When We Want to Quit 4 things to think about when we want to quit playing music

I’m pretty sure I know zero people who didn’t want to quit playing music at some point. Even professionals or hobbyists who are full of joy when we see them play went through their rough patches.


As teachers, we often forget to include acknowledgement in our dialogue of the struggles we and others had because we are so focused on what we want to accomplish with the students. Or we simply want to avoid tough conversations. As players, we can get caught going from piece to piece or gig to gig without realizing that the fire is gone. I’ve regularly observed parents wanting to pull the plug on a child’s lessons because the kids don’t voluntarily run to the piano each day with joy and enthusiasm.

Each of these deserves their own discussion, but this post addresses the common thread between them… As teachers, players and parents we underestimate and ignore the inherent struggle in playing music and how it is connected to the story we tell when we play.

When we see a performance or hear a song that brings us so much joy and emotion, it’s easy to focus on our feelings and reactions without appreciating the hard work that went into it. We overemphasize words like “talent” or “gifted” or “natural” without pointing out the work that led up to the performance.

When we’re working on a piece of music (either teaching or playing), it’s easy to forget what effect we are hoping it has on ourselves and our audience when we’re ready to perform because we (or our teachers) can become obsessed with all the things we need to “fix” or “make better” without relating it to the storytelling aspect of playing music.

These are really easy cycles to fall into. We don’t have to always think about the storytelling when we practice, just like we don’t have to always thing about how much work it took when we hear a great performance – although there is no harm in either. But never thinking or talking about the connection between the work and the storytelling for prolonged periods of time will eventually lead us, our students or our kids to stop playing.

Here are some things we can use to help connect the work with the results:

Social Media: We should follow our musical heroes and observe how hard they work. When I first discovered a few of my musical heroes on Twitter, that platform started to make sense – and now Instagram and Snapchat. More than Facebook those platforms allow you to see into the daily routines of people we see perform all the time. Seeing artists in the studio working until 4 am, waking up at 10 am for rehearsals, going to a 2 pm sound-check before a 7 pm performance day after day is inspiring. It helps you see first hand where all the “talent” comes from. When I find people especially inspiring, I make sure my students follow them as well.

Perform: Even beginning-level students should perform all the time. These don’t have to be high-pressure, high-visibility opportunities – but simply playing two pieces for friends and family twice a week. As soon as a high school or middle school students tells me they want to go into music, we talk about how they can book their own gigs and start practicing performing. Many of them perform between 3-5 times a week once they learn how to book gigs. This makes teaching lessons so easy when they have the motivation of regular performances. If we’re locking ourselves up in our rooms for months on end until we’re “ready” we can lose track of the story we’re trying to tell. Interaction between the player and audience is a key to maintaining enthusiasm when practicing.

Inspiration: Know who your heroes are and find new ones every day. Listen to their music all the time so you are reminded of why you are practicing. This is for young students too. Parents and teachers should not try and influence a child’s inspiration – but rather help them. If a young student talks about an artist they like, find out who plays all the instruments on their records. Show them how to do that research. Then find other recordings the same people helped make. It is their inspiration – not ours. If we don’t have other people inspiring us, it’s practically impossible. Thankfully, finding new inspiration and music has never been easier with all the streaming music services and Twitter.

Be Honest: When we tell ourselves and our students that something potentially difficult should come easily, joyfully and naturally; we’re not being honest. We should always talk about the peaks and valleys in the process. Often when I have a student who is on cloud nine because of something special they’ve accomplished, we’ll talk about the time a few months or a year ago when they wanted to quit. And I’ll let them know that there will be times in the future when it will seem hard again. But the times of feeling great will find them again if they are motivated by the stories they are telling and the stories they are hearing their heroes play.

Eventually this will even out and the peaks and valleys won’t be so drastic. I find it often happens in stages – for example when a kid enters middle school they settle into a groove, or high school or after high school. When this happens they have a voice that will serve them forever in many aspects of their lives.