This is why I ended my career in classical music

Photo by Josep Molina Secall on Unsplash

My first clarinet teacher in high school was of Italian heritage, and upon meeting me, he realized that I have an Italian last name. It turns out that due to my paternal lineage, I’ve inherited an Italian last name, despite being probably only 10% Italian. After explaining that to him, he waved his hand and told me to “Never admit that you are anything but Italian.” He was an intense man, known for being terrifying among my peers, which was confirmed by a comment he made about me to my face during one of my first lessons: “You suck.” Despite his locally renowned reputation, his teaching style didn’t work well for me. I’ll never forget one thing that he said to me incessantly: “If you can imagine yourself doing anything else besides clarinet, do that instead.” He was speaking of how to make a decision about my career path, and I found his perspective deeply disturbing. I had many interests, and although music was chief among them, I couldn’t deny that I could see myself doing other things.

This haunted me throughout high school. I was constantly afraid of making a mistake — that I would take clarinet too seriously or not seriously enough, that I would give up on it when I could have had a beautiful, fulfilling life in music that I’d never know about unless I tried. And so I pushed myself to commit as single-mindedly to clarinet as I possibly could. I received words of encouragement from parents, friends, teachers, acquaintances, and even strangers that echoed my freshman year teacher’s perspective: “You’re going to make it.” “You have a bright future in music.” “Clarinet is like money for you, right?” Although these comments were usually encouraging, and my teacher’s comment was framed with more pragmatism, I took all of the comments to mean that the stakes were high.

I once attended a summer music institute in high school and befriended a fellow clarinetist who told me on more than one occasion, “I make it as a professional musician or my life is over.” He might sound melodramatic, but I always felt his statement captured exactly how high the stakes felt.

Although I believe everyone in my life was well-intentioned when encouraging me to follow the path to a career in music, almost none of them knew what being a professional musician entailed. Of course they figured it would be hard, and it was hard. But hard was never the problem.

The problem I found was that as much as I loved music, the professional world of classical music was not giving me what I was looking for in a career.

This started to become clear during my time at an orchestral academy I attended for three years, an institution that is considered to be among the most innovative classical music institutions in the country. My colleagues and I played multiple concerts a week, much like a full-time professional orchestra. When I got to the academy, I quickly became troubled by the fact that fewer and fewer people were attending classical music concerts in this country every year (opens PDF, see page 12). I would sit on stage looking out at audience members wondering who they were and why they came. When the concert hall was full, I wondered why. When the seats were almost completely empty, I wondered even more. I loved music because of the connections it has the potential to make among people, and I’d never felt so disconnected from our audiences.

I wanted to get involved in really making classical music more accessible and inspiring to more people, as I’d seen how this music could move all kinds of people if presented in the right way for them. I began creating new concert formats that were conceived using audience-first design, in which the creative team considers the audience’s experience as the primary driver of decision-making. The idea was that this would help us discover more engaging formats for particular audiences. Although this approach might make sense, it’s not really the way things are done in classical music. Most often, the music is picked, then the concert format is designed (which most often follows a standard traditional format), and then concerts are marketed to audience members. There’s little thought given to who the audience is and what they might find to be a fulfilling experience until the concert is already planned.

I received several opportunities to produce my own concerts through the academy, but I was not well supported throughout the entire planning process and found that most of the staff was somewhat resistant to my ideas, many of which they considered to be unusual or even radical. I also had to do a considerable amount of ego-stroking along the way, particularly for the academy’s artistic director, who after seeing the success of the show, summoned me to his office to lecture me for creating something under his watch that reminded him of “daytime television.” Shockingly, and somehow also not shockingly, he then copied the concert format I created and included it as a part of the academy’s regular season thereafter.

As I continued down this path of exploring a new, more effective way to create concerts, I found the powers that be in classical music didn’t know how to show up and support meaningful change, or perhaps they weren’t really that interested. I didn’t sense that anybody in a position of power wanted to dig into audience engagement problems and find real solutions. The audience was simply not the priority. Instead, the priority was bending certain truths to engage donors so that leadership could raise adequate funds to survive until next season and then do it all over again.

When I recently watched the Netflix film “Don’t Look Up,” I thought of classical music. The comet is heading straight for the concert hall, but let’s keep our heads down and play concerts in pretty much exactly the same way we always have.

I finally admitted to myself that it was time to move on when I realized that I could not generate a solution to this problem alone, and that I was sacrificing my life and health for something that was not going to give me the return I needed.

A few months later, the Covid-19 pandemic impacted the U.S., which led to almost a complete halt in music work across the country. At that point, it was undeniably time.

Since ending my career in music, I’ve moved into a completely different field of work, one where if we don’t serve our customers adequately, we’re toast. It’s a pressure I always wished classical music would have upon it — where serving the audience is front and center. Maybe then, it would have been a better fit for me.

As much as I’ve felt like a failure over the last almost two years, I don’t regret my choice. I wish it was more normalized to move on from music as a profession , but there’s so much shame around “quitting.” I wish I’d known earlier that moving on would allow me to grow in ways that would not have been possible if I stayed. I’ve been working to know myself apart from my identity as a musician, which I always held in higher regard than my inherent worth as a human being. Even for musicians, life is much bigger than music, but I never really understood that until now.

When I think about why I want to share this story, I think about younger musicians who are struggling to figure out what they want to do with their careers. Many are anxious and depressed, trying to find their way, exactly as I was, realizing that their career in music is not giving them what they had hoped it would.

To fellow musicians considering a career change—you are not alone. It’s okay to move on, even if you’re a great musician. Find a friend who will talk this through with you. Trust that the people who love you want you to be happy, no matter what. It’s not easy, and people will question you, but it’s possible to find a happier and more fulfilled version of you on the other side of a career in classical music.

Zach Manzi is an alum of Juilliard and New World Symphony, and a former Knight Foundation Fellow. He’s currently a service designer at GoDaddy building marketing services for small businesses.

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Zach Manzi

Zach Manzi

eternal band geek & more | Juilliard & New World Symphony alum | former Knight Foundation fellow