Why Do People Really Stop Playing Music?

By · Photography VAN Staff · Date 01/21/2016

Some years from now, you might find yourself looking back on a former hobby or pastime, something you’ve long since ceased, with nostalgia—maybe with a pang of regret. This happens to most of us at some point in our lives, that bodiless longing for the passions or diversions we used to keep. And at this feeling, many of us will scratch our heads and wonder to ourselves, “Why did I ever stop?”

When we consider music in this sense, everyone essentially falls into one of three categories: people who play, people who don’t, and people who used to. Of course, there are degrees to each of these classifications: people who play music infrequently, or people who’ve tried it briefly only to quit right away, for example. Then again, there are people who’ve never so much as looked at an instrument up close. But what makes someone who picks up an instrument—someone who practices diligently, who plays or teaches, who maybe even loves the craft itself—put it down with some finality?

Why do people stop playing music?

On a more general level, why do we stop doing anything, really? Simply put: because we no longer have to—or feel we have to—or because we no longer want to. When it comes to music, these ideas seem to blend. As with many creative pursuits, the learning and application of music is a confluence between passion and task, and the scale on which both are balanced tips with our fulfillment, our validation, our self-awareness; and more immediately speaking, it tips based on our progress and our results, both self-perceived and objective.

Taking this idea in confluence with the notion of picking up an instrument or learning to sing during childhood—as many musicians, both current and former, do—we can begin to form a picture of why some people quit music, why some continue to play intermittently or at the amateur level, and why some, for better or worse, dedicate themselves to the craft and pursue careers in music.

It’s often the case that people who start playing music while they’re in school quit or step back when they finish their formal academic studies. This can be especially true of the Millennial generation, where the practice of learning music during adolescence has varying conceptions of value to it.

The evidence that learning music improves an array of cognitive faculties is abundant, of course. But it’s also a practice that has a more pragmatic value, both immediately and in the long-term: musicality is but one facet of appearing “well rounded,” a characteristic often traditionally, though anecdotally, sought after by college admissions staff. And while, historically, musical knowledge has often been thought a pivotal trait in “well rounded” people (the idea of the so-called “renaissance man” comes to mind), never has it been so important for parents with lofty aims for their children to involve these progeny with music. This idea doesn’t just apply to “Tiger Mother”-style parents; many children are encouraged, some with more pressure than others, to pick up an instrument. Very rarely do adults find themselves with the free time or focus to learn music in some form or another—it’s also much easier to learn an instrument or how to read music at a young age—and while there are exceptions, it seems more common for those with musical knowledge and skill to have begun their schooling during childhood.

But this notion also seems key to why some people simply stop playing music when they finish their formal educations. More often than not, a musical education that starts during childhood is nurtured both in school and out by peers, parents, and teachers. This leads people who start playing as children and continue through adolescence to form an identity around being a musician. When the structure and stimulus of playing as part of a group, like a school orchestra or a rock band, fall away; when the lessons stop; when the occasion and priority of music go away, this identity does, too.

“I stopped formally studying music once I arrived at college,” says Stacey Sommer, 26, who played trumpet in her school band and studied a host of other instruments informally. “I found there was no real outlet for non-music major musicians to practice with a group,” she explains. “For me, music was always more enjoyable in company—playing alongside other parts and harmonizing.”

“I didn’t consciously realize that I had stopped playing music at the time.”

John Meguerian, 25—an Experience Strategist at an ad firm in New York who used to sing and play the saxophone and clarinet—says his passion for music fell away in stages, starting when he went to college, until he stopped playing entirely. He also spoke about the notion of identifying as a musician, saying a large part of the reason he’s stopped playing “has to do with losing [his] ‘identity’ as a musician.” He adds, “The less I identify with playing and the less I practice, the more truly out-of-practice I get, which increases the distance and lessens the opportunities I could take to start playing in a group again.”

A less cerebral reason for disengaging from music when some people go to college is they simply don’t have the time for it—there’s no longer room for music when there are other callings to pursue.

“I had a lot of friends that had studied [music] as long as I did that went on to pursue it professionally, but I never felt like I wanted to make music my main focus,” says Casey Dworkin, a 24-year-old Brand Director living in Brooklyn who studied voice from age 12 to 18. Dworkin says she’d always taken private lessons and didn’t have to seek out a teacher when she was growing up. When she got to college, Casey says, “I was distracted with a constant workload and new surroundings and didn’t consciously realize that I had stopped playing music at the time.”

Caitlin McGuire, a 25-year-old higher education administrator who studied classical voice and opera in high school and frequently sang in local choirs, also made a conscious choice to disengage from music. “I ended up not pursuing music as a profession because honestly, I came to terms with the fact that although I am talented, I do not have what it takes to be a professional opera singer,” she says. But also, McGuire offers, “I stopped singing in college largely because I didn’t feel the same sense of community that I found in music when I was younger.”

While every person interviewed for this piece agreed learning and playing music during adolescence provided a variety of meaningful experiences—meeting and becoming friends with fellow musicians; practicing a craft with time, dedication, and diligence; having fun playing gigs and concerts; forming an identity around music—many people who’ve stopped playing music seem to, whether directly or implicitly, attribute this fact to a lack of continued structure or community, the inability to facilitate both playing and practicing, and the idea that music wasn’t an intended career path.

These reasons, along with others, collided for Andrew Mackasek—a 26-year-old venture capital consultant living in Manhattan—during college. Mackasek started playing piano at age four and studied percussion, guitar, and voice while in middle and high school. At 19, Mackasek says, he “started to get serious about music,” transferring from the University of Hartford to the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music “to pursue a dual degree in jazz drum set performance and philosophy.”

