Ear Fatigue, the Shed, and Why You Gotta Take a Break Sometimes Buddy

Written by Max Alper

If there’s one thing that music school teaches young artists, it is that we need to shut up and grind. “This is college, you kids aren’t even sleeping anyways, right?” I remember countless evenings in the practice room wings of the Conservatory of Music at Brooklyn College. I would walk through the halls on an “It’s A Small World After All'' style conveyor belt of musical works coming from each windowless and poorly soundproofed rehearsal room (closet). These facilities would officially be kept open past midnight by campus security, knowing fully well that there would be music students getting their tuition’s worth of the facilities well past their bedtimes.

As a composition major, I didn’t have to dedicate myself to a performance practice to such an extreme degree, despite being fully expected to be grinding my musical brain to the wee hours from my home studio. On the chance that I would be required to practice my instrument for an upcoming recital, however, I would have hit the shed for hours at a time, often forgetting to eat or even take a piss break. Coffee, cigarettes, practice, weed when you’re done. That’s all you get, Max.

I had never been much of a sightreader at the piano or voice, so I convinced myself that if I wanted to pass juries, I needed complete concentration at the expense of my physical and mental health. Many of my music fundamentals professors would instill in me the idea that to fully practice one's instrument by yourself is to willfully tune out any and all stimuli around you, whether it be your phone, the drizzling rain hitting the window outside, or the fellow musicians in the practice rooms directly next to yours. I thought I was training to be a composer, not a solitary monk in a monastery, what gives?

When I would finally leave my cave of a rehearsal space, it was as though I was seeing natural light or another human being for the first time. Dazed and confused, destined to wander the earth in search of a reason as to why I punished myself so much for music I barely cared about. This was a specific type of fatigue setting in, my ears were tired. It felt as though I had just been cramming for a calculus exam, as if I was memorizing materials through obsessive repetition, but not necessarily learning the music or growing as an aspiring artist.

And it didn’t just affect the way I interpreted the music I was rehearsing, I needed a break from music period. It didn’t matter at that point whether somebody played Chopin or Gucci Mane; my brain’s musical receptors had turned off for the night and I no longer enjoyed listening to any music.  By the next morning, all that would be left was the muscle memory of the composition at hand. Sure, I could sit back at the piano and grasp the score on sight alone with a bit more ease, but I would barely be able to hum the melody of the tune on my own if I tried. My fingers and eyes were being trained at the expense of my ears.

It was as if I was learning how to pass my piano and voice juries by reducing my musicianship to an equation:

Sheet music by a dead white man

+ Obsessive instrumental practice

- Motivation to hear or create other sounds outside of the classroom

= Success in the Conservatory and the professional field of concert music at large.

There would be one saving grace to these long hours whittling away at this equation.

A place of respite to communally kvetch about the Sisyphean journey each of us music majors had been tasked with, regardless of whether we were a classical cellist, a Jazz saxophonist, or an electroacoustic composer. This oasis would appear in the form of a smelly instrument locker room located at the back of the rehearsal space floor. And much like a gym locker room, which in fact I believe it literally was at some point, we would use this space to decompress, rehabilitate, and refresh after hours of strenuous musical activity. It was here that we would eat, hang out in between classes and rehearsals, and generally shoot the shit if we had nowhere to be — a real water-cooler vibe amongst conservatory undergrads.

Through these hangs, I was able to meet many of my closest colleagues in the conservatory, many of whom I remain close friends with to this day. This was a place we could unload our musical frustrations into the communal ether, and much of the musical discussions we’d have in the locker room weren’t at all related to our conservatory coursework. Whether it was discussing some Top 40 hip-hop or the best places to go subway busking in Manhattan, this was a safe space for musicians to just chill and talk shop without a professor or department head breathing down our necks. It was as if our musicianships required a social life after the long hours of antisocial musical behavior instilled in us.

What I experienced here in the instrument locker room during my early twenties was a microcosm of what many practicing artists have experienced throughout the 21st century. We’ve been absorbed by the late-capitalist mindset of hustle culture, that grinding at your independent profession to the point of misery is the key to financial success, as if any of the creative industries we work towards are some sort of objective meritocracy that appreciates all our hard work and will pay it back tenfold down the line.

Where in the world does working harder automatically mean higher pay and recognition? Add that to a society that continuously divests in and devalues the arts as a whole and we’re left with a whole lot of abusive self-talk from your shitty foreman of a brain.

“This is the big leagues kid, you’re a professional artist now. And if art is your job then you need to work yourself to the bone because you’re on a budget and you should just be happy you get to work in your field at all. You used to do this for free, afterall, you should be having fun eating shit.”

Newsflash: Sometimes your shitty, wage abuser of a boss is actually you.

If you’re a musician, you’re an athlete, your labor starts with the way you treat your body. Your brain and your ears are your key moneymaker muscles, they’re the root of all we have to thank for musically. And like any athlete, you need to rest your muscles after a long scrimmage or game. You have to take time off and rehabilitate your money makers or you’re going to hurt yourself.

You need to treat your ears in the same fashion. If you don’t take care of your bread and butter, your art will objectively suffer. The materials we track in the studio that we initially love inevitably become those we over-criticize, or even scrap entirely, at the end of a twelve-hour session. We begin to find fatal flaws where there were none before, our ears have become biased by the fatigue and repetition of the shed. In moments like these, it’s essential to get some air and hit the showers, so to speak. We need to give our ears and brain a shiatsu massage every once in a while. In what universe does overworking your muscles to the point of fatigue guarantee success, if not simply just for flexing? Are you a musical bodybuilder? Some of us are trained to be from preschool onwards.

This particular form of flexing, this musical bodybuilding, is an unfortunate side effect of a traditional regiment towards virtuosic performance. It’s not any aspiring musician's fault that playing the fastest, loudest, most complex phrase or riff will turn the most heads; it’s indicative of societal thinking at large. The West is built on flexing, and so are many of its art forms. From baroque to new complexity to death metal to hyperpop, much of our modern musical thinking is derived from a “more is more” mentality, that sometimes an oversaturation of technique is inherent in this form of musical meritocracy.

Without question, fast and loud sound serves its purpose. Shit goes hard by design. And while there is absolutely musical merit in this sonic overstimulation from an aesthetic perspective, maximal music should not automatically equate to maximal work ethic or artistic merit, especially if we seek any sort of longevity in a given musical project. And this applies to any creative practice. The work you create is just that: work. A labor of love is still labor, a necessary usage of our body, our muscles, to complete the task at hand.

The modern Western world is one of maximalism from top to bottom, we have no choice but to play the game to some extent to survive. Last time I checked it wasn't getting any easier for a musician to earn a living from selling records or playing gigs. So to set your own hours accordingly as an artist in direct response to the maximal activity expected of us is an essential act we all must take if we want longevity in this hustle culture cesspool. If late capitalism tells us we need to suffer to succeed, then we need to play the role of our own union representative to call bullshit, and it starts with how we treat ourselves in the shed, both mentally and physically. Eventually, we all need to hit the locker room, we need a place of respite, we need rest.

Max Alper aka La Meme Young is a composer, educator, and writer. He is the cofounder of Klang Magazine and performs music under the moniker Peretsky.