Why Quitting Music Could Make You A Better Musician
Let me preface this post to say that I am not encouraging anyone to quit making music. But, I do want to say that if you feel that’s what is best for you then DO IT. You may find your way back, like I did, or you may move forward and never look back. Either way, IT IS OKAY.
Let this post be a resource for you if you’re considering taking a break or thinking of quitting music altogether. Sometimes, separation from things we love is necessary. From my own experience, it can actually be more beneficial to us in the end.
A little background for ya...
One might think that after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in music I was on the right path, finding my stride, and figuring out my place in the world as a musician. I wasn’t, though… not even close!
Instead, I felt exhausted and burned out to the point that merely thinking about opening my flute case made me angry, frustrated, and anxious. These feelings actually started way before graduation, but I ignored them and pushed myself through to the end (because that’s what you do, right?). I dreaded each time I put my flute together for rehearsals, and I only practiced when I absolutely had to. To be honest, I started resenting music altogether.
I tried to keep it up after I graduated––took a few lessons, taught some students, played a couple of gigs––but I often found myself making excuses to wiggle my way out of opportunities. I felt like I was just playing the role of a “good” musician (whatever that is…). I felt like I was just pretending, and it didn’t feel right at all.
So, I made one of the hardest decisions of my life––
I quit playing, quit teaching, and quit being a musician.
I felt guilty and ashamed for a long time. I mean, I’d spent the last 10 years and thousands of dollars on equipment, instruments, and schooling to become a professional musician, and now, I was wanting to leave it all behind. What a failure...amirite?
I wondered what I had done wrong.
Had I not practiced enough?
Did I choose the wrong school?
Was I chasing a dream that was never actually meant to be?
Was I just fooling myself?
I felt like I had just given up.
I couldn’t help but think to myself, “maybe I didn’t try hard enough to make it work. Maybe if I had gotten more students, played more gigs, or took more lessons it would have gotten easier, and I would have eventually lived up to the title of ‘professional musician’ Maybe…”
But, deep down, I knew that doing MORE was not going to solve anything. I was so tired and beaten down––physically, mentally and emotionally.
My body hurt from overuse and playing through pain.
I had chronic tension in my neck, shoulders, and jaw, which made my tone and technique suffer. And “trying to relax” just made me tense up more because I was trying so hard to do it right.
My mind was overworked from school (because I had to maintain a 4.0 no matter what… hello, perfectionism) and from my need to put 100% into EVERY SINGLE THING I did. I had to be the best––know everything, do everything, BE everything.
And, I was emotionally spent from the incessant internal battles that stemmed from the anxiety I didn’t even realize I had, and from constantly seeking validation from external sources.
My gut was begging me to stop, and, finally, for once, I listened.
And that turned out to be one of the best decisions I have ever made.
Taking an extended break from music was beneficial for me in more ways than I could explain in one blog post, but here are the outcomes that have had the biggest impact on my musical (and everyday) life now.
I saw the world through the eyes of a non-musician.
We musicians think about music constantly––tell me you’re not looping a passage of music in your head right now like a broken record, or air-fingering through a challenging section of repertoire that you’re working on…
Caughtcha red-handed, didn’t I? #guilty
Taking a break allowed me the opportunity to just be someone who ENJOYS listening to music; to not have to think about it incessantly, fret about practicing, or about nailing that ridiculous run. I got the chance to be someone outside the music world.
For once, I didn’t feel the need to practice hearing chord progressions in some pop song while walking through a store or feel the need to critically analyze someone or their music. I could just listen and appreciate the music without having to think about what I was hearing.
I got the chance to miss music.
It’s easy to take something for granted when you do it every day. After a decade of overextending myself for my music, I eventually, and unsurprisingly, grew tired of it. It became more work than play, and brought me more frustration and pain than joy.
Too much of a good thing can be bad. (Kind of like when you just want a little taste of everything on the Thanksgiving dinner spread, and you end up with your plate piled so high you’re afraid any small movement might cause a landslide… and you didn’t even get any pie!)
Like when siblings have had a little too much togetherness and start butting heads, I needed some healthy separation from music and my flute. I took up other hobbies, got an administrative job in a windowless office, and dove into my yoga practice. I met new people, built new relationships and joined new communities that had no relation to the music world.
After a while, I started to really miss playing and being part of the music community, which is something I’d never really felt before. I needed to play again; not for anyone else, but for me.
I had the time and space to pursue other interests.
As a musician, music often takes over your entire life.
Listening, practicing, researching, rehearsals, teaching, performing––there’s hardly any time to even sleep or eat, let alone, dedicate time to hobbies.
I have A LOT of interests other than music––doing yoga, knitting sweaters, reading fantasy novels, antiquing, hiking, being a helicopter mom to my plant babies… you get the idea. I love learning and having new experiences!
When I put down my instrument, I suddenly had so much more time to do other things that I enjoy––to do something DIFFERENT. I got involved in new communities, picked up new skills and experienced the world outside of music.
My hobbies stretched my mind in ways that music didn’t. When I started playing again, I was able to use what I learned through my other interests to approach music in new ways and to inform my music on a deeper level.
I was able to reevaluate why I wanted to become a musician in the first place.
This relates back to the earlier point about having the chance to MISS music. Not only is it easy to take something you do everyday for granted, it’s also easy to forget why you started to do it to begin with.
Honestly, I don’t think I had ever thought about WHY I wanted to be a musician before I quit, and so when things got hard, I didn’t have any source of inspiration to fall back on to keep me going. There was not a solid foundation from which to build and grow.
Up to the point of quitting, my “why” had been about everyone else. NOT me.
I practiced and worked hard NOT because I had a need to express myself musically or because playing kept me sane, but because I wanted to please and impress OTHER people and needed to be the best. Anything less was failure in my eyes.
When I quit, I was able to take a step back and assess what it was that attracted me to music and being a musician in the first place. Out of everything else I could have done instead, why did I choose music?
I realized that, until then, all of my goals were externally driven. Everything I had done, including how I made music, was for someone other than me. I sought external validation in order to feel good about myself and my work.
But external validation is not sustainable and will never stand up to the tests and obstacles we go through when we create. Now that I have a clearer understanding of who I am and why I make music, I can revisit my internal sources of inspiration whenever I feel stuck, invalid or not good enough.
For me, music is a vein that connects all of us together. It doesn’t matter who you are, what you do, or where you come from––EVERYONE can relate in some way to music (even if you can't hear the sounds, you can still feel the vibrations). It’s a direct line to our souls. And to be some small part of something that brings people and the world together is why I keep coming back.
The 2 ½ years I took off from music taught me more about making music than the 10 years I’d spent formally studying it. Now, after 3 years back in, I feel like I’m making real music that comes from me and not someone else telling me how to do it or what I should do.
I have a voice now, and I truly trust my myself and my ability like I never have before. And, most importantly, I found my passion and love for music again, and it’s stronger than ever.
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