Quitting a music career is like leaving Scientology

Quitting a music career is like leaving Scientology


norman lebrecht

January 23, 2022

TheJuilliard clarinet alumnus Zach Manzi, whose post about ending his music career was read by 27,704 people on Slipped Disc, has written a further reflection on the consequences of his decision. He makes it sound a bit like leaving a religious cult or political party.

His second post is every bit as thought-provoking as the first. Most of us will share many of his conflicted emotions. Zach writes:

Some of the most interesting responses I’ve received have been those related to what I meant by “ending” my career in music. I received comments like, “You’re never done as a musician” and “It’s too bad he threw out the baby with the bath water” and “Hopefully he can find his way to a second act.” What intrigued me was that, although I didn’t really specify what I meant by ending my career, it seemed many people thought I had completely eliminated music from my life. And I get it — I grew up believing that if you end your career in music, it means that music is dead to you. It feels like a lot of us who have reached a professional level might feel that way, considering how much of our hearts we’ve put into this one thing.

So what did I mean by ending my career? Although I would characterize ending my career by no longer depending on the classical music industry for income, that feels like the least significant part of it. I still practice the clarinet occasionally, take gigs when I want to , and enjoy talking about and listening to classical music. 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.

The end has primarily involved attempting to separate myself from my identity as a musician, which has led to my understanding that I’ve let my talents and abilities define my worth. There were times in my adult life when I literally thought being a musician was the only interesting thing about me. I’d convinced myself I could not give up that identity because then nobody would want me. I thought worth came from being admired for the things I did, having talent and creating something beautiful in the world, and ultimately, my career choice.

Ending my career has become synonymous with ceasing to calculate my worth by the sum of my achievements in classical music or any career path. I haven’t exactly found my footing in my career outside of music — I’m still figuring it out — but it’s never been about relying upon my new career to give me a sense that I belong on this planet or have a purpose in this life.

It doesn’t mean that I don’t still battle feelings that I failed as a musician. I do. But perhaps all of us musicians, however our paths unfold from here, have the opportunity to look back at our careers in music without seeing them in all-or-nothing terms — either we made it or we didn’t—and without using them to define the worth of our lives. I often think, maybe where I am now, on the downslope of the first stage of a very difficult transition, feeling more at peace than I ever have, is my version of making it.

Read the full article here.


  • John Borstlap says:

    A non-entity spreading his non-sense and imagining it would be interesting for others. Thans to non-social media.

    • Jeff says:

      I think it’s obvious to for for most true performers here that John has never and will never be a performing musician. It’s pathetic that you feel the need to make a comment like this based on your experience and not his.

      • Armchair Bard says:

        Exemplary category error there, Jeff.

      • John Borstlap says:

        I’m happy to relate that in my experience, realy serious, really gifted performers are a very different kind of people.

        • Mouse says:

          “realy serious” is an important adjective for John to describe artists (Carpenter? “obviously not a serious organist”).
          I s e r i o u s l y recommend he should less read and post on this site. He reminds me to the twittering pianist…

          • John Borstlap says:

            I would endorse such advice. Often it’s me who has to type the comments and it’s getting on my nerves.


    • Mecky Messer says:

      When is the New World Symphony making your next premiere? Yeah, I wont be waiting for it either.

      You let your frustrations out because at least this kid had the stones to change paths. I guess true commitment for you is failing again and again in spite of negative feedback.

      Feel bad for you….

      • John Borstlap says:

        I could sum-up some high-profile performances, but why take the trouble to inform ignorant people?

        It is always the underdeveloped fools who think that an argument or an opinion can never be something that stands on its own, but must be an instrument for personal interest – if someone claims 2 + 2 = 4, there must be a hidden personal intention behind it. Four can never be the outcome of observation, because for a fool everything is personal.

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    Apostate poseur.

  • RW2013 says:

    Hasn’t he had his 15 minutes yet?

  • Anon says:

    I would strongly suggest that he NOT become a writer.

  • msc says:

    I tend to agree with the gist of the sentiments above, but I also agree with Mr. Manzi that it can be very difficult to leave behind a profession one has devoted virtually one’s entire existence to pursuing for so long. I faced ending an academic career and found the separation of self from profession profoundly difficult and disturbing.

  • Beatrix says:

    Why leave? Get another skill set, certification, degree etc. Add some value to being a musical life by having a wide set of abilities. Simply doing one thing in life is a luxurious privilege for some, stifling and provincial for others. Have some variety and create some dimension to a life. People are not the sum of their ‘jobs’.

