Saying goodbye to musical instruments

I spent this past weekend cleaning my basement and enduring a life crisis. The two are related.

As it’s the start of school vacation week here in Massachusetts, my wife and I decided to take this time to clean out the basement. I’m not referring to the pedestrian practice of knocking down cobwebs and doing a bit of sweeping. No, this was a full-on, no-prisoners/no-survivors clean. Every single item was hauled out into the yard and sorted into one of three piles:

  1. Keep
  2. Donate
  3. Trash

Once the room was empty, the industrial vacuum came out, cobwebs were swept away, floors were swept and scrubbed, and shelving was dismantled, cleaned, and relocated. Every inch was polished and prepped for the contents of the “keep” pile to be neatly re-introduced. I drove the donate pile to the local donation station and later this week a team of professionals will arrive to haul the trash pile away. That should be all three piles sorted.

Dave's drum setExcept there’s one problem. I lied. There are actually four piles. The fourth pile contains only a single item: my drum set.

I bought this set of drums with money I saved by delivering newspapers when I was 13 years old. I started playing drums when I was seven, and to say that they occupied the first 23 years of my life is an understatement. Music, specifically percussion, was my life for two decades.

In elementary school I played in the orchestra. In high school, it was band, orchestra, and jazz band. Some friends and I formed our own noisy rock band and tormented the neighbors with an endless racket. I took private lessons outside of school, and traveled to district orchestra events. I even attended music camp at our local college. Music was my social circle, my solace when times were tough, and my celebration when everything was going well. After high school I attended Berklee College of Music and gave snare drum lessons to the neighborhood kids in the summer.

Then I finished with school, moved away, and got a job. The drums came with me, but I didn’t have much time for them. A few years passed and I got married. Soon enough we had a daughter, then a son. I had more responsibility at work. I continued to give lessons for about a year but that ended. My drums sat idle in the basement — for years… many years.

Now, here we are with my drums satisfying the very definition of “clutter.”

We’ve written about parting with sentimental clutter before. I know it’s hard, and I know the strategies. I also understand that, in the end, memories are more important than things. But this feels like more to me.

Real musical ability isn’t something that every person has. At the risk of sounding like a braggart, I do. I was really good at playing drums. To me, parting with the instrument feels like I’m throwing the gift away, too, and that’s not right. I understand that, if I haven’t touched my drums within the last 15 years, I probably won’t during the next 15 years either. Yet, I can’t bring myself to say goodbye.

For now, they’re still in the limbo that is “Pile Four.” I’ve got until the end of the week to decided their true fate. Do you have any input, readers? Have I merely succumbed to the emotion of sentimental clutter? Or is there something more at work?

47 Comments for “Saying goodbye to musical instruments”

  1. posted by Dorothy on

    Let them go, perhaps to a youngster who otherwise couldn’t afford to learn to play the drums. You might just be fostering the next Evelyn Glennie!

  2. posted by Dawn on

    Time to teach the kids!

  3. posted by Me on

    Ask yourself if it still plays a role. Does it still make you happy? Sit down behind it like you used to, touch it, feel it and answer this question honestly: does it make you happy to have it? If it does, it still has a purpose in your life. If it doesn’t, its role has played out and it’s time to let go…

  4. posted by LB on

    This is a tough one. I face a very similar dilemma with my bass guitar and amp that I haven’t touched in about 6 years (but played for a solid 15). I would love to pass it along to someone but it makes a pretty loud buzzing that I’m sure is fixable, but feels more like passing along a burden because of it. Yet I can’t bring myself to just toss it or donate it blindly. You’re right, there does seem to be more emotional connection to it than almost anything else…or are we just telling ourselves that as an excuse to keep it? Curious what other input people have. Thanks for the post!

  5. posted by Sherry on

    If you can’t find a way to give it to someone or an organization that you know will use them, keep them until you do. With memories and rich experiences like that, it seems like it will be hard to let go unless you have faith that it will be loved !

