From Bach to Business

June 30, 2017, 3:38 PM · 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.


July 1, 2017 at 09:40 PM · This is excellent, Mrs. Skinner! Thank you! I, too, have always believed that musical training improves all facets of life. This is a fantastic article.

July 1, 2017 at 09:41 PM · Thoughtful piece.

I know when I ended up with an unanticipated audience for the defence of my PhD dissertation, it was my years of responding to unexpected performance situations that turned terror into challenge & resulted in greater success than it it had been just my committee & me.

July 2, 2017 at 11:28 AM · I have to confess I've never received any formal training in violin, in theory or in practice. I learned playing the violin all by myself because it was hard to find any violin tutor in China at the time when I was sent to the countryside to do hard labour. Anyway, the best thing from violin practice is self-discipline, which helped my career development a great deal.

At the age of 52, I started my PhD while working full-timely. I completed my PhD thesis in 2 years' time and was awarded my PhD degree 6 months later with two special grants: completing a PhD thesis ahead of schedule and completing a PhD thesis with high quality. Without intense concentration, it was absolutely impossible. Later I published two books: it took me 8 years to complete the second one. I spent so many lonely days and nights on it. Yet, I reached my goal and got the job done. All this must have something to do with my experience from music practice: focusing, paying attention to details, and aiming for perfection.

July 2, 2017 at 12:55 PM · Helen, I am so heartened to read your comments! Thank you so much!

Marjory, Your story is great! I'm actually thinking about interviewing some scientists in my area (I live near Oak Ridge National Labs, home of the Manhattan Project), as there definitely seems to be a connection between PhDs and musical training!

July 2, 2017 at 02:11 PM · When I began my career change back in 2008 from professional musician to environmental engineer, I was afraid that none of my previous training would apply to my new field of study. As it turned out, exactly the aspects of music training you mention here were what helped me to succeed in completing my graduate degrees and succeeding (so far) as a scientist. In fact, one of the people who interviewed me for my current position asked if I thought my musical training conferred any advantage. I said that approaching collaborative situations as an ensemble player--knowing when I had the solo and when I was accompaniment/support and playing the roles accordingly--seemed a key part of working in any situation.

July 2, 2017 at 04:25 PM · Well, about 25 years ago I got my PhD in crop science and genetics. I'm a commercial corn breeder. I feel that playing violin has helped me do my job in several ways. I'll list a couple of the major ones

1) I can handle delayed results and change plans on the fly. Working and adjusting.. the violin is all about that. We live in a multivariate world, the violin give you a leg up.

2) Focus... musical training and violin in particular, give me the ability to focus on the key basics of a job that have to be correctly. Some things are a matter of opinion, but important stuff cannot be slighted.

July 2, 2017 at 11:32 PM · I stand in awe of the stories that have been shared! Thank you adding your comments!

July 3, 2017 at 11:52 AM · These are all heartwarming stories, but of course none of us can say whether we would have developed the same winning professional characteristics without having studied music at all. Even though one might feel that surely it must be so, no individual can ever simultaneously conduct the control experiment. I think parents who send their kids for violin lessons in the hopes that it will give them some kind of "academic advantage" are misguided even though aggregate SAT data (or whatever) might be on their side. Probably it helps kids learn to manage their time and to develop their memory and concentration. But although I did do very well in school indeed, I actually don't think violin and piano training have made me a better chemist or teacher. They have helped me appreciate, value, and enjoy more of my life *outside* my professional work.

July 3, 2017 at 03:30 PM · Paul, you make great points. At the risk of overgeneralizing, I believe there are many activities a child can be involved in that can potentially help instill better work habits in the future. My son started ice hockey (of all things) at an early age and continues to gain great satisfaction (and a recent trip to the ER) even as an adult. There is no question the rigor and discipline of this sport helped make him more focused, a better collaborator, and someone who truly knows "the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat." And I think your final sentence about life outside of professional work is certainly gratifying. I share your sentiments!

July 4, 2017 at 08:12 PM · Diana, I love this. I have never thought about this connection, but can definitely see it in my fiancé as he is a musician himself.

July 5, 2017 at 12:16 PM · If there's anything that has been over-hyped more than music for its supposed benefits to child development, it's scholastic team sports. People say you learn "teamwork" and "work ethic" and so on, and maybe so (again, show me the control study), but I wonder whether what is really learned is the marginalization of non-conformity, glorification of the alpha-male, body-shaming, homogenization of personality, and other behaviors that some would consider quite negative. I would reiterate that based on my individual anecdotal experience, the main thing is to learn something that one can enjoy for one's whole life. Sports like running, tennis, and basketball are easier to carry into adulthood than football or hockey, but if your son continues to enjoy it, good for him. I played ice hockey as a young boy (when you grow up in the Detroit area that's what you do) but even though I was a fast skater I didn't have any talent for the game.

July 6, 2017 at 03:19 AM · Thanks,! I wish you and your fiancé nothing but the best!

July 6, 2017 at 04:42 AM · As if all musicians stand in the food stamp line, my folks said at my conservatory graduation: "Don't think you're going to be a starving musician. You're headed to med school." As a finished doctor, Yale-and-Harvard-trained, they said, "We're not impressed!" So, what's a guy to do but follow his heart. Music adds fire to life! It doesn't take a psychiatrist to figure that out. It's MUSIC that helps us "reach the unreachable star". Dr Floyd Jackson

July 6, 2017 at 02:18 PM · Well put, Dr. Jackson! And while your parents may not have been impressed with your Yale-Harvard training, I certainly am!

July 6, 2017 at 06:38 PM · A well-written and thoughtful article. Thank you! I too am grateful to have had the opportunity to play the violin. (Although I complained a lot about having to practice!) Studying music taught me a great deal about the importance of self-discipline, the satisfaction of accomplishment and the joy in a shared musical experience. The skills that I have learned/practiced through music, have been the same skills that have helped me become effective in my non-music profession.

July 7, 2017 at 02:21 AM · Thank you,! I had to laugh when you wrote that you complained about practicing. I did the same. All these years later I am so grateful that my many complaints did not seem to sway my mother in the least!

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