  • anon says:

    I’m not sure how one can find this article “thought-provoking”.

    I and many others have been there, done that. Whether the decision is to leave music or the ministry or education or any number of other professions in search of greater financial stability, many have faced these questions as young (or not so young) adults.

    Perhaps this young man should consider that his public therapy postings might not serve him well as he attempts to develop a new career.

  • Una says:

    Do we need all this? Thousands have left the music profession because of the pandemic.

  • BigSir says:

    naval gazing…yawn

  • working musician says:

    lot of justification for not practicing enough……

    • N/A says:

      …or maybe he just lost his passion for it? A lot of you seem super worked up about him making the best decision for himself.

  • Tim says:

    The hilarious view of many of the posters here:
    ‘Obviously, he didn’t practice enough and do what he was supposed to do to get a decent living; his posts are just the tired tirades of someone who wasn’t good enough to make it… a lazy loser.’

    But he Graduated from Julliard and got into the new world symphony. When it becomes the norm to graduate from Julliard and get into the new world symphony, and even then only a few of those people are able to make a real career as an orchestral musician, we must admit that classical music in the US has reached a ridiculous saturation point.

    • Cecile Lusk says:

      Do you really think it’s different today than it was in 1965? True, there may be more music schools, but there were plenty back then. There were never enough full-time jobs in orchestras and opera companies and most people graduating conservatories had to explore alternatives, including becoming music teachers or moving on to an all together different career. A lot of people get humanities degrees and go on to all sorts of fields.

    • working musician says:

      yep, like becoming an actor or pro ball player. No shit it’s tough, no one is entitled to a career- no matter where you graduate from.

  • Anon says:

    ‘ His second post is every bit as thought-provoking as the first.’

    True, but not in the way you hoped.

  • Monsoon says:

    So basically he figured out what everyone figures out around the time they’re 30, which is: “The job won’t save you.”

  • Mary Catherine La Mar says:

    I left music with one year to go in conservatory and that decision was so hard and so impactful in my life that I’m writing a book about it. I, too, felt that I’d made my whole identity about the violin, that it alone was the measure of my worth. I feared that mindset also was part of the reason my father, an accomplished pianist, died by suicide when I was two. I identify so much with everything Zach Manzi has said here, and I’m grateful to hear such a heartfelt and honest account of the motivations behind leaving a career in classical music, and the many conflicting emotions involved. For years I felt so alone with my decision and my feelings about it, and much guilt at starting my professional life as a “quitter”–or that’s the story I told myself. I hope Zach’s openness with his decision and feelings can make it easier on musicians to be honest about their doubts and struggles in the profession, and can reassure artists that our worth is not measured by our performance or output.

    • Alma Regina says:

      That is such sweet and kind comment! When one has sacrified so much time, money, blood, sweat and tears – of course it is traumatic to abandone the profession!

  • Nata says:

    Happy J.S. Bach didn’t quit music when facing difficulties with his Leipzig employer, finances, criticism, and misunderstanding.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Actually, there is a letter in which he complains about the tame reception of his 4th Brandenburg Concerto which was deemed ‘too frivolous’, which led him to contemplate quitting and take up the job of a carpenter, for which he had seen an advert earlier that day in town. But just in time the countess dropped by, telling him how she enjoyed the 5th concerto, so the plan was off.

  • Helen says:

    It is absolutely fine to move on from any profession if it is not working out for you. We should all work to live, not live to work.

  • JoshY says:

    It comes quite striking that adjusting career path based on honest self-evaluation becomes such a big deal if you are in and then out of a music school. On the other hand it perhaps doesn’t deserve two open letters, nor the attentions to it/them. So many 1st year graduate school students decide to quit after qualifying exam, figuring out they don’t like what they experienced and would rather try something else.

    • Mary Catherine La Mar says:

      I think one way that music is different from many other fields is that typically one begins training for that career very intently from a very young age. A lot of money and family investment goes into that education. Often, as well, musicians come from musical families, who communicate in and through music. And in that tender age, often so much time is spent developing skills as a performer that maybe not enough time is spent focusing on the nurturance of the person underneath. So to choose to give up music, or to sideline it to further other pursuits, brings up deep questions about identity that maybe a profession begun as a college major, or a profession that doesn’t involve getting up in front of people to exhibit excellence in technical precision and creative expression, would not.

