratio between practice-work-life-sleep, and more about feeling like your time was time well spent. The worst thing would be to look back and think that you’ve wasted away your moments on this earth.

American author Annie Dillard famously wrote: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” But most people don’t know the rest of the quote: 

“What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living.”

I hope that when I look back on my lifeboat, I’ll have made time for music, for as long as music is a part of me.


Written by Melia Wong

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