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How to Abandon a Music Career
A guide to the one career move you won't learn about in music school
A Juilliard grad recently wrote a deeply moving account of his decision to abandon a music career. It was a sad and wistful story, and it generated a dramatic response.
In a follow-up post, Zach Manzi described how tens of thousands of people read his article over the next few days. Many of them felt compelled to reach out to him and describe their own frustrations with life as a working musician.
He described some of the responses as “brave”—and I imagine they were. Leaving a vocation, especially one demanding such intense emotional commitment, is like breaking up a marriage or some other longstanding relationship. Every aspect of your life changes, from your daily routine to the balance in your bank account.
But the most painful part of abandoning a music career is what happens in your heart and head.
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“I still practice the clarinet occasionally, take gigs when I want to , and enjoy talking about and listening to classical music,” Manzi wrote. “It’s still an important part of my life. The most significant part of ending my career in classical music has been far more existential.”
“There were times in my adult life when I literally thought being a musician was the only interesting thing about me,” Manzi confesses. “I’d convinced myself I could not give up that identity because then nobody would want me.”
“There were times in my adult life when I literally thought being a musician was the only interesting thing about me.”
I know exactly what this psychic pain feels like. I also had to give up performing music—although for somewhat different reasons than Manzi’s.
My late teens and twenties were a crazy period for me. You might say I was burning the candle at both ends. But that actually doesn’t do justice to the craziness. You would need a whole topsy-turvy candelabra to symbolize how many candles I was burning at the same time. But through all of it, my self-identity was as a jazz pianist, and even in the midst of the most demanding and high-pressure situations, I spent hours every day practicing, gigging, chasing the dream.
I had already learned I could make money playing jazz as a teenager—and also that people took me more seriously because of this fact. But I was still learning then. During my twenties, I grew both in confidence and ability, and when necessary I could even support myself solely on my earnings as a musician. In my late twenties, I started making recordings. I felt I was close to reaching some intensely personal level of musical expression, which was my most deeply cherished life’s ambition.
But not long after this, I started experiencing pain in my hands.
This was the onset of arthritis—and probably started around the time I turned thirty, maybe even earlier. As I recall now, the first sign was swelling in the joints, and then some time later genuine discomfort, and finally pain.
Despite all this, I was in denial.
The denial was more intense because musicians (much like athletes in this regard) are taught not to talk about pain. I’m certain many of my readers know exactly what I’m describing here—you are hurting, but you can’t tell anyone. It might tarnish your reputation, limit your career, or make you seem weak and ineffective in the eyes of your peers. Even if you recover, people will remember that you were the person who couldn’t handle the strain.
There are many reasons for the silence, but they all lead to the same end point: You keep quiet and hope the problem will just go away. Please, pain, go away!
And I had other reasons for my state of denial. I couldn’t believe that someone so young could suffer from arthritis. For a long time I didn’t even connect the pain to the swelling—they hadn’t started at the same time, so why should they be related? I actually delayed seeing a doctor for around two years. I shake my head now over my stupidity back then. But I thought perhaps I was just spending too much time at the piano, practicing too intensely, gigging too late into the night. Maybe if I cut back or changed my regimen at the keyboard, the hurting would stop.
It didn’t. It got worse.
At a certain juncture, I started to feel a twinge in my toes. Were the symptoms spreading? I could no longer tell myself that this was just hand fatigue from too much time at the piano.
Finally—and far later than necessary—I grasped what was really going on. I had arthritis, that was the only possible explanation. Perhaps my intense practicing had set this ailment in motion. But once the process had started, the symptoms took on a life of their own. And I had no clue how to stop them. Nothing I tried on my own worked.
I had no choice—I had to seek out medical treatment. Even worse, I had to stop both practicing and performing.
Here’s the good news (and I have still more good news below). I successfully combated the ailment—and am pain-free today. I even stopped taking medication more than ten years ago, and the symptoms never returned. This seems like a miracle to me, and I still don’t know why I was spared. But though I’m grateful for this blessing, I’m still cautious.