  6. posted by Ellen on

    I recently sold my electronic keyboard to a friend for cheap because her kids wanted to start playing. I was always more of a casual piano player, so I didn’t have quite the attachment that you have to your drums, but it was still part of my self-identity. It was difficult for me to let go of a part of how I thought about yourself, especially because it was something I valued. But I had hardly played in years, and my keyboard mostly just collected piles of clutter. I’m gradually having fewer fleeting pangs of regret, and my friend’s kids were so excited to get it, so overall, I’m happy with my decision. I don’t have the nagging feeling that I should be playing, and I can commit time and mental energy to other hobbies.

    At the end of the day, I figure you have two options: 1- you can get rid of the drums and buy another kit if you end up missing it. (The new ones won’t have the same sentimental value, but you’ll know that drumming is important to you.) or 2- you can keep the drums for a while longer and give yourself the time to either start playing or decide you want to let go.

  7. posted by Leslie on

    Is there a place for you to use the drums if you decided to start playing again? My husband didn’t touch his trombone for about 15 years (started playing the bass guitar about 22 years ago and couldn’t keep up with both instruments and the rest of life). Last Christmas he pulled it out because he wanted to play in a local “trombone Christmas” concert and discovered he was no longer up to par. Since then he’s been practicing about 15-30 minutes most evenings, but trombones don’t take up as much space as a drum set. If you don’t have room to easily practice, then you won’t keep up playing the drums.

  8. posted by Amanda on

    I would give myself a deadline of 1 year to find a way to integrate the drums into my life in a real way. Whatever that means to you.

    If, in 1 year, they haven’t been integrated, go to the local middle school band and tell the teacher you want to give them to a student.

  9. posted by Sue Bee on

    I would let your wife decide 🙂

  10. posted by NoAlias on

    I we all get to ‘vote’ on what you should do, I agree with Dorothy (the first poster) to give/sell the drums to a struggling young person who truly wants to pursue drumming. You have your memories, and perhaps some photos or recordings, of your history with them. But admit it to yourself – I bet there is also some guilt at having pushed the drums into an unused corner of your life. There is nothing to feel guilty about!! Life moves on and the drums will always remind you of the past and drag you back. Give a child the chance for similar experiences and memories. And later, if you feel the desire, buy a new kit for yourself and feel the exhilaration and excitement of a new ‘hobby’.

  11. posted by Crissa on

    Totally understanding that 4th pile. We are currently downsizing from a 34′ 5th Wheel trailer to a 19′ Class B Campervan. My husband and I have had long conversations about what we want our next phase of life to look like. My keyboard, which has it’s own special shelf in the 5th wheel. isn’t part of that phase. We’ve decided to sell the it. But, if 6 months from now I realize I want a keyboard to be part of that phase, then we’ll get another one.

    Good luck with your decision.

  12. posted by Nicola on

    I feel your pain. Mine is a trumpet.

    I wish I had a solution for you, but I’ve not managed to solve this one yet, so I can’t really offer a sure-fire answer. I’m watching the comments with interest to see if anyone else can!

  13. posted by Tori on

    I have addressed this problem by long-term lending items to friends.

    My husband has a keyboard that he hadn’t touched in years, which had to be (carefully) moved in order to get into a basement closet. A friend was interested in learning to play, and now it lives in her office. I had a guitar taking up space, and it went to live with another friend who fancied the hobby.

    I found that passing the items on in this way gave me joy because they were being used, while letting us retain our sentimental connection. The guitar came back after a few years, and I was happy to play it again (without having stored it in the meantime!). The keyboard might come back if we move to a bigger home, but it probably won’t.

    This requires knowing someone who actually wants your item, and of course, accepting it may be damaged or wrecked. But to us, it’s been an easier way to part with some items (help your friends! No work of pricing/selling! It’s (maybe) not forever!). And once it’s out of the house, it’s a lot easier to be selective about bringing it back in 🙂

  14. posted by arlie on

    Here’s the thing: you can always get rid of them, but once they’re gone – they’re gone. If you’re not ready to let them go, keep them. When you’re ready to let them go, you will. Context: I just moved from a large house to an apartment, so I understand the angst of decision making! I gave away, threw away and donated many things, but kept the things that meant the most to me!