      I think the questions and issues Zach raises by sharing his experience are very important, and not-enough discussed. Athletes also have to train hard from a young age. Look at the flack the world gave Simone Biles for choosing to step down from competing in the Olympics this past summer. We love to see people push themselves to the edge to accomplish thrilling feats of technical and artistic skill, and yet we understand so little about what it really takes. Even the teachers and administrators in these professions don’t always understand what it TAKES–as in, takes FROM the artist or athlete to do what they do at such a high level. It gives much, too, but it also takes, and it’s important to talk about that.

      • JoshY says:

        I honestly think having young kids practice unfairly long hours (as you put it “not enough time is spent focusing on the nurturance of the person underneath”) and thereby (maybe unintentionally) narrowing their career path is one of the biggest problems behind all this, much bigger than the evil “classical music industry”. If a kid is brought up without so much forced musical air, he/she will naturally learn to balance passion and career, risk and award like all his/her pals would be able to do in their late teens. While stake (from early investment and practice time) for professional musician is definitely high, I don’t think picking up an instrument at 3-yo really entitled them to anything at all. That’s the first thing I will let my 4-yo learning piano know.

        I am all for Simone to step back from the competition if she didn’t feel fine being there. To be fair she is already so accomplished and has enough legacy to not give a flying @#$% to what the internet thinks. On the other hand, kids being nobody need to know what they sign on for when they decide on something important such as a career path. Unfortunately, practicing long hours at early age would make a lot of normal kids look like prodigy and give everybody around him/her a fake sense of accomplishment and security. They are largely pushed by adults to music career, while they might be just fine playing music as a hobby.

  • True North says:

    How about all these bitter comments from the peanut gallery over here? How many of them ever came anywhere near a professional career in music themselves? I’m guessing very few.

    • John Borstlap says:

      At least one is generous enough to share his professional insights for free while relaxing after hard work.

      • Anonymous says:

        Why don’t you post your earnings here from the last five years so we can make a determination whether you are a professional. Because you sure sound like an amateur.

        • John Borstlap says:

          He was going to do this but we strapped him on a chair. It would make too many people fume with indignation, but I must say with all the expenses of this hughe place and my salary plus the staff’s, what remains may be less than you think.


        • Mouse says:

          Agreed. For me he is John Levit. Just Google him and limit the search to 12 months. No original contributions. Nothing. His own December 2020 biography runs until 2016… 😉

          It’s ok if someone runs out of ideas at a certain age. But to witness him spending his remaining time on earth in front of his laptop putting down musicians… oh boy…

  • IAJeff says:

    This doesn’t matter, neither do our opinions. Despite this and in the interest of self-awareness, here we are, wasting our lives. We aren’t doing music, or exercising our minds, or talents. Congratulations all. You…win?

  • David B says:

    To all of you complaining about his article: Don’t worry, he isn’t writing for you. Clearly, you do not understand the psychological impact dedication to art has on someone. It isn’t the same as giving up on becoming an investment banker and instead becoming an accountant. He is writing and reaching out to those who understand the existential dimension to music making; those who have actually lived it. Until you do yourselves, maybe just stay silent.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Musically-gifted people who find their existence created by music, simply would not give-up the profession, because it is not them who choose music, but the other way around.

      • Mouse says:

        You are a funny John

      • Mary Catherine La Mar says:

        That’s simply not true. Leaving a profession doesn’t mean you weren’t gifted in it. Talent requires guidance and support, the study of music is expensive, and many very musically gifted people don’t even get a chance to enter the profession for lack of opportunities. Many musically gifted people who begin a career in music are driven out not by choice, but because they have to make ends meet, they have families to support, etc. I think it’s interesting that leaving a profession is immediately assumed to be a failing, and not simply that gifted people tend to have multiple interests and capabilities, and as they grow they decide to move on to other things. It takes dedication to persist, but it also takes dedication to make a considered decision to move on to something else.

        • John Borstlap says:

          That is also true.

          Maybe a better conclusion would be that there simply are too many different reasons why people do or don’t succeed in music life, of which talent is only one. And then, the differences between the different categories (of instruments) are hughe, and the interpretation of the notion of ‘succeeding’ may be interpreted in different ways: dependent upon intention, ambition, the goals one has set-out for oneself.

