Finding Realistic Balance Within Your Strive for Success

Melanie Stapleton, M.M.Ed Apr 11, 2024

Learn more: inspiration

A slightly out of focus figure of a person in the distance with arms stretched out left and right to balance while walking along a single steel rail of a railroad track

The clacking of my keyboard echoed through the choir room as I fervently typed another letter to the parents of my singers. The sun had set long ago, the parking lot devoid of other cars, and I could taste the sweet nectar of productivity with each line I wrote. Fully immune to the darkened world around me, I was in the zone.

There were only four more things left on my To-Do list. The end of my workday was in sight. I yawned. I had gotten to school 12 hours prior, but I tried to just shrug off the fatigue. All I needed to do was keep pushing through.

A knock on my classroom door interrupted my trance. My principal entered the room. Trepidation and joy flooded through my body, their incongruence notably palpable. It was my first year at the helm of this large and successful middle school choral program that consisted of over 300 students. I needed to understand every minuscule facet of the program, the organizational system (or lack thereof) for our sheet music and uniforms, the expectations of the community, the expectations of me. While I had an assistant director, a phenomenal musician in his own regard, it was his first time teaching choir in this kind of environment. As such, it fell on me to make sure everything was not only being done, but being done “right.”

So when my principal entered the choir room, my home away from home, part of me worried I was in trouble for some unknown reason, but another part of me felt pride knowing that he could see firsthand how hard I worked, how determined I was for the program, my students, and myself to be successful. I greeted him with a smile, a smile he half-returned, before asking, “Ms. Stapleton?!? What are you doing here at 8:00 at night? You should be home.” My explanation didn’t seem to alleviate his concerns. He told me to finish up what I was doing and go home, subtly slipping in that the campus would be cleared of all students—and choir directors—by our school officer no later than 10:00. The door closed behind him and I sat down at my computer once more. I could hit that deadline; there were only four more things left to do.

Blue neon sign with the words 'Work Harder' glowing in a dark room

My father instilled in me the value of hard work from an early age. As a kid, Saturday mornings would often be spent cleaning the garage, running errands to Home Depot, or finding a different chore to do. My senior year of high school, I worked two jobs in addition to school, and in my undergrad I worked three. Now I’m once more a broke college student, this time pursuing a PhD, but I still work four or five jobs/side hustles just to stay afloat. It’s safe to say that this past year, I’ve had to work too hard and struggled to find balance particularly with the incessant financial pressures of late-stage capitalism. This overworking has led to consequential ramifications in my personal life, which propelled me on my own journey of finding a work-life balance in a realistic manner.

I’m not sure what it is about choir directors, but I’ve found that so many of us work too hard or become inexorably attached to our profession. Perhaps it’s because we care so much about the work we do, or our passion for the music supersedes everything else, or maybe we’re just finding any excuse to prove that we are pursuing excellence. Often, we push ourselves to take on extra responsibilities, leading additional ensembles, working other jobs, or we engage in so many other acts of service we run the risk of burning out. While I’m still navigating some of these challenges as well, I offer the following pieces of advice that I have picked up along the way from people much smarter than me, in hopes that they may help you too.

1. Take stock of what’s important to you long-term.

What or who is important in your life? This question is one that you should sit with as you begin to look at where your priorities are or should be. Consider how your current work schedule or workload is affecting your day-to-day relationships with others. Think about how it affects your family, friends, or even your pets. Are you spending the time that you would like with them? If not, how is the discrepancy in time with them affecting them? How is it affecting you? Answering these questions is paramount to finding the right balance for you.

