The Way of a Musician

The way of a musician: A practice for all areas of life

The power of music is fascinating. A quick online search will produce what seems to be a never-ending list of all the wonderful benefits of learning and making music. The most recent research in neuroscience is proving that human beings are hardwired for musical expression and creativity. For those of us who have pursued a career in this field it feels especially exciting!

With all of the latest scientific facts and research, understanding the way our minds, bodies and souls experience music can still feel mysterious, even for those of us immersed in it every day. There is something so unique and special about the things that are learned through the process of learning a musical instrument. Aside from the many cognitive, psychological and physical rewards that come from learning and refining your skills on a musical instrument, the process creates a mindset and develops practical skills that inevitably transfer to all areas and pursuits in life.

I reflect how several areas of my life have been impacted by my experience in classical music training. Of these, 5 specific areas have shaped who I am and the way I have been choosing to live my life and pursue my goals.

These 5 have impacted my life most outside of my music:

1) Working in small steps and improvements to reach any milestone or goal

“Delayed Gratification”. These two words are thrown around so often when discussing what’s ‘good for you’ about learning an instrument (so much that I almost tried not to begin with them) but this one point really could be an article on its own.  We live in the age of shortcuts and we are in what is often described as the “I Want it Now” generation. 

When you are working to learn a piece or a tricky passage or technical exercise, it is important to learn to do so efficiently but there is also no way around the fact that it will take time. From day one, students learning a musical instrument will experience that in order to develop a skill and improve they will have to work with intention and allow gradual improvements. No matter who you are, you will inevitably have to REPEAT your desired thoughts or actions over a long period of time to see the results you are seeking. Your goals are within reach, but it will be the result of continuous and gradual improvements until you get there and there is no way to skip steps.

Having experienced this process for years through musical training, there are so many areas in my life that I have applied this mindset to. My health and fitness, the startup of my business, and the way I approach my parenting and relationships each day have adopted the same mindset. There are days that I am proud of how I did, and others that I fall short. Working in layers and focusing on small improvements each day is what I’ve learned as a musician, and is how I  I know that I will inevitably reach my goals in all areas.

2) Finding the devil in those details 

Any musician will tell you that there is always more to be done. The process of dissecting a piece of music and looking for improvements may sound tedious to those who have not experienced it, but I believe many would agree that this is where so much of the richness is. As a musician, it is not uncommon to look at one piece of music or phrase in a piece of music and be challenged to think of it in several different contexts and then try to communicate it in many unique ways. Once you have chosen how you will interpret a passage or section of music, it is also not uncommon to then spend hours to prepare each layer of sound to communicate your desired feeling or energy exactly how you would like. 

In my life outside of music, pulling my projects apart in layers has always served me well.  Using this practiced skill of questioning the way things have been presented shows up in conversations I have in my relationships and parenting, interactions in my career and business. Looking for deeper meaning and what meaning is beneath the words is so similar to the way musicians look beneath the written notes and markings to understand context and emotion.

3) Your goals are all within reach – they are just a matter of work and practice

There is very little that I feel I can’t achieve in this lifetime. That statement is not meant in an arrogant way and I am certainly aware that there are many things that I am physically incapable of, do not have enough time to train for and won’t have a chance to do etc. (“We can do anything but we cannot do everything”), but I do feel that having an understanding the process of preparation and performance takes a lot of the guesswork out of reaching for your goals.

For those who begin their classical music training at a very young age, I feel that the problem solving skills are some of the most invaluable skills developed. In my training, from a very early age I was taught to look at any new goal (a piece, a new challenging repertoire or exercise) and first take the same steps:

Step 1: Does this new goal make sense?

Confirm this new goal is within reach but just slightly outside of your current ability (is it slightly above my current level? Can my hands reach everything required?). New goals should be slightly more challenging close to what you’ve accomplished last but logically make sense. For example, I won’t be setting a goal to train to lift 300 lbs when I only way 105! 