  15. posted by John Canon on

    Before you pass the set on, take a great photo of yourself playing behind the set. Then, if possible, frame it alongside a photo of a younger you playing the drums.

  16. posted by John Canon on

    You could do movie-set photoshoot playing the instrument while in costume.
    There used to be a booth at the Pacific National Exhibition in Vancouver. They had gun-slinger costumes and a honky-tonk piano. People could dress up and play silly while the photographer snapped some menories.

  17. posted by Cat B on

    I agree with Amanda- if there is a viable place to set them up now that you’ve purged/cleaned, put yourself on the “love/use these within the year or spend the year moving on from them” plan.

  18. posted by Rudy Lutz on

    Please allow me to start with this comment: you went to Berklee … not every aspiring musician can afford to do that, and even fewer make the cut.

    You obviously had, and I will be so bold as to suggest that you still do, have talent. I am a bassist and a highland piper. I play my bass most every day, and in church approximately every 2 weeks. Even so, I almost quit a few years back because of responsibilities. My pipes still lie dormant for the time being. However, in my pipe band life years ago, I knew a guy who quit for at least 15 years because of life’s many pressures: but returned, saying he now wishes he had never left. Another drummer friend, who, like you, went to school for it, has also returned after a 10-15 hiatus. Same response as the piper. Your owm future generations may also be drawn in eventually as well.

    Another thing: buying quality instruments over again is not like buying a replacement hair brush! It is a major investment. Please consider this decision VERY carefully, and with the input of musicians, not just “clutter fighters”. Thank you for your attention.

  19. posted by keziamara on

    Keep them, you’re not ready.

  20. posted by Rudy Lutz on

    Please allow me to start with this comment: you went to Berklee … not every aspiring musician can afford to do that, and even fewer make the cut.

    You obviously had, and I will be so bold as to suggest that you still do, have talent. I am a bassist and a highland piper. I play my bass most every day, and in church approximately every 2 weeks. Even so, I almost quit a few years back because of responsibilities. My pipes still lie dormant for the time being. However, in my pipe band life years ago, I knew a guy who quit for at least 15 years because of life’s many pressures: but returned, saying he now wishes he had never left. Another drummer friend, who, like you, went to school for it, has also returned after a 10-15 hiatus. Same response as the piper. Your own future generations may also be drawn in eventually as well.

    Another thing: buying quality instruments over again is not like buying a replacement hair brush! It is a major investment. Please consider this decision VERY carefully, and with the input of musicians, not just “clutter fighters”. Thank you for your attention.

  21. posted by T Marie on

    Keep them for now. You will know when it’s time. Once gone, you can’t get them back. A replacement will never be the same…

  22. posted by Rudy Lutz on

    Sorry for posting twice, I made a correction, without realising it was a new post and not an “edit”.

    While I am here, please… I concur with Keziamara …. you are not ready… PLEASE do not give up on this lightly. Thank you again.

  23. posted by Deb R on

    I would suggest that if you belong to a church or if there is a community music group you could share both your drum set AND your talent. You would enrich their music and the drums would not live with you anymore but would still be available to you.

  24. posted by Jim on

    I was going to suggest you give yourself a deadline in which to decide (someone above suggested one year; I would maybe use six months). Prepare a list of possible options for the drums: give them to a local school band program, set up and use yourself to re-ignite your talent, sell on Craigs list, or place an ad in a local paper to give to an individual student. Then follow up on this plan within the time limit you have set for yourself. This deserves a thoughtful action – I am happy you created “pile four.”

  25. posted by Viv on

    Our family had the same dilemma. A cornet and a flute. Since music programs are in danger and some kids can’t afford to buy or rent instruments we donated them to a local public school and got a nice tax deduction. It’s good knowing they aren’t collecting dust but yet nurturing the musical talent for a budding musician.

  26. posted by Michaela on

    You’ll know when its time to get rid of them. Maybe right now isn’t the time. Maybe next month, next year, maybe five years, it will be time? I usually KNOW when I look at something = when its time to go.

