3 Reasons Why I Quit Music School

Photo by Grace Kang on Unsplash

I attended University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music for 2 years before changing majors, and ultimately dropping out.

This article isn’t about why quitting was ‘the best decision of my life’ or ‘my biggest regret.’ Obsessing over past decisions usually doesn’t lead to any insights or productive thoughts.

It happened. I dropped out. I can’t change the past.

Now that it’s been about 2 years since then, I’ve been able to really parse through my emotions and figure out why I did it.

If you are currently in music school, thinking about going to music school, or simply are a musician, I hope you can learn from the pitfalls I fell into.

So anyways, let’s get into the 3 reasons I quit music school:

1. I Wasn’t Good Enough

At least, that’s what I told myself.

I’ve been involved in music since the age of 5. My mom played piano, and naturally wanted me to try and learn. Immediately I was hooked.

I loved the feeling of the keys under my fingers, the visceral joys of making music. As a young kid, you don’t really worry about how skilled you are, you just engulf yourself in the activity at hand.

I started with classical lessons and eventually switched to learning jazz piano in high school. Outside of my classes, Music was the thing that took up most of my free time. Once it was time to start thinking about what I’d study in college, music stood out as the obvious choice.

But even though I was set on being a music major, I wasn’t fully committed to it. It’s not like my goal in life was to be a master pianist. I mainly chose to apply to music schools because I was good at it, and it was my best bet at going to a good college (since my grades weren’t stellar by any means).

Let’s fast forward a year into my studies as a jazz piano major at USC. Things seemed to be working out — at first. I had an amazing freshman year, meeting a ton of incredible musicians that inspired me to push myself and improve my craft.

My sophomore year is where things took a turn. I developed some negative thought patterns about myself as a musician. Self doubt and ‘imposter syndrome’ slowly took over, and I obsessively compared myself to every musician I saw.

Am I good enough? Am I better than this person? Do I have enough skill/talent to major in music? Is this even a viable career option? Will I ever make money from this?

These thoughts lurked in my mind, slowly poisoning the excitement and wonder that I used to feel from playing piano.

I created a negative feedback loop that I was painfully unaware of.

The more I doubted myself, the less time I put into practicing, improving, and getting better as a musician. And as my effort in music started to dwindle, these thoughts would only strengthen, because now I had ‘proof’ that I wasn’t good enough. It was the textbook definition of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Eventually I concluded that being a professional musician wasn’t for me.

I rationalized it all by telling myself “Sure, I’m pretty good at it, but I’m surrounded by people that are way better. This is really tough. Maybe I’m just not cut out for this.”

At that point, the only option I gave myself was to quit music school altogether. It honestly wasn’t a very hard decision; I just wanted an escape route to run away from all of my insecurities and self doubts.

Looking back now, I wish I could’ve told myself that I have all the potential in the world, I should never be ashamed of my current skill level, and I should stop comparing myself to others so much.

2. My Health was Deteriorating

Like many college students, my freshman year was filled with countless hangouts and parties, usually involving alcohol and weed (and possibly panda express).

I didn’t experiment at all with substances in high school, so it was all very new and fun to me. Alcohol never became a problem, but I liked weed way too much. It let me relax and connect with so many different people, and enhanced countless events and excursions in my life.

The first few times I smoked weed, it felt like my mind was literally expanding. I was able to look at life with a whole new perspective, and I will always be thankful for that experience.

But it slowly became a problem.

What started out as an occasional high steadily progressed into a nightly routine. The desire to be high all the time started to seriously interfere with my life. My work ethic slowly deteriorated, and I had a tough time completing my work for my general education classes. Even practicing piano became a burden. I felt sluggish at the piano, my mind was cloudy, I couldn’t focus, I felt unable to give anything my all.

Everything was a chore.

And to make things worse, my newly acquired weed addiction coincided with increasingly problematic stomach pains, which were mostly anxiety-induced. This resulted in me throwing up before many performances and gigs.

By the end of my sophomore year, I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to get out of this cycle that was destroying my body, so I dropped out.

3. Music and Traditional Education Don’t Mix

Music is one of those fields where you don’t need a degree to be successful.

Like any skill, what matters is the effort you put in. You could forgo college and just take private lessons for 4 years. With serious practice, you’d end up way better off than someone who half-assed their way through music school (and you’ll save thousands of dollars too).

Don’t get me wrong though, there are some amazing benefits to studying music at a college/university. The connections and the community are easily the biggest selling point. At a music school you’ll be surrounded by other musicians who want to improve, and make important connections with faculty and classmates. That alone is invaluable.

Where music schools fall behind is in their curriculum. There’s a level of ‘standardization’ that is inevitable when you’re teaching large groups of students.

As a jazz piano major, I felt that I was being led down a rigid path, where the things I needed to learn were already decided for me. I understand that there are certain fundamental skills and techniques that every musician should know, but it ended up feeling restrictive and boring. As a consequence, my passion for music and piano was extinguished. And it took a year or so after dropping out for me to re-ignite that inner fire.

In my ‘ideal’ music school, the curriculum would have a few standardized classes, but leave room for more open-ended study, where students could explore their own personal music interests, and see where that takes them.

My frustrations with how music was taught made me realize that I’d enjoy studying music a lot more in a self-guided learning environment, where I could feed my curiosity, and didn’t have to follow someone else’s idea of the ‘right’ path.

Dropping out of USC was followed by months of bouncing between relief, and regret.

I tried to convince myself over and over that it was the right decision, and that I was better off from it. I imagined that I was rebelling against the system by dropping out, or that I was somehow better than those that stayed in school. I ‘figured out’ that college was a scam and I had transcended that.

Obviously I was delusional.

I was no better of a person for dropping out, nor was I any worse. As humans, we have this incessant need to review our past decisions and label them with the binary of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. This can be useful for self-reflection, but more often than not, decisions have no clear answer.

If anything, dropping out has shown me that the decisions we make have unknowable consequences. Imagine your life as a boat, and you’re the captain. If you obsess over a decision made years ago, your boat is essentially anchored thousands of miles behind you. It’s going to be really tough to move forward when you’re held back by that.

Focusing on the actions of today — of the present moment — is what truly matters.

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Ramizu

Ramizu

Pianist, Composer, Musician. Addicted to the feeling of learning a new skill