What does it mean to end a career in classical music?
Transcending an all-or-nothing mindset, seeing worth beyond our achievements, and making it
I once played in a master class in my hometown during my sophomore year of high school. A bunch of woodwind musicians from my youth orchestra gathered in a small classroom filled with chairs and desks pushed to one side to play for a local professional flutist who was later in her career and rather eccentric. I’d known of her for years but never met or played for her until that day.
I made my way through two movements of a Stravinsky piece for solo clarinet, imperfectly, but with conviction. It took no more than 3 and a half minutes. When I finished playing, I lowered my instrument and looked up at the flutist. She was fairly expressionless, but with her eyes wide open, she blurted, “You’re going to make it.”
I smiled bashfully. Even though I knew it was a good thing, I still wonder to this day — what does it mean to “make it”?
Most of my teachers would have probably said making it meant landing a full-time job with a symphony orchestra. That certainly seems to be a widely accepted understanding of what it means to make it in the field. In lessons with my first teacher in college, any time I brought up uncertainty around my career aspirations, his response was always something like, “Well, if you’re not going to play in an orchestra, or become a successful chamber musician or solo artist, or join the faculty at a music school, then what are you planning on doing?”
In a way, I understand his perspective — those seem to be the most viable paths for full-time work in the art form, even in this era (although, as time goes on, those jobs are looking less viable as standalone, full-time employment options). But after trying to follow one of the trodden paths, I came to find it wasn’t leading to my version of “making it.”
I chose to end my career in classical music in 2020 for reasons that I discuss in more detail in this article. I posted this article just over two weeks ago, and so far, it’s received 35,000+ reads and hundreds of comments across platforms. I’ve received dozens of direct messages from people all over the world bravely sharing pieces of their own stories with me. More people found my story relatable than I could have ever anticipated, and I’ve been honored that so many have been willing to go out of their way to express their genuine appreciation.
When I wrote that article, I thought that I might publish it and be done, moving beyond this conversation and onto whatever else I might do with my free time. It felt like something I just needed to put out into the world. However, it’s become clear that this has hit a nerve, so it feels right to continue opening up and sharing.
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.
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.