I spent 10 years believing there’s only one good path to take as a classically-trained musician

Zach Manzi
9 min readJul 27, 2019
Photo by Oziel Gómez on Unsplash

I always had a sneaking suspicion that the path that I knew to be right was wrong. I just didn’t know that I would be okay if I left it.

Jun 2009–Aug 2013: deciding

On June 20, 2009, when I was 16, I showed up with my clarinet to Interlochen Arts Camp, a six-week summer camp for young artists in northern Michigan. This was a time when I felt free; I was the most myself I’d ever been.

I decided I would become a professional clarinetist because I wanted to keep feeling like that. But I also wanted to have a sustainable life. How could I do that? I was told the best path to success was to become a professional orchestral musician. So, I set my sights on that path and started to take steps forward.

First step? Apply to music school.

In my senior year of high school, I auditioned at four or five schools and settled on attending Vanderbilt University, where I studied clarinet. My clarinet teacher there was awesome; I wanted to play exactly like him. I was encouraged by non-musicians to formulate a “fall-back plan” (words that taste like soap to me now) in case music didn’t work out. So, I also studied economics and psychology––I loved studying people and the ways they behaved. It was nice but ultimately distracting, so I focused back in on musical training.

Next step? Train for orchestra auditions.

I attended the Aspen Music Festival in the summer of 2013 to play in orchestras for two months. I also decided I wanted to leave Vanderbilt for a more intense musical environment, so I transferred schools.

Sep 2013–Aug 2015: compromising

I transferred to Juilliard to start my junior year. I’m simplifying for the sake of time, but it was a really involved decision with a ton of back and forth. While I was there, I started to study the bass clarinet. In my senior year, I asked the orchestra staff to give me as many bass clarinet parts as possible, and they did. I thought the bass clarinet would be a more fun route on my path to winning an orchestra job.

Next step? Take orchestra auditions.

I took my first audition for a big job in an orchestra on the west coast. I advanced to the second round. I was like, OH, I can actually do this.

As I reached the end of my undergrad, I was accepted to a few grad schools to do a masters in clarinet. Then I got into New World Symphony, “America’s Orchestral Academy,” which would take the place of grad school as a three-year fellowship.

Next step? Refine my skills (at New World).

After I made my choice, a ton of anxiety about the future lifted. The week of college graduation, my brain went on vacation. I had this uncanny feeling of “I’m free!!” For some reason, I watched every TED talk I could find, tapping back into my fascination with people. I spent that whole summer practicing clarinet and listening to TED Radio Hour on NPR. One of my absolute favorite talks was by the sardonic yet inspiring Sir Ken Robinson: “Do schools kill creativity?” Another two favorites were by Brené Brown, “The power of vulnerability” and “Listening to shame.” I would cry in my car listening to her. All of this felt so right and so wrong.

thanks to whoever made this!
one of many of Brené’s gems

I actually ended up studying for and taking the GRE that summer so I could go to grad school after New World for something besides music and change the world. Shortly thereafter, I shook off that fantasy when the fall started approaching.

Sep 2015–Aug 2016: shattering

I arrived at New World at 22 years of age, two or more years younger than many in my cohort, and spent my whole first year generally terrified.

I was amazed by the people around me and how advanced they were. I started out behind but eventually started to catch up with everyone. A principal woodwind player from a major orchestra was visiting to give us lessons, and in a private lesson this person told me, “Usually I have problems with the way clarinetists play, but I don’t really have a problem with yours.” Best compliment I’ve ever received.

Then, toward the end of my first season at New World, I was taking a bass clarinet audition for an orchestra in the northeast. I had taken several by this point. I practiced a decent amount but had been busy in the weeks leading up to it. I walked out on stage and felt completely calm. I sat down and got myself situated. Then I played an excerpt, flipped the page, excerpt, flip, excerpt…on and on and on…and then it was over. I walked out.

I didn’t advance to the second round.

I could have pondered why I felt like that was undeserved. It was a really good audition; one of my best, actually. I knew that these things could be random. But that wasn’t even the problem. The problem was that I didn’t feel good playing on that stage. The problem was that I knew didn’t work hard for the audition, nor any audition I had taken that year. The problem was that I had gotten into music because it made me more of who I was and I felt further from being that person than I had in my entire life. I had made every effort to fit into a path that I had prescribed to myself.

Then it hit me…OH. Wow. I don’t want this.

This made me feel super guilty. I thought everyone who had invested in me would be disappointed. My first instinct was to escape. I began to research PhD programs in anything related to my second love, human behavior— psychology, education, sociology, cognitive science, neuroscience, ethnomusicology, and more. I spent the summer emailing professors of these subjects all over the country about an interest of researching the intersection of music and human behavior (I honestly had no idea what I wanted to do). I got some responses, most of which were nice, and some of which were not fun. One psych professor at a major institution in the midwest was like, “Why do you think you should be applying to this program if you don’t have a background in statistics?” Rude.

