Quitting the CMU All-University Orchestra: one of the hardest decisions in my life

It’s the Monday after what would have been the regular Sunday evening CMU All-University Orchestra rehearsal, except that there was no rehearsal because of Spring Break.

Surprise (or not)!

I have decided to immediately quit the CMU AUO that I had just joined less than two months ago.

I have already told everyone that I’m quitting.

I don’t like quitting. I don’t like being a quitter.

So what’s the story? And what next?

Orchestra morale problems

Five days ago, I reported on problems in the orchestra and deciding that I would probably quit the orchestra after the spring term is over. The memories of that have lingered in my mind. And my relief yesterday at not having rehearsal was a real message to me.

(Update of 2012-03-21)

Maria just sent the mailing list (which I’m still on despite having quit the orchestra) an email saying, “It seems that over spring break we may have lost much of what we did in the first portion of the semester.”

No kidding. As I had observed earlier, people clearly just weren’t taking practice seriously. They probably didn’t touch their instruments when they went on spring break. I’m so glad I quit.

Personal musical goals

In the past couple of days while off the hook on orchestral practice, I had an opportunity to think about what I actually love about music, and what role I want it to play in my life.

A chance opportunity

It turns out that Abby and I have just been invited to a St. Patrick’s Day party by Henry, whose birthday party less than two months ago had so moved me musically (and right after I had joined the AUO). I was so eager to attend that I asked Henry whether I should bring a tin whistle and play some Irish music, and he said, sure! I had promised myself after his birthday party that if we were ever invited to a party by him, I would play music.

Brute reality

Today, I can no longer deny the reality: being in an orchestra is completely contrary to the kind of musical life I actually enjoy and want. I need to play music of my choice, I want to improvise, I want to play in small groups. The task of mastering some difficult flute parts in a big orchestral work and being a tiny part of a performance, does not appeal to me at all, even if I could do it well (which I currently cannot at all).

As a concrete example: I could spend my time this week slogging away at AUO music practice, or I could be learning some tunes on tin whistle so that I can play them on Saturday at Henry’s party and have a blast.

There’s no comparison, whether in the short term or in the long term.

But emotionally, it’s just tough to quit.

What did I really ever hope to get out of orchestra?

I think part of me hoped that somehow, being in an orchestra was a standard rite of passage that a “serious” musician should do. When I was a kid, I was kind of envious that classmates joined the school orchestra, while I remained out of music entirely. My younger sister played violin in various orchestras in middle school and in high school and college.

But now it occurs to me that not much of what I could get out of orchestra would help me with my real musical goals anyway.

The art of quitting

I have a policy of never just quitting something, but replacing the void instead. Quitting is negative. Replacing is positive. In my case, quitting orchestra frees up a considerable amount of time to work toward my real musical goals. Instead of fruitlessly working on difficult flute parts that are currently beyond my capabilities, and beyond my interests, I can focus on gradually improving at the music I do want to play, and building the technique necessary, without arbitrary deadlines like some big concert.


In the United States, we are constantly bombarded with messages in the media and general culture not to be a “quitter”. And I got that a lot from my parents (who came from Taiwan) when I was a kid.

My current point of view: not learning to be an effective quitter was the single worst mistake of my first decades in life.

Here are some articles that really resonated with me about the benefits of quitting correctly:


It’s never easy for me to quit something. Part of me always feels like I failed, wasn’t good enough, wasn’t courageous enough, or something like that. Maybe sometimes that is actually true. But other times, it clearly is not. All signs point to quitting orchestra as the best thing I can do now for my flute playing.

What is your own relationship to quitting?

What is your gut reaction when hearing about someone quitting (like me just now), or when considering quitting something yourself? Is your gut reaction one of disdain and shame, or of liberation? Is this a result of your upbringing, or the nature of your relationships with peers? Is it a deliberate rational philosophical position? Or is primarily emotional, based on either moral sentiment or ego?

When was the last time you quit and felt good about it? When was the last time you quit and felt bad about it? When was the last time you quit and at the time felt one way, but later felt you had made the wrong decision?

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