I Spent My 20s as a Touring Musician; Here’s the Most Important Thing I Learned About Self-Care
The most frustrating statement uttered about my life in the music world usually happens right when I’ve just gotten back into town:
“Oh my gosh, you just got back from tour in Europe? Wow, I wish I could go on vacation.”
In my imagination, my eyebrows furrow beyond recognition.
In reality, I smile and offer a semi-convincing laugh while finding some kind way to say, “I just spent six sleep-deprived weeks — the only woman in a van full of boys — with only three days off, without one night to myself, sometimes eating weird food, sleeping in places beyond my control, regularly going number two in gas station bathrooms, drinking a devilish amount of coffee, never fully understanding where I was on a map, and all while trying to give people a memorable and emotional musical experience every night. …Did you just say vay-ca-tion?”
I’ve spent my 20s traveling the US and Europe as a violinist in a number of bands and, in short, it’s a paradoxical head game. Never mind the trouble of not getting lost, showing up on time, or the continuous threat of sub-par equipment or disgruntled venue staff.
For me, the true battle to be won is within myself.
When I think back on my very first tour, I know there was gladness and excitement. But first, I remember shivering.
I remember shivering while sitting off to the side in a dimly-lit basement in Cleveland, Ohio, wondering how exactly I’d arrived here, when dinner would be, and at what point, if ever, I might feel warm again. I was wearing a borrowed snowboarding shell jacket, a few layers of cotton shirts, blue jeans, and Converse Low Tops…in January. A snow storm was brewing that would later tail us across newspaper headlines.
But there I was, a Texan in the North, unprepared as ever for the cold, traipsing around in this caravan of boys and guitars.
[Tweet “”There I was, a Texan in the North, […] traipsing around in this caravan of boys and guitars.””]
We were 16 days into the tour and I was miles inside my own brain, suffering from a classic Aisha-introvert-overload shutdown. This basement was dirty and unfamiliar. I’d been eating about half the amount of food I really needed in order to save money. And I, with a near-supernatural capacity to feel alone in a crowd, sat steeped in tired, public solitude.
Indiscriminate “dudes” strutted in and out of the room, everyone waiting for something to happen. My eyes ran across the floor to a tub filled with beer. Rather unacquainted with alcohol before this moment, and truly disgusted by beer, I picked up a can. I examined its condensated side.
“Well,” I thought to myself, “I guess this is the kind of moment when people start drinking.”
The click of a can, the haze of artificial fog (yes, there was in fact a fog machine in this basement), and on with the show.
Older and wiser, I return to this night in my mind and can see what’s truly happening.
You can go as far away from home as possible. You can dress up all you want in independence and adventure. But in the end, your inner self persists.
The biggest tool in winning the mind game is to know and listen to yourself. Your health is important. Saving money is of legitimate concern, but so is nourishing your body. You can’t expect to subsist on bread and cheese or gas station cuisine without your physical and emotional health taking a turn.
Word to the introverts: If you’re traveling in a group, ditch your FOMO and carve out some time for yourself.
[Tweet “”You can dress up in independence and adventure. But in the end, your inner self persists.””]
I’m a hardcore, textbook introvert. I definitely recharge fully in times when I can be alone.
But traveling with a band feels at times like I’ve become a medical marvel and exist only as one portion of conjoined quintuplets. The day is arranged in full schedules. We drive all day together. We eat nearly every meal together. We find out entirely too much about each other’s particular digestive circumstances. We often sleep in the same room.
I’ve learned that it’s important to find a way to make time for yourself, even if it means adjusting your expectations for what your time alone can actually look like. Make a concerted effort to create the space you need. Taking a 15 minute walk alone does wonders. Wake up early and go on a solo breakfast date. You’ll feel glad for the time and glad that you looked out for yourself.
Every decipherable stamp in my passport illuminates another snapshot of memory.
After a flight from Germany, I stepped into an elevator in the Ukraine with hopes of ascending to our band apartment, when the doors abruptly slammed shut. I stood in disturbing stillness. I wanted nothing more than the overdue shower that awaited a few floors above (and, you know, to not be trapped in an elevator).
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Suddenly a jolt, and my fearful ascension. The doors opened. I entered the band apartment, and the deep sigh of getting what I’d been waiting for was interrupted by a caveat. In the bathroom, with no windows, the lights had taken the day off.