After weeks of research and reaching out, all of it felt just as wrong as continuing to take orchestra auditions. So I stopped.

Next step? No clue.

Sep 2016–Aug 2017: meandering

I went back to New World for my second season and was a little dazed. I generally accepted that I had gone completely off any notion of a trodden path and was too exhausted from my summer search to try to find another path. But two illuminating gifts came my way: (1) the opportunity to design and produce my own concert for the orchestra and (2) an invitation to give a TEDx talk in Miami. I also took some more orchestra auditions (needless to say they didn’t go well).

The concert and the TEDx talk happened in March of that season, and they were two of the proudest moments of my life. They were both centered around two things I loved the most: music and people. I’d go into writing about them here, but I’ve already written so much about them that my brain will turn to mush (please visit the links to learn).

the concert project resulted in Dimensions
TEDx talk, photo cred TEDxCoconutGrove

Despite these successes, I was starting to feel desperate. I had grown up conditioned to believe that my only success would be a result of following a trodden path. I started to believe this might not be true.

Next step? [recalculating…]

I became really depressed toward the end of that season. My mental/emotional state was honestly dangerous. It lasted for a little over a year, and I eventually got help. It came down to feelings of confusion and helplessness. It was doubly hard to be in a place where people seemed to see their paths so clearly.

At the end of that summer, I realized where this was going for me.

Next step? Stop taking orchestra auditions.

Sep 2017–Aug 2018: forging

When I went back for my final season at New World, I dodged what felt like cinderblocks of questions about which auditions I was taking that season. I thought that if I told some people that I wasn’t taking any, they would lost respect for me as a musician (or their heads would immediately explode). I confided in some trusted individuals about not wanting to play in an orchestra, but to work on the problem of bringing more music to more people.

Then I was like…maybe there’s a path for this, but maybe it’s one that I’m forging.

Next step? Try stuff.

That fall, I started an ensemble called Conduit with my friend and colleague Evan Saddler. We set pretty big goals for our first season—commissioning two pieces, making a video with four/ten media, going to Avaloch Farm Music Institute, getting a small grant, getting a large grant — considering we would still be in full-time programs the whole time. And we did it all. We even got some headshots in front of a cute restaurant in the Meatpacking District before we got accosted by the owner (see below). My bass clarinet was out in like 40-degree weather for a couple minutes that day. Don’t tell my mom.

Conduit, photo cred to Jiyang Chen

Then my love of people actually started to come into play. I discovered human-centered design through creating the concert project the previous season by working with the Creative Director at New World, Siggi Bachmann. The essence of the human-centered design approach is to create products and services by designing for the end user. This felt really good as an approach to doing better audience engagement. My life was forever changed after that experience.

That season, I worked with an organization called TransSocial on one of my favorite projects––a concert experience to celebrate the trans community. I met some of the coolest people I’ve ever met through this. They made me feel so full of love.

photo cred to Kristin Pulido

That spring, Conduit proposed a project to Knight Foundation — create concert experiences using human-centered design for millennial audiences. We received $180,000 in funding and partnered with the Frost School of Music at University of Miami to do the project.

Next step? Keep moving forward.

Despite all of this, I still heard a voice in the back of my head telling me this would never go anywhere.

2018–19: trusting

Sometimes young musicians tell me they are unsure of following a traditional path. I have always found it unfortunate that it’s like a closet to come out of, not wanting to follow directly in others’ footsteps. I can only hope that by sharing my story, I can contribute to the normalization of talented, young classically-trained musicians actively pursuing many different paths. We are working in a field that is desperately in need of new ideas.

If there’s anything I can impart upon someone who may be going through a bumpy road like I did, it’s this––trust your gut. Do what you feel is right (while being safe), even if it there’s seemingly no path outstretched in front of you. Be kind, be real, and be open to other perspectives. Love yourself and everyone, and you’ll see the kind of success you want. I was really honored this year when Juilliard recently made a video about my work, which you can see here.

Next step? Keep trusting.

Where is this path leading me? I don’t know. But, I know that what I’m doing is right, and that I’m moving forward. If you’d like to know more about what I do, click on my name below.

Peace and blessings, y’all. Thanks for reading. Be kind to yourself.

Zach Manzi is the co-founder and bass clarinetist of the ensemble Conduit. He is the co-founder of Audience Experience Design, a resource to help artists and arts organizations strategically innovate concert experiences using human-centered design. Zach is also the bass clarinetist and blogger of Nu Deco Ensemble, and he speaks and writes about innovation in classical music. Zach is based in Miami.