In Germany, more and more musicians are suffering burnout

In Germany, more and more musicians are suffering burnout


norman lebrecht

November 04, 2013

The German Tonkünstlerverband, concerned at rising rates of burnout among performing and teaching musicians, has commissioned a study from a psychiatrist, Dr. Jürgen Brunner, to examine the phenomenon and recommend forms of therapy. You can read his essay here in German. It sets out the condition in general terms, without case histories, but many of the symptoms will be widely familiar.

Anecdotally, we have become increasingly aware of rising dropout rates in the musical professions, as well as incidents of self-harm and suicide. There seems to be no single immediate cause. The German initiative is welcome for opening the field of study.



  • ed says:

    Of all the European countries, one would have thought Germany, committed as it is to its music and its cultural significance, the most immune to budget cuts in the arts and to this kind of pessimism. Yet, we are seeing German orchestras shut down or merged, and increasing unemployment as a result. Elsewhere in Europe the pain and suffering has been greater and for a longer time.

    Apart from that, hasn’t it become easier to question one’s identity and reason for living when, for the past decade (indeed for most of this century and the last), we have experienced, or at least seen, massive killing and human suffering, or physical destruction, or economic dislocation in our world, and are becoming more and more uncertain about its future- e.g., with our perpetual wars, or with the rise again of fascism and the surveillance state (except now on a global scale), or an increasing fear that many more of us will be condemned to poverty- especially if those leading us continue along the same road while the few at the top who control the game (aka deep state) will be the only ones that profit- or with the risks to our future on planet Terra if we continue to use technologies- old or new – that are dangerous to the environment (and in an irreversible way)- but do so because it lines the pockets of the deep staters who tell us it is the only way to survive (e.g. guns, oil, GMO, or what have you), while (with few exceptions) they also obstruct development of viable alternatives not profitable to them?

    Of course, it doesn’t have to be that way. People do learn to adapt and turn misfortune into opportunity, and our human community is also fermenting below the surface with enormous waves of creativity and technological possibilities that can make a better life for all of us, and while so many are enslaved, others around the world are rising up and asserting themselves to improve their political, social and economic condition, and when we see and hear enthusiastic young musicians, or artists or scientists about to embark on a serious professional career, all of it gives cause for hope, but that doesn’t mean it will happen until people make it so.

    Apologies to the musical purists for this non-musical rant, but maybe there’s a bit of truth in it, and that when musicians worry, maybe it’s also due to some sort of gestalt in us all being connected to what’s happening around us?

  • Michael Schaffer says:

    My first bass teacher played with the Berliner Philharmoniker for 42 years. When he had to retire at the age of 65, he said “I would immediately sign up for another 42 years!”

    • ed says:

      Mr. Schaffer- Your point is well taken, but you’re looking at the inspirational side, and from the point of view of someone who was a member of one of the very best orchestras, if not the best. To be protected financially and be able to follow one’s passion at the highest level does make a difference. We’ve seen how other orchestras are collapsing with people at risk of losing their housing, etc. That can be depressing.

      • Michael Schaffer says:

        I wasn’t actually trying to make a point – I just kind of threw that in there. But you are right, of course. Job satisfaction, financial security, a clear perspective for the future – all these things do play a very important role. But that, and the stress that comes with less than satisfying work conditions applies to pretty much any profession.

        You paint a pretty stark and dark picture of the period we currently live in, and things indeed don’t seem to be all that great at the moment. But when were they ever? At least for the great majority of people?

        I am not sure though if that study even wants to suggest that burnout among German musicians is an increasing phenomenon and if that can really be linked to recent developments and the shutting down of some orchestras. In any case, that kind of pessimism isn’t something that you should expect Germans to be immune to even in good times. It’s just a very German thing to complain about everything and anything. But that has its good sides, too. It leads to people continuously questioning the status quo and trying to improve things.