So many years later, I still remember all those times I was incapable of doing even simple tasks, such as shaking hands or signing my name, without terrible pain. As a result, I’m still reluctant to put in too much time at the piano, fearing that any genuine practice and performance routine might bring back the symptoms.
Telling the medical case history doesn’t even begin to describe the real impact of this on me. That’s because —as Zach Manzi explains in his own story—the psychic impact of leaving behind a music career was far more devastating to me than the mere physical symptoms of arthritis.
My self-identity had been built around the piano. That was how people saw me, and how I saw myself. The piano made me friends, even got me dates on the weekend, and it consumed my daily schedule.
I loved the piano—that’s not too strong a word to apply. In bed at night, if I couldn’t fall asleep, I played out finger patterns on the pillow. On an airplane flight once, a large intense black man seated next to me (who turned out to be a professional drummer) broke the silence, and said: “I can tell you’re a keyboardist.” I was dumbfounded, and replied: “Yes, but how in the world did you know?” He laughed and said: “Aren’t you aware what your fingers are doing?” And it was true, I had unconsciously been working through finger independence exercises on the dropdown tray, completely oblivious to the fact.
The truth was that I loved everything about the piano, even playing scales. The most boring aspects of practicing were like a Zen meditation for me, taking me into another world.
Life is filled with upheaval and disappointments, but those 88 keys never change—or so I thought. They seemed to promise a kind of stability and continuity to my entire life that nothing else could ever match.
Then it was gone.
When I found that even that rock of stability was going to be taken from me, I was at a total loss. What could ever replace it? What would happen to me?
I’m in a much happier place today.
My recovery was a medical miracle, even if I didn’t resume public performances. I developed other talents, growing as a writer in ways that wouldn’t have been possible if I’d continued to spend so much time at the piano. I discovered and nurtured other capacities, too, that might otherwise have remained untapped.
But there is still more good news to this story. And I want to share it—especially because so many others are forced to abandon music careers. Or other vocations that gave their days meaning and direction. There are many of us. And though everyone’s story is a little different, the pain and emptiness are much the same.
But take comfort.
Your identity as a musician—or as a painter, poet, dancer, whatever—is not determined by public appearances. Hey, it’s great to play at Carnegie Hall, but even that is extrinsic to the actual music-making. It’s your intrinsic relationship to your creative pursuit that defines you.
I’ve encountered successful musicians who are burnt out in their careers, begrudgingly playing the same songs night after night with no genuine emotional commitment. On the other hand, I know musicians who play simply for their own joy and happiness—or perhaps merely think about the music, playing their instrument in their imagination long after they have lost the ability to do it physically, yet still hearing the sounds as they flow through their hearts and minds.
They are truer musicians, by my definition, than many of the superstars on the stage.
I see this everywhere in my own family. My son Thomas is developing into a fine pianist, specializing in Bach. He doesn’t express the slightest desire to perform, but he loves the music. My wife Tara was working as a dancer and choreographer in New York when I met her, but as she got older she had to face the realities of what aging does to a dancer. But she still dances every day, and with joy and total commitment. Often only her family members, or occasionally her students, see her do this. She hasn’t danced on stage in front of an audience in years. But Tara is still a dancer.
She will always be a dancer. Because that resides in her soul and spirit, not some performance venue.
“It’s great to play Carnegie Hall, but your intrinsic relationship to your creative pursuit is what defines you as an artist.”
I chose the headline of this article carefully. It’s called “How to Abandon a Music Career.” That’s very different from abandoning music. In fact, focusing less on the career sometimes allows you to have a better relationship with the music.
That’s a message that isn’t told often enough—especially in the music schools, where professional development and career advancement is at the top of every agenda, and at the forefront of everyone’s mindset.
And here’s the strangest part of the whole story. Even those individuals who will continue in professional music careers for their entire lives need to nurture that intrinsic love of making music for its own sake. That will make them better professionals, but—even more important—also bring them more joy along the way. And the joy is why each of us started down this path in the first place.