Have you ever wheeled a TV set frozen in static fuzzies into a bathroom to shower by its illuminating glow?
I opened the shower curtain to let the “light” in, turned the water on, and detached the hand-held nozzle. I can’t remember if I laughed or cried.
We shared a snack-sized microwaved dinner — my one meal of the day. Then, our host led us to a beautiful, Soviet-era theatre and we played a sold-out show.
Exhilaration. The woman at my feet was practically conducting each song! She knew it so well! The girls in the crowd brought flowers to the boys. We signed records. We chatted for as long as we could before hustling with our gear through the streets to catch an overnight train.
Once aboard, I lay on a bed roughly 36 inches from my bandmates’ bunks. Hot air floated around us, while the train car thudded along. My first trip to Russia, and I couldn’t ignore my voracious hunger and subsequent anger at running on fumes while attempting to rest in a situation so jarringly unfamiliar.
I was frustrated and ashamed for it. But I kept it to myself. It was our 25th show after only two days off. Nothing could uplift my spirits or my eyelids.
In the morning, we arrived in Moscow and later that day played an incredible, packed show. I barely had time to take it in before we hurriedly gathered our things and boarded yet another overnight train — this time to St. Petersburg.
Finally, a day off! Joy surged through me after simply eating breakfast while reading the news, a staple of my mornings at home. That mundane moment reasserted the value of something so simple. Routine.
On the next tour, in the absence of steadiness, I began forcing even a small piece of routine into my day.
I picked a favorite seat in the van. I listened to the same song every morning during our drive. I wrote in my notebook most days. It was such a minuscule shift, but finally, I’d found some amount of control amidst ever-changing spaces and schedules.
On the tour after that, I remembered that my body was made to move. Exercise keeps my delicate system at a functional balance. The 7 Minute Workout app is a game changer.
No, we don’t all have access to gyms, but we’ve likely all got seven minutes. Push ups and sit ups or yoga in the hotel room? Sure. Whatever it takes.
Happiness and good self-care are inseparable.
And communication is the key to both.
This one is still in progress for me. The Russian train rides and that desperate moment in the basement felt so suffocating because I couldn’t bear to admit my frustration or express any of my needs. I was seeing the world while playing music — shouldn’t I have been happy?
Everyone you’re traveling with wants you to have a great time (or at least they should), but no one is a mindreader. Speak up for yourself. Let your group in on what you need, whether it’s food, rest, or just a moment alone.
Midway through a tour, my body often lags with the weight of incomplete sleep and limbs that have sat idle for too long. But many days, the energy of camaraderie amongst each other, and, on good nights, with those we are performing for, becomes enough.
When morale is high, even being lost in the woods in no-man’s land at 1am seems conquerable. You can laugh at the day you drove for hours in the alps only to realize the foreign signs you couldn’t read were telling you that the road was closed.
When you practice mindful self-care, you’re equipped with energy to give, and with something to drop into the team morale bank.
We’ve all felt the downward pull of the person on the trip who is trapped in the stormiest mood imaginable. Our energy is connected.
When you take care of yourself, you are really taking care of your team, your community. And really, isn’t that all anything is about anyway?
There is no ending to this story that crosses a finish line.
I’m still touring, and I’m still learning how to tour over and over again. I’m also still at times that grumpy woman, momentarily blind from the gleam of amazing things by my own inner battles.
It takes confidence to stand up for what you need. It takes a certain kind of bravery to begin to truly know yourself. It takes patience to endure forces you cannot control. And it takes humility to admit that the journey of sculpting emotional balance will always be in progress.
[Tweet “”When you take care of yourself, you are really taking care of your team, your community.””]
I don’t profess to own all of these noble attributes.
Many days remind me that even after all of the lessons I’ve learned, I am clearly miles upon miles away from mastery. I do, however, find peace and encouragement in realizing how far I’ve come.
There is no finish line. The work is never quite complete.
Now, so many years beyond the Cleveland basement, I know there is only a door that leads to a door, that leads to a door. And all that you can do with it is shape the particular angle of your glance, how boldly you’ll advocate for yourself, and your attitude as you stroll on through.
How do you practice self-care in your travels, and what has that journey been like for you? Share in the comments!