  • Jerry Pritchard says:

    Being in a profession where you have to do difficult–and sometimes even impossible–feats before a large audience who expects you to be perfect all the time, to be a member of a tight ensemble, and to play expressively with individuality while always following the conductors interpretation, why would THAT lead to frustration, stress, depression, and burnout?

  • Bang Bang says:

    The essay in German is so turgid as to be almost unreadable, a boiler-plate, copy and paste effort that contains no reference to musicians.

    • Musiker says:

      It’s not turgid, it’s a scientific lecture and a perfectly readable und easily understandable one at that.

      Your assertion that it is simply a copy and paste job is equally ridiculous.

      Copied and pasted from where exactly?

      Dr. Brunner also explicitly states in his introductory paragraph that no reliable data have been compiled regarding burn-out in musicians and music teachers.

      (“Verlässliche Daten zu ausgebrannten Musikern oder Musikpädagogen liegen derzeit nicht vor.”)

      So quite how you can say that it “contains no reference to musicians” is beyond me.

      Maybe you need to brush up your German a bit.

      • Bang Bang says:

        I apologize if my comment was poorly phrased. I was looking for answers to the following obvious questions

        – what, is specific about the burnout syndrome for musicians/in common with other professions

        – which instruments are especially affected, if any

        – how does it related to repetitive strain injury ( for example in string players)

        – in orchestras, is the problem greater in small ensembles who have to play more engagements with less musiciians than in the big orchestras

        – is it due to the increasing number of temporary positions with poorer pay and benefits

        – what are potential solutions


        – Finally, if none of the above can be answered due to lack of data, what data should be collected and how?

        I did not want to appear unsympathetic, quite the opposite.

  • Una says:

    I sang a lot in Germany as a soloist, and I also studied singing in Germany but that was not with a German, but saw the result of people trying to get work in the opera houses and dealing with the ‘fach’ system for singers, rather than singing what suited the singer – being pigeon-holed, so if you sang X you had to sing Y as part of the deal. I could sing X but there was no way I could sing Y without losing my voice, so I had the sense to turn down the contract and come home to England, do less work as a singer but at least kept both my sanity and my voice as a result.

    As it happened, I also did some temporary secretarial work for Deutsche Bank in London, and that was extremely regimented in every sense compared to Barclays or PricewaterhouseCoopers, and not sure they achieve any more from me or anyone as a result.

    Whilst all the singing was very well paid, it was very driven at times, hard work and everything, compare to the British way of doing things, was so over rehearsed to the point that we were so tired for the performance, and again nothing more was achieved by flogging a dead horse. And more so I can remember flying from London to Frankfurt, and then getting up at 5am, which was really 4am in my British body, to drive 100 kms for an 8am rehearsal to do a recording of the work, and then a concert as well. I remember doing the B Minor Mass in German three times, and each time the poor choir had to stand for the whole thing from beginning to end -so unnecessary.

    Yes, they don’t have the financial constraints but there is something in their thinking that causes all this. They get worked up even if a train is slightly late whereas in England we’re so used the trains being late, we can just laugh, and say ‘typical!’

    • Musiker says:

      Oh dear. Someone has been reading The Sun with its uninformed clichés and stereotypes again, haven’t they.

    • Michael Schaffer says:

      Wow, Una, I am so sorry that things didn’t work out for you in Germany and that you had to find that things there weren’t tailored to fit your exact needs. They are even in the wrong time zone! They should have changed that, just for you. And they should have made the trains run late, just for you, so you would have felt more at home. What’s the point of getting really well paid if you actually have to work for your money? And they even make you do actual work when you work for a German bank in England! That’s outrageous.

      There are reasons though why there are so many more theaters and orchestras and why they get paid so much better than most British singers and musicians who have to run from one gig to the next but still don’t make much more than bus drivers or they have to work as secretaries to make ends meet. That’s probably why you tried to get on board there, too, isn’t it?

      I am sorry you didn’t make it but even sorrier to see all you have taken home from your experiences there is these resentments and crude stereotypes.