At the New School, Mackasek dove headfirst into the jazz world: he was excited to be “playing and studying with jazz greats like Jimmy Heath, the late great James Moody, and frequently John Lee,” he says. A highlight in his musical career was a performance with the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Quartet at Sweden’s Lulea Jazz Festival during his junior year.

“I became convinced that my true calling was elsewhere.”

But after Lulea, Mackasek “stopped playing music professionally, or even seriously,” trading the Jazz Performance half of his double major for Economics. “My other interests, mostly academic interests, had been gaining steam during my freshman and sophomore years of undergrad,” he says. “I became engrossed in a handful of subjects that had nothing to do with music. I became convinced that my true calling was elsewhere.”

Mackasek came to a crossroads of sorts: “I had been surrounded by incredible musicians—men and women at the absolute top of their craft—some of whom were literally my favorite musicians in the world on their respective instruments,” he says. “I saw exactly how much dedication and sacrifice it would take to be there and realized that I simply did not desire that achievement enough to give up all my other goals. I probably could have continued to juggle everything, but I also knew that I would never be happy as a mediocre professional musician; I’d always feel like I had settled.”

Having made the deliberate decision to follow other interests, Mackasek now “enjoys[s] music on [his] own terms.” He says, of his decision to leave a prospective career in music in favor of other passions, “I chose my other pursuits and have never regretted it a day in my life.”

“I fell into a deep depression in the middle of one of the coldest winters ever recorded and stopped writing songs.”

Tom Hathaway, a 28-year-old writer and standup comedian who “hopes he doesn’t have to bartend and wait tables another year,” tells a similar story of disillusionment. The criticism that stemmed his musical endeavors came both from within and without. Hathaway, who took up singing at a young age and played bass, guitar, and tuba during high school, “stopped regularly playing music at age 24.”

“There were a couple times I have ‘quit’ that stick out,” he says. “When I was 23, I released an EP of folk songs. It got 15 views on soundcloud. I sold zero copies. I wasn’t hustling it. Then I got some negative feedback from some people I care about. I fell into a deep depression in the middle of one of the coldest winters ever recorded and stopped writing songs.”

Hathaway has, in the past several years, taken on an increasingly grim view of music and those who would play it, though he’s still engaged in creative pursuits. “I guess the main reason I stopped making music in favor of comedy is that comedians are more honest about who they are and what they do,” he tells me. “Comedians are some of the scummiest, most selfish pieces of shit I have ever met. But at least, for the most part, they don’t think what they’re doing is noble like some musicians.”

The degree of disillusionment and self-judgment that can lead one to cut oneself down early on in a career seem ultimately to stem from a lack of validation and positive feedback. Couple those negative feelings with a dearth of structure, resources, and identity, and one might find it completely impossible to continue pursuing music as a career, let alone as a hobby.

These varied anecdotes from people who’ve slowed or entirely stopped their musical progressions relatively recently demonstrate that when a creative pursuit like music becomes more task and chore than fun and passion, it can lead to the cessation of that effort.

But flip the coin, so to speak, and you’ll find continued structure, along with a healthy dose of dedication, can lead to a successful creative career.

“I continue to play music because of the joy,” says Sam Budish, 26, who plays percussion for a living. Budish—who says he only joined his middle school’s band program at his mother’s insistence—obtained a graduate degree in music from Juilliard, and has recently performed on Broadway and on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Though he took breaks from music for two summers during college for fear of “burning out,” Budish says even these pauses left him feeling refreshed, ultimately strengthening his resolve upon returning to school.

Alex Weston, also 26, attended Carnegie Mellon University for composition. When asked about his musical career, he responded objectively, listing only what he’s accomplished as opposed to his feelings about composing and performing. After graduating, Weston took an assistantship under Philip Glass. He’s written music for a Showtime series and a Ken Burns documentary, and is currently working on a commission to write music for a dance showcase at the Kennedy Center.

Joey D’Alessio, the 25-year-old Director of Music at the Loyola School on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, says he simply never stopped playing. “I do my best to play every day. It’s very tactile, and it allows me to express myself,” he says.

Of course, there’s a middle ground to be had, somewhere between completely ceasing to play music and making a career out of it. Caitlin McGuire, who gave up singing because she didn’t believe she could make a living from it, now performs every few months with an all-female choir. Andrew Mackasek practices classical piano as frequently as his schedule affords. Casey Dworkin “had a sudden urge” to again start singing and accompanying herself on guitar in early 2015; she’s used music as a coping mechanism over the past year to deal with a major breakup and, not long after, the untimely passing of someone she’d just started seeing.

In fact, it seems more common to find people who’ve attained this middle ground—who play or practice infrequently or at the amateur level—than at either extreme of the spectrum between quitting music completely and playing professionally. That those who were surveyed for this piece are part of the Millennial generation is also of note; they are currently in or around their mid-twenties, a time almost universally recognized for fluctuation in career and overall life choices.

As with any creative effort, a balance of sorts between passion and hard work, fun and diligence, must be struck for music to stay a central part of someone’s life. For some young people, the relegation of music from a priority to anything less, especially at the same time as these people leave a structured academic environment, seems self-perpetuating and self-fulfilling, leading them to stop playing. For some, it can be a welcome change, allowing for music to remain in their lives as a hobby while they make their living elsewhere. For others, still, there’s simply never been a reason to stop playing music—just a continuous headlong striving after what makes them happiest. ¶