          Also the society type where one finds oneself in can be crucial. A society where culture has no status, or a low status, or which doesn’t have much opportunity, is much more difficult for players than one where culture is part of the identity of a nation or an area. Being a virtuoso bel canto soprano in Greenland will be more difficult than in Italy, for instance.

      • Helen says:

        John, musically gifted people can and do give up the profession. There can be many different reasons such as injury, lifestyle issues or simply the desire to have a more balanced life. The life of a freelancer is not for everyone and neither are the anti social hours for everyone either. Quite simply, it is absolutely the right option to retrain if that is what is best for the person in question. It does not mean that the musician does not love music, or performing on their instrument, it just means that the profession is no longer for them.

        • John Borstlap says:

          Yes, that is true. And sometimes people find other talents in themselves because of being forced to give-up a musical career, for instance a pianist becoming a composer (Schumann). Or a pianist getting injured and turning into a musicologist.

    • TheThinker says:

      This response conveys both respect and wisdom…qualities that one is hard pressed to identify in so much of hasty rambling on here

  • Jeffrey Biegel says:

    Zach, your lady paragraph states that you battle with feelings having failed as a musician. You never fail as a musician. The moment music touches you, or you pick up your instrument and play it, or share a thought about music with just one other person, that is what it is about. Having said that, being a musician to earn a living is an entirely different thing. Having music in your life is important to you, obviously. It will continue to. Because you decided it would not be for you as a business or career earning entity is very different. I hope you enjoy music throughout your life.

  • Jeffrey Biegel says:

    Typo: last paragraph, not lady.

  • Andrew Mildinhall says:

    It’s perfectly possible to combine being a professional .musician ( if by that one means earning a living by performing music) with other professions. I have had three professions with that of musician running alongside the other two. At the same time ones relationship with music both intellectually and emotionally remains irrespective of whether it earns you income or not. Indeed I would argue that many amateur musicians have a more intense relationship with the subject than those who practice it professionally.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Indeed – and it is instructive to discover that many people working in music life have no talent, or intellect whatsoever.

      • Mouse says:

        Hope you will need to deal with the “many people working in *healthcare* who have no talent, or intellect whatsoever” when time has come. THIS might be instructive to you…

        • John Borstlap says:

          But that is the difference between the world of classical music and other professions where concrete achievement and expertise is fundamental. In the medical profession, or the banking world, when people are not good at their job, they work themselves out of the profession, because it is clear what the results are. An amateur dentist is quickly detected. A bank employee handing-out, in his absent-mindedness, a couple of thousands too many, won’t stay long in his job. But in the musical world there is a lot of posing going-on, which goes undetected by many people because everything is so subjective. There is really a great distinction between the world of the arts and the ‘real world’ out there. Just think of the nonsense going-around in the world of contemporary art.

          • Mouse says:

            “when people are not good at their job, they work themselves out of the profession, because it is clear what the results are.”
            – No, John, this is what you think, but that’s not the real world (so you never had a bad teacher). It’s the art where indeed everything is and should be allowed an all levels of expertise. Hausmusik etc. The issue with the bitter old men here is that they think they are meant when young people perform or share their thoughts. No, they are not meant. You are also not meant when Yuja Wang comes on stage with a new dress, you are not meant when André Rieu brings people joy. A simple misunderstanding. Your ongoing search for “seriousness” in people is scary as this ideal goes so well with mercilessness, both were useful in the darkest times of history as you know.

          • John Borstlap says:

            It’s revealing that in this comment people like Wang and Rieu turn-up.

          • Anon! A Moose! says:

            Oddly enough, a doctor has told me the exact opposite, that their resumés hide incomptenency, but he admired that in music you have to actually get up and demonstrate proficiency. You have to actually do the thing to get a job, which is not common in many other professions where people are hired based on a resumé and a verbal interview.

  • Craig says:

    It’s a personal choice! I graduated in 1982 and have no family to support….my skill set as a church musician translates easily into theatre.

  • Frédéric says:

    The number of smug, snide comments here is quite surprising and revealing.
    The point he makes about the degree to which a person’s self worth gets tied up in music is worth reflecting on for any musician. Performing an instrument intergrates with so many aspects of us it takes hold of us in a way that can be all consuming.
    It’s the same reason that the profession has so many clinging on at the other end, unable to face an identity crisis in retirement as a person who is no longer performing.