    If they aren’t taking up that much space, perhaps make them a little showpiece in your basement, and show them to your kids and their friends. Perhaps you may spark an interest there that may have never happened, without that being there? If your not ready, your not ready. Don’t force yourself to do something, just because. Struggling with ONE thing isn’t that bad LOL.

  27. posted by Deb on

    I kept my mother’s sewing machine for years, though I never learned how to sew. Giving it away was like letting go of a dream to someday sew and show my mom I could. Think of a young person who could use it and otherwise couldn’t afford it. Let them have 20 years of joy and develop their talent and find the comfort that you found.

  28. posted by Missy on

    I’m on the other side of your drum set quandary. I gave up my piano decades ago when I was a busy working parent and the kids moved on to other instruments. Now that I’m retired, I’m thinking about getting a piano and learning to play again.

    I think that attachments to things most often reflect important feelings and perceptions about ourselves. Is the drum set itself the source of your attachment, or is it more that you’re afraid that you’ll be wasting your talent if you give up the set? Your innate talent will always be there, though your technical skills will grow rusty with disuse. You can always get another set and build your skills back up if you ever decide to start playing again.

    And speaking of waste, let’s face it, you’re definitely “wasting” your beautiful drum set by keeping it locked away in the basement when a budding young player would be overjoyed to play and treasure it just as much as you once did.

  29. posted by Angie on

    DO NOT THROW them! Give them the most honored space in you basement, assemble them so that you can come and play at any time, and then there will come a moment when you will start playing again. Your kids will grow, you’ll clear all the clutter in your house and then you will want to do something to your soul’s pleasure. And do you know how cool is the grandpa who PLAYS the DRUMS?

  30. posted by Kathy Schwartz on

    Our home is home to two euphoniums – one handed down from my Dad to me to my son and the other one a four valve that we purchased for our son when he was in high school AND to one cello, formerly two. One of the cellos was handed down from my daughter’s godfather/uncle to her and the other we purchased for her when she was in high school. The child’s cello has now been offered to another child. I also have a piano that belonged to my uncle who died when he was 12. They are all part of the family and I could not do anything but find someone else to give them tender loving care in the future. Our school will also take used instruments for children to play as they learn whether or not an investment in one of their own is worth it. Don’t haul them to the junk yard!!!

  31. posted by Stephen on

    I empathize with this so much as someone who had lived and breathed music most of my life but who now has a career not related to music. I struggled for a long time on what to do with my instruments as I still enjoy playing them, but don’t use them nearly as much. Here’s where I landed:

    I used to think that I had only two options:

    1) giving up my instruments and not playing again
    2) keeping my instruments and risk them taking up space and feeling bad about not playing them as much as I should

    However I think there’s a third option- finding a more savvy way to downsize by selling the existing instrument and purchasing/acquiring a much smaller or minimized version. In my case I had multiple trumpets and brass instruments. Really I just wanted to play from time to time and keep my chops in playing order. I didn’t need all those instruments to do it, but I did need at least ONE instrument to keep that part of my identity which I felt was worthwhile. So I bought a ‘pocket’ trumpet. This is an instrument with the same tubing as its fellow brothers and sisters but its wrapped tighter and costs a fraction of the price. Its an inferior instrument in several ways (pitch issues with some notes, build quality slightly lowers, etc) but but not any many meaningful ways that count for me- I can still put a mouthpiece on it and practice. The best part is because its so small I now take it with me everywhere as it fits in a tiny case thats roughly 12″ x 8″. I find myself actually playing more now that I have it and have been freed up from my other instruments.

    In the case of your drumset there may be a few options you could go with:

    Electronic sets can be expensive but they’re typically much smaller, and can be folded up more easily to store out of the way. Its not the same experience as an analog set, but it would provide you with what you need to practice when you want but stay out of the way when you don’t need it.

    If you’re feeling much more minimalist and find you don’t need the full set experience, there are several smaller drum machine, pad-based instruments that are even more minimal and portable that you could play with… granted this is going to be a very different experience for you then a full set.


