Just before I started writing this article, I glanced at the latest Tweet from that doughty philosopher Alain de Botton. He wrote: "If I wasn't forced to stop working, I'd never have any ideas."
A timely observation. Just a few weeks ago, a fascinating television documentary was aired in which Ed Smith, the former England cricketer, now an author and journalist, asked: Is Professionalism Killing Sport? Smith pointed out that if a sportsperson works less and enjoys the game more, the result can be increased flair and better scores. Top-level players such as Mark Ramprakash and Ryan Giggs revealed that they did best when they were engaging most instinctively. Perhaps young tennis wannabes, instead of plugging away at backhand volleys for an extra three hours, would find that a rest and a bit more fun enabled them to return to the court with a clearer mind.
Is something similar true of "playing" music? Looking at the tour schedules of some of today's best-known soloists, it's hard to understand how they can function at their best. Performing the same recital programme on tour 15 times — an average of every three days, with long journeys in-between, from mid-October to early January, two or three different concertos in eight concerts spattered among them, sometimes on consecutive evenings: this is typical of a sought-after soloist. Can anyone reliably produce fresh, inspiring performances on such a schedule without ever resorting to automatic pilot? This artist (who'll remain nameless) gives about 80-100 concerts a year: average-to-heavy duty. I've met younger musicians who are giving 120-130.
Inspired Improviser: Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero
A vast level of professionalism is required to keep up this pace: rock-solid technique, a thick hide and a refusal to be thrown by airport delays, noisy hotels, uncongenial pianos, etc. But no matter how carefully a career is managed, or how much a soloist protects his/her personal space, someone will end up busking the Liszt Sonata in an important concert hall on little more than muscle memory, disappointing everyone. Is it any wonder that soloists who have been laying golden eggs for their agents at such a rate so often succumb before they're 40 to mental burnout or physical incapacity?
It's a larger issue, though: a state-of-the-nation matter. Many of us across a huge variety of jobs, from expensive lawyers to cruelly exploited food-packers, are working crazy hours. Family life (let alone "me time") is sidelined while everyone in work is scared of losing it and levels of competition have rocketed. A research scientist and university professor I know, a father of four, has found himself on 18-hour days these past few years. As he puts it: "It is impossible to think creatively when you're permanently exhausted."