When the Music Ends: Reflections on a Musician Who Walked Away

Maybe it’s a piano you haven’t touched in years or a clarinet from high school that’s collecting dust in your closet. Many of us (myself included) share the story of giving up on a musical instrument. You may blame your failure to stick with it on a lack of talent or interest, but you might be surprised to learn that even highly successful professional musicians have packed up their instruments and walked away.

A highly successful career

Three-time Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter Bill Withers is just one example of a successful musician who left a career in music. In the summer of 1971, his breakout hit “Ain’t No Sunshine” peaked at number 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. In the following years, he went on to produce another 12 songs that would make the list—four that would peak in the top 10, and one (his famous single “Lean on Me”) that would top the chart for three weeks.

Although Withers’ soulful style continued to captivate audiences, conflicts with his record label and family concerns convinced him to end his career in 1985. “He had never had a family before,” his wife Marcia explains. “And I think it was really important for him to be a father to the kids…There were times when I’m sure he really missed being in the business, making music, but I think that it was more important for him to have a life and a family.”

A redirection

People often ask Withers how he could just stop playing music. “To me, it wasn't stopping anything—it was doing something else,” he replies. “I like music, but I’m not going to place my whole worth on it. My real life was when I was just a working guy—just in the Navy, just a mechanic—but the true measure of any group of people is how are the ones who are just people.”

I think we can all learn a great deal from Withers’ perspective. Music, as wonderful as it is, is a single piece of our multifaceted, ever-changing lives. Although participating in music brings immense satisfaction and joy in its season, life’s challenges sometimes bring that season to an end. Is the decision to abandon music lamentable? Of course! I couldn’t call myself a musician and say that it isn’t, but when done for the right reasons, I wouldn’t call it a shame.

After all, music can never truly be abandoned. Your instrument may be gathering dust, but that does not mean the time you spent with it was all in vain. That piano, violin, or trombone introduced you to a world of creativity and beauty that you won’t soon forget. Although music may fade to the background of your life when more important things demand your attention, it will always be ready for you to pick back up again. When you do, you will be reminded of the wonderful gift music is all over again. So go ahead, dust off that old case, and start playing again. And if you do, a private teacher can help you get back to where you once were and then some.

To learn more about Bill Withers, check out the documentary Still Bill (2009) and give a listen to his amazing music.

- Jordan Koehlinger, Music Instructor at Vibe Music Academy.