    If you’re not ready to let go, make time in the schedule to play more. My pocket trumpet has opened new windows for me to practice. I work from home so I actually keep it on my desk to play between meetings- its been amazing and I feel like I’ve reconnected with a big part of what identify myself as: ‘musician’.

    Best wishes to you- I know this is a hard one! Appreciated the honesty in this post!

  32. posted by Julia on

    Keep them! Life is not just about decluttering though it’s fun.

  33. posted by Mary on

    I received this e-mail this morning and it touched my heart. I agree with a few of the others, you are not ready to decide yet. I have a couple of friends who attended Berklee which means you are extremely gifted and talented. Since you cleaned out your basement, maybe you can set up your drums and sit behind them once in a while. Do your children know about this part of your life? If they do and they aren’t that interested, maybe your talents skipped a generation. We have many musical instruments in our home that see little use, but I believe that this kind of thing comes in cycles. I have a close friend who plays violin, but she set hers down for well over 10 years, she plays the same very expensive violin, but now she plays for the joy and passion and her love of music. I have two friends who have baby grand pianos that are being “borrowed” by two different churches. So the church situation is a possibility. I also have a friend who was a drummer for years, he does not play very often, but when he does he is awesome and his son is now a professional drummer. This is NOT clutter, this is history, the present and perhaps your future or someone else’s in your family. I strongly suggest that you give this some time, live with this question for a time. ““Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
    ― Rainer Maria Rilke

  34. posted by Margaret on

    Mine was an oboe I owned since 1968, a brand-new Cabart for $800, a real stretch for a student but it meant I could play with the local orchestra in my university town. After that I played on and off over the years with concert bands, but never well. The fourth baby was a surprise and I didn’t play for 15 years except with the kids at Christmas. When my youngest was 15 and I was 54, I started playing in a band again. At 64, i decided to take professional lessons, and at 68 I passed my Grade 6 conservatory exam.
    This year I said goodbye to the Cabart when I traded it in for a new instrument. That’s not the same as giving it up completely. I got the Loree that I couldn’t afford as a student and I pictured a student making good use of the Cabart I had treasured. To be honest, I don’t think I could give up your drum set if I were you. You’ll have to wait until you are older and see if you take up the drums again. 15 years is nothing.

  35. posted by Mary on

    Your blog inspired me to post on my own site tonight. Thank you.

  36. posted by Paola on

    I have a very similar problem with my electronic keyboard… I keep saying I’m going to sell it, but in order to do that I need to take a few pictures of it (which I have yet to do…), I postpone this painful thing every time I think about it…

  37. posted by JD on

    Great to see so many comments–clearly, music is an emotional topic!

    I sold all my synthesizers when my kids were young, and then recently bought replacements (plus a few new ones, heh heh). As sad as it was to acknowledge that I wasn’t playing and composing, it was thrilling to come back a decade later and embrace all of the technological advancements. The time off gave me a fresh perspective and I’m more gung ho than ever. During those dry years, I stayed up to date a bit, but mostly thought of synths as a hobby on pause.

    In your case, it sounds like you’re grappling with the idea that giving away the drums means giving away the drumming, and that’s akin to shedding a piece of yourself. I don’t think it has to be that way. Regardless of whether you have this set of drums–or any set of drums–drumming will always be part of you. Sometimes, it may be dormant (as now); other times, it may be front and center (as in your youth and, hopefully, the future). I would keep that in mind as you decide what to do with the kit. If the emotional tie is there, keep the drums. You will come back to it–musicians like you don’t just fold up and stop playing. If the bond is with the drumming, then you can sell or donate this set with no remorse. When you are ready to start up again, a drum set will be there for you.

  38. posted by Maryann Aguilar on

    Google “New Horizons Band” and see if there are any local chapters where you live. “New Horizons” was founded by Roy Ernst who wanted to inspire older adults to learn to play an instrument, to return to an instrument they played when growing up and/or in school, and for experienced musicians to learn a new instrument. You might find that you have time to be a part of this organization and mentor other musicians, learn to play another instrument, or find that they would welcome your drum set with open arms!
    “New Horizons” is international, so you may also find a connection in other countries.
    After a life-long musical journey, and after retiring from a “paycheck” job, I find great satisfaction in learning new areas of music that I hadn’t been a part of previously. My primary instrument is piano and organ, but I took up oboe when I joined “New Horizons”. I now play percussion, with an ephasis on marimba, xylophone, and orchestra bells.
    Something that has been such an important part of your life deserves an opportunity to resurface.