Step 2: Break the new project up into sections

This process begins with beginner pieces being split up into 2 measures at a time, but grows into large works being split up into small chunks as well. No matter how big the project, it can (and should) always be broken up into small, manageable bits!

Step 3: Determine how much time you think this goal will take you

We all work best and most efficiently under deadlines. After looking at how many sections you will need to work through, set out a goal of how long you think it should take.

Step 4: Determine which of the sections will be the most challenging and prepare to start with these

“Eat the frog early each morning” is a Mark Twain quote that I love to hear. The meaning is to get the worst part done and over with first, then not only is it out of your way but you will be feeling motivated to move onto the easier sections later.

Step 4: Pull each section apart in layers, and get to work step by step

Take a close look at each “section” before you get to work on it. Decide what do you expect to be the big challenges then focus and get to work

When you repeat the above process for years and years, it takes a lot of the guesswork out of setting and reaching new goals. It also makes it a lot less personal because when I set out on any new goal or endeavour I will first aim to determine the steps and amount of time that it will take me to achieve it. From there I can decide if it’s something that I really want to pursue. If I fall short of reaching a goal, usually I can see clearly where it went wrong in one of the steps above (I skipped steps, I didn’t work enough on a certain layer) and that takes any “failure” and always turns it into a lesson.

I work this way in all areas. Starting my business and opening my school, all of the projects I take on as part of the school, working out at the gym, training to do yoga poses, working with my children and parenting. I feel like these steps have become such a framework for my life! If ever I take on a new project and do not do the above planning first, it rarely works out well.

4) How to perform, and what it means to fail

If aiming to live a full and enriched life, it means to live a life of courage. If there is one hard rule it is that those who live in courage and pursuing their dreams is that they will inevitably know heartbreak. There is no way to live brave and creative life without knowing defeat and failure, and any musician will know that part of performing for large audiences is knowing embarrassment, failure and disappointment at some point along the way. 

Most performers will agree that you never stop feeling nervous for a performance, but eventually you do stop feeling “scared”. Having experienced being put on the spot and centre stage for years develops a strong sense of self awareness. Feeling scared and “doing it anyway” is something that all performing musicians have done at some point in their lives. Having a performance go exactly as you had hoped is an incredible feeling, and having it be a big disappointment never feels good. When this happens, it is often a lesson in the above steps of preparation and other times it is an invaluable lesson in life.

Being vulnerable and courageous on stage in front of all you can have transcendent experiences, and you may also know heartbreak. Training to perform and be “in the arena” in front of other has taught me that courage and pursuing your dreams does not mean that you will not be scared. It has also taught me that by doing so it is inevitable to have bumps, bruises and disappointments along the way – and that’s okay.

I see that this has impacted me in the way I pursued my dreams of opening a school although I was terrified and single parenting at the time. The way I aim to parent my children with an open heart and trust in my relationship. Returning to competing and performing when I now have many more limits on my time to practice.  The rewards in all of these have been beyond measure, but trust me when I share that I have been terrified at several points along the way.

5) How to think fast and adapt

In my most recent readings, I learned that when neuroscientists studied musicians that were playing and performing together they saw what they believed was a “biological miracle”. Studying music and the brain is actually teaching scientists more about the brain than music, since there are few things that involve so many parts of the brain at once.

I can share that if performing in a chamber ensemble, as a soloist with orchestra, or as a collaborative pianist with any other musician, your ability to adjust and think fast is crucial. Scans of musicians performing with others compared to solo show complex decision making and planning happening each millisecond.

How can I count the ways this skill has served me outside of music? Public speaking and presentations are first to come to mind. Along with the obvious memory and performance skills that music helped with, being able to shift direction and think fast to recover from stumbles is something that any collaborative musician is very familiar with. Music is a social cultural activity and being sensitive to the nuances of other human beings is something that has served me in countless other areas in my life outside of music

Are you a musician? If you studied music but did not pursue it as a career, how has learning the “way of a musician” impacted the other areas of your life?