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Mendy Smith

Musical Parallels

September 12, 2014 19:18

I've read story upon story how music helps in keeping your mind sharp as you age, learning languages and mathematics. The thing I don't hear about often is how music can teach you how to focus on many things at one time perform under pressure, work as an integrated team, plan for long term goals, and manage time effectively.

My day job can be very stressful at times. I manage projects to make big things. VERY big, heavy and complicated things (think of a 40' tall sewing machine). Near the end of the project when everything is supposed to come together with a very hard deadline, it takes all my energy and brainpower to remember the minutia when the team is going full force ahead to make sure the important details are not missed. Without all the effort put into proper planning early on in the project, the outcome could be disastrous and frankly very dangerous.

I'm in the midst of the final stages on one of these types projects at the moment, and though there barely time to get a full night's sleep each day, I still squeeze in an hour of practice, lessons or a rehearsal every day. It is partially because I am very passionate about my music, but it is also because it helps me perform better at work and keeps me sane. How?

In Project Management a lot of time is spent in defining the project scope, determining resources, and setting the project schedule. Preparing a new piece of music requires the same sort of planning: analyzing the music, determining what needs to be worked on, setting a weekly practice schedule, and determining what etudes, scales, and practice strategies to use.

Once a project starts running, there are many detailed tasks that have to be completed accurately, often with many of them all happening at the same time, and all within a deadline. Forget one small task, make one typo and the schedule slips, you run over-budget, or worst of all someone gets hurt. When playing a piece of music, I have focus on several things at the same time: sounding point, vibrato, intonation, rhythm, tempo, dynamics, phrasing... etc. Sometimes it seems too much to focus on in such minute detail, but to play a piece well I must do it.

Projects are rarely executed with just one person doing all the work. A project typically has a larger team of people assigned specific tasks all timed so that once once task is completed, the next begins with minimal interruption or multiple tasks happening at the same time and finishing at the right time to prevent delays. A well functioning project team also learns how to work well with each other and supports their team members. Chamber and orchestral music is very much a team effort. During my chamber music rehearsals, someone will always be counting out loud during rhythmically complex sections, emphasise certain beats or phrases to help keep the group together, play softer so the melody line can be heard better, or having one or two people play their parts alone so everyone else can follow along without playing to understand how their parts fit into the larger picture.

At the tail end of a project when it seems like there is too much going on at once, I often take a short break to "reset" my mind so I can re-focus, and then head back into the fray. Just before any lesson or rehearsal, I take time to tune my instrument and myself with a warm-up by playing a simple scale with a drone very slowly to focus on my posture, hand frame, intonation, and sounding point. This simple thing takes about 5 minutes. Just enough time to switch gears from work-mode to music-mode. What I call "Zen and the Art of Practicing".

The last step of the project is called the "deployment stage". This is done after everything has been built, validated, tested, documented, and everyone trained on how to use it, and then the thing gets used for the first time. If all of the above steps were done right, it will go relatively smoothly. There are always unexpected hiccups, but if the project was well planned and run, they tend to be minor and everyone forgives them for happening. When I perform a piece of music for the first time, there is ALWAYS something that doesn't go quite right. It could be a missed note, a note held too long or too short, "bow vibrato", or any number of small things. But at the end of the day, the piece gets played all the way through without stopping and it is performed to the best of my ability.

There are many parallels between my day job and my music beyond what I've mentioned. The skills necessary to perform well in both compliment each other in ways that I am still discovering. Take away either of them, life would be flat, monotonous and uninspiring.

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