Staying Sane on the Road

In a recent column I wrote a bit about how much I love the structure of touring: it’s repetitive to the point of being ritualistic, and as a creature of habit, I like getting into a rhythm on tour. I can go to bed at the end of each day feeling that I’ve accomplished something without having to confront a disorganized to-do list pulling me in many directions. Not to mention the fun part, where I get to see new places and share my music with a new audience every night.

That said, touring can be difficult and draining. The drives can be mind-numbingly long, the accommodations are often less than stellar (my bandmates and I have shared more pull-out couches than we’d like to say), and the repetition can get monotonous.

As of this writing, my band Lula Wiles is in Germany, one week into a month-long festival tour called the Bluegrass Jamboree. This will be a long tour for us: 23 shows in 26 days. I’m taking it as an opportunity to put all of my touring strategies to the test, and hopefully I’ll emerge a more seasoned road warrior. So with that in mind, I thought I’d spend this week sharing what I’ve learned about maintaining health and sanity on the road.

Anyone who’s ever had a cold while traveling knows that it’s both easy to get sick and difficult to get well when you’re constantly moving. Last year, I lost my voice on tour, and it was one of the most stressful and difficult experiences of my musical life. Fortunately I’m in a band with two other singers, so we got through it, but since then I’ve been much more deliberate about caring for my voice and my overall health while on the road. We’ve also begun keeping multivitamins, vitamin C, zinc, and Throat Coat tea on hand to stave off any signs of a cold. (My travel mug has a permanent lingering scent of Throat Coat and apple cider vinegar.)

It’s important to stay healthy all the time, of course, but it’s particularly important for a touring musician. Touring is the primary way we make money and build our audience, and getting sick presents a difficult choice between toughing it out, which could prolong the illness, and canceling a gig. Canceling a gig usually means a significant loss of funds for us as well as the venues that keep us working, not to mention disappointing the fans who’ve paid to see the show. Most musicians adhere to a “the show must go on” philosophy, and you’ve probably seen artists perform through a haze of cold medicine and adrenaline without even realizing that they weren’t feeling top-notch.

Eating well and exercising are both extra important and extra difficult when you spend half the day in the van and the rest of the day at the venue. (All the free German beer is really not helping.) My band and I are devotees of the Whole Foods hot bar and salad bar for reliably healthy meals and snacks on the road. I personally don’t tend to be a running person or a morning person, but whenever I drag myself out of bed 45 minutes early to get a bit of exercise, I feel a lot better the rest of the day. In the summer, we try to find a place to swim when we can, preferably at some off-road swimming hole known only to locals. Getting out and exercising, in addition to maintaining my mental and physical health, also helps me to see a bit more of the places we’re traveling through. It’s so easy to get a week into a tour and realize I haven’t actually seen anything other than the hotels or friends’ homes, the venues, and whatever’s visible off the side of the highway through the van window. It can sometimes be tricky to make time for those extracurricular activities or expeditions on tour, but it’s so important to give yourself time off whenever you can fit it in.

My bandmates and I make clear distinctions between “band time” and “friend time” for a number of reasons: it helps keep band time focused, and it keeps work from spilling into friend time. Usually, when we start getting snippy and passive-aggressive with each other on tour (as all bands do), it’s because we haven’t banked enough friend time lately. Spending time together that has nothing to do with Lula Wiles reminds us of the foundation of friendship that our band was built on, and it keeps that foundation strong. However, we also have a strict policy that any band member can initiate quiet time in the van, or disengage from conversation if they need to. It’s really all about keeping our communication open and honest, because any lingering resentments are certain to fester and explode when we’re spending all our time together in a packed vehicle. Is this starting to sound like advice for married couples on a family trip? I have yet to be married, but I keep hearing that being in a band is good practice.

My dad says (although I think he got the phrase from Rick Steves) that there are two kinds of people: those who pack light, and those who wish they had packed light. Unfortunately I tend to fall into the second camp, but I’m slowly learning the meaning of the phrase “quality over quantity” as it relates to packing. On this tour, I’m keeping track of which items and articles of clothing I keep reaching for, and which ones stay in my bag the whole time, so that before I die I can maybe be one of those people who pack light. Here are a few things I’ve found indispensable on tour: high-quality noise-canceling headphones, an iPod stocked with music and podcasts for when streaming isn’t an option, a travel pillow, a journal, an external battery and extra-long cable for charging my devices, and reusable travel mugs and silverware.

In many ways, the lessons I’ve learned about touring are really just lessons about life: mental and physical health, communication, time management, and prioritizing what really matters. Touring can be a magnifying glass and a pressure cooker, which is why it can completely break a band, but I think that’s also why we come out stronger from every tour. For all its challenges and quirks, I feel very lucky that I get to travel and play music for a living.

Artist Lula WilesIsa Burke
Other tags Touring