  39. posted by SkiptheBS on

    Studio automation is killing percussion. People who love it would starve emotionally on current American music. For the love of Buhaina, Philly Joe, and all of the great Brazilian and Cuban drummers, please resume playing and teaching. Studios’ failure to employ any but literally rudimentary drummers amounts to an employment blacklist. Damn the neighbors and do what you love.

  40. posted by Cindy Wilcox on

    Please keep them… at least for now. The purpose of decluttering is to make room in your life for the things that truly matter to you. It seems to me that these drums are still important to you, even if they don’t have a front-and-center role in your current life. Find a place to set them up so you at least have the option to play them when you can. Personally, while I will never be considered an expert player, playing my high school flute acts as a form of meditation for me to destress when life gets hectic. Your gift should not be wasted, even if it is enjoyed only by you.

  41. posted by Vicki on

    Keep them until you are either ready to part with them – your reluctance says you’re not- or you have a plan for them. It’s just one thing. Get the old band back together for one last hurrah perhaps and then say goodbye. Don’t try to force it.

  42. posted by Sylvia on

    I suggest you keep them. You may decide to pick them up again when your children are grown. I play in a community band and we have many members who returned to playing after a hiatus. The decluttering thing can be overdone.

  43. posted by JC on

    Before my mother moved in with us (daylight basement apartment), she needed to decide what she was going to do with her piano. It is the instrument we all learned on- I had to take lessons in order to play percussion in band. She has developed tremors and is no longer able to play, but wasn’t sure about just selling it to someone. We ended up selling it to a woman from church who had moved to our area but could not afford to ship her own piano several thousand miles. It made all the difference to find someone who would love this instrument the way we had.

  44. posted by Joanna on

    As a aspiring musician i say do you want to keep playing? Why did you stop? Bc you got busy?. Keep them and use them or sell/donate!! Great story.

  45. posted by Megan on

    I might have said pass them on but recently my husband had his bag pipes refurbished. He played them as a teenager and he has moved them from apartment to apartment to our basement. He had not played them in years. After having them refurbished he started taking lessons again in his 50s and is now a member of a marching pipe and drum band. After the refurbishing they were also appraised as being worth thousands. Not sure on the value of a drum set as it might not be as rare.

  46. posted by Sarah Plumb on

    I can appreciate this. I played cello through elementary school and high school and my cello was my not-so-little sidekick through those years. Fun fact: during downtime in rehearsals, the top of a cello is a great place to rest your head. 😉 I ended up selling mine to a music teacher who would use it with students. Make sure if you decide to sell or donate your drum set that it goes to a good home that you will feel good about. Good luck!

  47. posted by Elizabeth on

    I am very late to this party (catching up on blogs after a while away). You’ve probably reached a decision by now. But in case it’s of any use to any other readers I want to chip in with my point.

    You say that the drums are the very definition of clutter. Yet I would use the words of two renowned anti-clutter individuals to argue that they are not.

    William Morris (very much against over-cluttered Victorian homes and parlours): “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful OR BELIEVE TO BE BEAUTIFUL” [my caps]

    Marie Kondo (21st century doyenne of decluttering): Do not keep anything that does not spark joy. (okay I paraphrased that but it is the principle that she uses.)

    Your drumkit still sparks joy in you and you believe it to be beautiful – its inner beauty shining through from its history in your life. Please keep it.

    I had a similar situation when my mother passed away and her piano (200 years old – really) had to go. That piano saw me through my childhood and was my friend in teenage woes. I would have loved to own it but it’s a baby grand and I only have a small apartment. If we had had to sell it I would have understood but I could not have watched the removal men take it away and I would have been in mourning for a long time. Fortunately my sister was able to accommodate it so I still see it (and have a play) when I go to visit her.

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