  • John W. Norvis says:

    Whatever the failings of his article, he says nothing about cults or Scientology.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Within Scientology there are also hughe problems with careers, some members are misunderstood, excluded, underpaid, or scorned because they don’t believe enough or have the wrong interpretation of the scriptures. It is almost as hard as in classical music.

  • Althea T-H says:

    I would like to see Zach Manzi roll out his highly-original new concert presentation idea – which he mentioned in his first post – on a consultancy basis. In fact, I couldn’t understand why he left that idea behind him for others to use.

    He should consider developing a career as a change-maker in classical music, specialising in artist-audience interface.

    • tp says:

      What was “highly-original” abut his concert presentation idea? Everything he said he did has been done before.

      • Althea T-H says:

        By whom?

        He said he thought of it himself: and I have never come across or heard of a concert presented in exactly that manner, previously.

        Fun concerts there have certainly been, for years. The Doctor Who Proms are a case in point.

        This kind of concert sounded different.

        In any case, he should consider consultancy or, perhaps, arts management.

        Why leave behind one’s profession so entirely? All his years of musical practice, training and experience can be leveraged to create a new career direction within the same profession.

  • Leaving behind careerism is the beginning of being a true artist.

  • Elizabeth Martinez says:

    I spent about half my life as a professional musician, longer if you count from when I had my first paying gig. I was never in a “big” orchestra and didn’t get my degree from Julliard or anything like that (although I did get my MM at IU), and I probably didn’t practice as much as I should have.
    I never felt my life was only about music, though I taught a few students, sang in the choir, played handbells, and taught children’s choir at church.
    I always had a day job to make ends meet.
    I guess it’s all about how much you want to play and why you went into that world to begin with.
    I just spent about 4 years not playing or teaching or anything because of brain surgery and other medical conditions, but this past fall started playing with a local community college orchestra. They’re not great, but I can no longer play the way I used to, so it’s all okay, but it tells me that it’s still important to me.
    Not everyone who starts out in the music field will stick with it. It depends on how badly you want it, I guess, and what you expect from life as a musician.

  • Tired pro says:

    I’m now reaching the end of what felt like a long
    rewarding and reasonably “successful” professional career. The writer of this piece is perceptive though:
    I have both witnessed and been on the receiving end of bullying and gaslighting based largely on false notions of “fitting in”; cult like weaponisation of conformism that is regularly abused by managers and ego driven characters who perhaps find constant solace in building their confidence on the ruins of others. In order for such attitudes to flourish or be permissable, a sense of “loyalty” is encouraged that often undoubtedly engenders religious sect status (a haven for narcissistic pathology), so any wish to leave is seen as a betrayal. Bravo for shining a light on that.

    • Anon! A Moose! says:

      Yep, I’m in my 50s and considering what other options I might be able to do, I’m just so sick of sacrificing for other peoples’ ridiculous egos. That has nothing to do with loving or dedicating oneself to music, in fact what I’ve noticed is that the higher up one goes the less the musicians actually love music, what they love is winning and showing off.

  • Niles says:

    I played oboe with a small orchestra for a while, just as an amateur in my spare time, although I like to think I was pretty good. There was a young woman who had studied at “the conservatory” and had devoted her life to the oboe, played on a fine instrument, etc. She wound up working at some clerical job and was reduced to playing in this group beside her obvious “inferiors”. Although she was an arrogant pain; I felt sorry for her in a way. How many more like her are out there? The prize seems to be getting smaller all the time and harder to reach.

    • JoshY says:

      Neither she nor you seem to enjoy playing in small/casual orchestra at all, which I feel really sorry and surprising. From my experience people normally go there playing after school/work to have fun.

  • Sir David Geffen-Hall says:

    This fellow is egotistical and not worth the time.

    OK, you shoved all in with your chips and you lost the game. Move on and do something else.

    Lots of people have done that in the past and lots will do it in the future.

    This is a very tough business and there are no guaranties. If you missed the mark, move on and let more talented people (or those who can pass the audition process) take the torch.

    He can code, drive a truck, or shine shoes in front of Carnegie Hall.

    But he sounds whiny and not really of being taken seriously.

  • x says:

    All of these comments from a bunch of technologically illiterate geezers are pretty hilarious to be honest. Medium is a blogging platform. You’re all complaining about navel gazing and egotism, but that’s what the vast majority of people do on their blogs. He’s not writing a piece for the New Yorker. Get over yourselves.