      • Una says:

        Sarcasm gets people nowhere in life, Michael, and neither does cross-examining me or others as if in a court of law. I have never got anything for nothing in this life, and I have worked extremely hard all my life, but I have more than made ends meet, thank you!

        I shall say no more other than my comments were simply my experiences and trying to have some opinion as to why German musicians are running into mental health issues perhaps more than other nationalities, which is how this blog started off. It was not an opportunity for you to criticise me personally with sarcasm and assumptions when you don’t even know me and my circumstances. You’ve done this to other as well on this blog, and got very personal, and there is no need to be like that. Everyone is entitled to an opinion from their experiences, but no one has the right to be so judgemental to people so personally. So I am leaving this blog as I’m not prepared to be put down by the likes of you when you don’t even know me or what I actually stand for in life.

        • Musiker says:

          So it’s OK for you to peddle offensive clichés and insulting stereotypes about the entire population of Germany, claiming that “they” all have something wrong or dysfunctional in their thinking that turns them into dour, “driven” automatons, and yet you throw a tantrum because someone challenges you on it?

          Just because you may have had occasional work in Germany and Austria in the past, it doesn’t make you an expert on everything German and the German population’s collective state of mind.

          As someone who has been living and working in Germany and Austria for more than two decades, it is exasperating to see that even educated Brits still ascribe to the same old clichéd stereotypes of continental Europe that they encountered in comedy series such as Dad’s Army and ‘Allo ‘Allo.

          Try getting to know the people and the language and stop thinking in your puerile “us” and “them” categories.

          And, again, take time to actually READ the magazine article and you’ll see that there is no suggestion that “German musicians are running into mental health issues perhaps more than other nationalities.”

          The article doesn’t say that. It explicitly states that no reliable data have been compiled regarding burn-out in musicians and music teachers.

      • Michael, have you sung in Germany? I have and Una makes some very good points, particularly about over-rehearsal and she does mention being well-paid, so her comments are not all negative.

        It was a wonderful experience for me as singers are respected more there, but a dash of our humour would go down well…

        • Michael Schaffer says:

          Ah yes – “the Huns don’t have a sense of humor”. Yet another one of those SUNny kneejerk stereotypes. I suppose it never occurred to you that maybe they do, but it’s not necessarily “your” type of humor, or maybe you never understood what the hell they were laughing about because you didn’t know enough German to “get” it?


          Anyway, as to your question – yes, I have sung in Germany, on multiple occasions. But, in my defense – usually only when I was drunk!

  • Una says:

    The Sun? Not sure what that is. I was only going by my own experiences and how I found things with my years of working in Germany and Austria, nothing else.

  • PB says:

    It’s a pity this potentially interesting discussion has degenerated into a rehash of old two-way stereotyping, especially as valid points a being made on both sides. I am British but have German/Austrian parentage, grew up bilingual, was schooled in both countries and have worked extensively as a singer in Britain and Germany so I feel I have reasonable claim to neutrality in offering my comments. There are positive and negative aspects of the cultural life in Britain and Germany in much the same way as anything else in those countries. I too find the “Fach” system somewhat flawed, and certain aspects of “Regie-Theater” over-mechanised; but am equally irritated by the sometimes British over-tolerance of the lackadaisical…… In a utopian world there would be a fine balance. Yes, the German system in opera house ensembles may well contribute to the premature deterioration of certain voices, but the original topic is dealing with burnout in all types of musicians, and I have many friends in the London orchestras who are increasingly dealing with these issues, so I do not believe it is a specific German thing, just that this study happened to be conducted there, and as Norman said in his last sentence, should be welcome for opening this field of study.

  • Anon says:

    Michael – “I suppose it never occurred to you that maybe they do, but it’s not necessarily “your” type of humour…”

    I think to be fair to Valerie, it did occur to her. She clearly says ‘our humour’.

    I spend a lot of time working internationally with musicians. Una’s observations about quantities of rehearsal as an average in some countries compared with other countries strikes me as quite fair.

    • PB says:

      I also agree with much of what Una says, but feel the last paragraph of her original comment was not appropriate……..