When I was about 18 years old, my dream was to play in the Utah Symphony. I’d had the opportunity to hear them while in college and thought they were wonderful. Not only did they play beautifully, my ever-hopeful mind was convinced that this particular orchestra consisted of genuinely nice people. While they undoubtedly were, it’s interesting to note that even at an early age I was drawn to musical opportunities that I perceived as collaborative, low-stress, and collegial. Years later, after performing on both amateur and professional stages, I still seek these qualities in music making and also in my “other life” as a businessperson.
Many of us start out with the dream of (and hopefully talent for) becoming professional musicians. Some of us may have initially achieved that goal and then for a variety of reasons – marriage, children, lack of opportunities, financial considerations – chosen a different career path. Just as I am interested in how people create and sustain professional musical careers, I am equally fascinated by those who made a fundamental vocational shift away from music – be it to science, medicine, law.
I wonder: Did violin lessons and studio recitals help us become better public speakers and presenters? Did practicing scales and drilling etudes make us better writers and thinkers? Did harmonic dictation and ear training influence our ability to actively listen while others are speaking? I wholeheartedly believe there is a connection.
As someone who made a shift in livelihood from music to business decades ago, here are a few aspects of my early musical training that I believe have had the strongest influence on my success in the corporate world.
1. Musical training encourages the development of strong opinions, and oftentimes, the subjugation of those opinions.
In my musical studies I was always expected to have an opinion, but not always asked to share it. There are often many valid interpretations of a single phrase of music…even the approach to a particular note. Music starts by trying to determine what the composer wanted. With recordings and YouTube, we can also look to our favorite conductors and artists to hear exactly how they spun a phrase. As I’ve gotten older (and less committed to being right all the time) I can now hear diametrically opposed interpretations of a piece and am fully convinced both approaches are valid and serve the music/composer.
So, back to business. When an international actuarial firm first hired me, I quickly learned that the best business results stem from work environments in which diverse ideas are sought — not unlike hashing through a string quartet for the first time. Many people bring forth ideas and, ultimately, the group rallies around the one considered the most viable. (By the way, I’m not a member of the “there are no bad ideas” brigade. I’ve heard boatloads of them!)
I am proudest of myself in business pursuits when I help make someone else’s idea work. Certainly this does not bring the same type of satisfaction gained when your own personal view is executed to its fullest. But it brings surprising rewards. It’s the type of feeling you get in an orchestra when a cut off is perfectly clean or a pianissimo is achieved by all. It’s the satisfaction that results from stepping aside and allowing someone else to steer the ship. We each still fulfill a vital function in the journey, but the direction is relegated to another for the moment. (Full disclosure: I am a true second violinist who completely embraces the ability to help showcase others while still carrying part of the load.)
2. The curtain will go up, even if you’re not ready.
We’ve all had that experience of waking in a cold sweat after dreams of being on stage and not knowing the music. I find it ironic that I’m plagued by these nightmares, as I learned early on to be prepared. And that preparation came from working as a conductor’s assistant – marking bowings into myriad orchestral parts…understanding the distinction between staccato and spiccato…knowing how a missing accidental could cost valuable rehearsal time. Focusing on details before the rehearsal is crucial to maximizing time once the rehearsal begins. The nonprofit world of music spins on being able to rehearse in the shortest amount of time possible. Every minute has a huge price tag associated with it, so musicians must be prepared. Because the curtain will go up, ready or not.
For better or worse, I now reside in the world of billable hours. Time is literally money and neither can be wasted. In a meeting (just as in a rehearsal) having respect for one another’s time is paramount, and that means getting up-to-speed in advance. Walking into a meeting unprepared is as foreign to me as walking into a rehearsal without having looked at my part. My musical training established the routines of practice, preparation, and focus. There is definitely a “curtain time” in business, and it’s called a deadline.
3. Collaboration in music is not only encouraged, but also required.
Whether in an orchestra, chamber ensemble, or simply playing with a pianist, I was always taught to listen, adjust, and respond to others. There might be a pecking order in terms of who got the last word, but it was always understood that each instrument had a voice and the composer wanted that voice to be heard. I observed that those who knew how to lead without browbeating were the most effective collaborators. It was always preferable to hear, “Can we look at the quarter note relationship between the Scherzo and the Allegro” instead of a shrill, “MOVE IT, PEOPLE!”
In the business world a similar collaborative model is also the most powerful. There is a reason for each person to be in the room and it is her obligation to add value. No one wants to feel they’re simply a cog in the wheel or just another set of hands. (Those off beat pizzicatos aren’t going to play themselves.) We want to feel we’re integral to the overall process. And the degree to which we can make others feel truly involved, the more engaged and empowered our colleagues will be.
4. Learning to do something well is its own reward.
When I began studying violin at age 7, my parents had no particular agenda other than getting me to do something that involved discipline and rigor. They required me to practice and attend lessons, but it was not done in a heavy-handed manner. I quickly discovered there was great satisfaction in simply making progress at an endeavor so fundamentally complex and challenging. And, of course, I grew to love music.
There is a great deal of focus today on lining up a multitude of activities for children; building resumes in hopes of getting into the best schools and being positioned for future career success. The number of individuals who will be able to support themselves in the arts is, not surprisingly, extremely low. But the pursuit of excellence on an instrument doesn’t need to be for the sole purpose of having a musical career. To the contrary. There are many wonderful qualities that can be instilled through an education in music: persistence, tenacity, listening skills, the ability to work with others, the pursuit of beauty, the act of finding meaning, the expression of emotion, the perpetuation of great art.
I am convinced my musical training provided a foundation that helps me in all aspects of my life, most particularly, my daily work ethic. At age 60, music remains at the core of my life and is part of my efforts to keep my mind sharp and my spirit alive. Although my business pursuits never bring me the same soul-satisfying rewards that music does, there is great satisfaction in doing something well – regardless of what that something may be. I am grateful that my musical training has allowed me to thrive in a career in which I can make a valuable contribution. Parents, I’m not saying the key to a successful future involves early musical training. But it sure can’t hurt.Tweet
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