2. Reevaluate what is truly an “emergency” or “critical” – go home!

We are lucky that there are few real “emergencies” in our profession. There are pressing matters, yes, but for the most part, no one is severely injured or dies (hopefully) when we drop the ball. I know that I have a tendency to get so caught up in a “choral crisis” that I can lose perspective as to how small, relatively speaking, the crisis actually is. Try to reconsider what you believe to be an emergency. Ask yourself if your choral crisis is something that necessitates being done immediately, or if it can possibly wait until the next day. Sometimes, pressing matters are time-sensitive and need to be handled as such. But most of the time, it’s okay to leave that email unanswered or resolve to make that important phone call in the morning. Not everything has to happen now.

closeup photo of street go and stop signage displaying a red raised 'stop' hand

3. When you say yes to something, you say no to something else.

Have you ever seen the 2008 movie, Yes Man, featuring Jim Carrey? The premise of the movie is simple: Carrey, a curmudgeon that says “no” to everything, is introduced to the power of “yes,” and begins to say “yes” to every question asked of him. And while this shift from the negative to the positive yields many benefits, he eventually learns that saying “yes” too often has its own unique consequences.

Professionally, I am somebody who tends to be the opposite of Carrey at the start of the film. I say yes with vigor to almost any opportunity because I’m so afraid that saying no will cause me to miss out or be perceived as ungrateful. But, as my mentor often reminds me, saying yes to one thing takes time away from something else. Consider if the opportunities you are saying “yes” to are worthwhile or if there are some that you could start saying “no” to. The power of “no” can be extremely powerful and impactful to your pursuit of balance.

4. Rediscover or reignite your passions away from choir.

In my last article, we looked at how to carve creative time out for yourself. This goes hand-in-hand with the reignition of non-choral related passions. I love choir as much as the next person (so much so that even my old AOL Instant Messenger screen name had “choirfreak” in it) but when choir takes up the majority of time in my life, I can get burned out or lose myself. Think back to non-choral related things that you used to do that sparked joy. What do you feel like you miss or wish you had time for again? Explore what it could look like to try and engage with these activities again. Chances are, you’ll thank yourself for it.

5. Start small.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, or at least that’s what I’ve heard. Don’t be unrealistic in trying to create new routines or structures for your life. It probably would be overwhelming or too much of a culture shock to knock, say, 10 hours off of your working time. Instead, try to create micro-moments of time to do something non-choral that is fun or relaxing. Maybe that starts with a 10 minute walk, or 30 minutes of yoga. It could also look like scheduling one non-choral activity just for you. If you want this to be sustainable and realistic, start small, go slow, and don’t push yourself too far out of your comfort zone. Then go from there.

6. Include other people to ensure accountability.

I am notoriously awful at self-care and doing things for me. Even small things can be challenging, seem unproductive, or feel like a waste of time. In an effort to combat my own shortcomings, I’ve learned to include other people in what I’m trying to do. When other people are involved, I am much less likely to flake on plans or stay in my office and work. See if you can include other people into your activities or create an accountability group. For example, maybe you make it a point to go to Happy Hour with a colleague Tuesdays after rehearsal. Maybe you have a friend that you text or share your location with on Find My Friends to let them know when you’re leaving work. Including others, even in these small ways, can help you begin to create and maintain balance.

It is possible to be successful and still have work-life balance. Working hard or being successful should not have to mean that you do not take time for yourself or your needs. Be mindful of burning yourself out, and try to make small changes to prevent that from happening. I hope that the advice listed above helps you in your own balancing journey. If you have something that helps you maintain balance that I didn’t mention, please drop it in the comments below!


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Melanie Stapleton, M.M.Ed

Melanie Stapleton (she/her) is a music educator, researcher, author, and choral director located in Chicago. She is currently a PhD student at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, pursuing a PhD in Music Studies with a specialization in Music Education and an interdisciplinary certificate in Gender and Sexuality Studies. She is the founder of Blurring the Binary, and holds a Masters of Music Education from the University of North Texas as well as a Bachelors of Music Education from Louisiana State University. She is a strong believer that the choral ensemble should be a musical family and a safe place offering unconditional love for all. When not teaching, she can be found hanging with her Golden Retriever, Queso, playing video games, or jamming to the latest choral hits.

Melanie Stapleton, M.M.Ed