Grammy Nominated saxophone group “Battle Trance” played a concert for students. It was a great experience to hear these guys play!
Is Music the Key to Success – JOANNE LIPMAN
CONDOLEEZZA RICE trained to be a concert pianist. Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, was a professional clarinet and saxophone player. The hedge fund billionaire Bruce Kovner is a pianist who took classes at Juilliard.
Multiple studies link music study to academic achievement. But what is it about serious music training that seems to correlate with outsize success in other fields?
The connection isn’t a coincidence. I know because I asked. I put the question to top-flight professionals in industries from tech to finance to media, all of whom had serious (if often little-known) past lives as musicians. Almost all made a connection between their music training and their professional achievements.
The phenomenon extends beyond the math-music association. Strikingly, many high achievers told me music opened up the pathways to creative thinking. And their experiences suggest that music training sharpens other qualities: Collaboration. The ability to listen. A way of thinking that weaves together disparate ideas. The power to focus on the present and the future simultaneously.
Will your school music program turn your kid into a Paul Allen, the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft (guitar)? Or a Woody Allen (clarinet)? Probably not. These are singular achievers. But the way these and other visionaries I spoke to process music is intriguing. As is the way many of them apply music’s lessons of focus and discipline into new ways of thinking and communicating — even problem solving.
Look carefully and you’ll find musicians at the top of almost any industry. Woody Allen performs weekly with a jazz band. The television broadcaster Paula Zahn (cello) and the NBC chief White House correspondent Chuck Todd (French horn) attended college on music scholarships; NBC’s Andrea Mitchell trained to become a professional violinist. Both Microsoft’s Mr. Allen and the venture capitalist Roger McNamee have rock bands. Larry Page, a co-founder of Google, played saxophone in high school. Steven Spielberg is a clarinetist and son of a pianist. The former World Bank president James D. Wolfensohn has played cello at Carnegie Hall.
“It’s not a coincidence,” says Mr. Greenspan, who gave up jazz clarinet but still dabbles at the baby grand in his living room. “I can tell you as a statistician, the probability that that is mere chance is extremely small.” The cautious former Fed chief adds, “That’s all that you can judge about the facts. The crucial question is: why does that connection exist?”
Paul Allen offers an answer. He says music “reinforces your confidence in the ability to create.” Mr. Allen began playing the violin at age 7 and switched to the guitar as a teenager. Even in the early days of Microsoft, he would pick up his guitar at the end of marathon days of programming. The music was the emotional analog to his day job, with each channeling a different type of creative impulse. In both, he says, “something is pushing you to look beyond what currently exists and express yourself in a new way.”
Mr. Todd says there is a connection between years of practice and competition and what he calls the “drive for perfection.” The veteran advertising executive Steve Hayden credits his background as a cellist for his most famous work, the Apple “1984” commercial depicting rebellion against a dictator. “I was thinking of Stravinsky when I came up with that idea,” he says. He adds that his cello performance background helps him work collaboratively: “Ensemble playing trains you, quite literally, to play well with others, to know when to solo and when to follow.”
For many of the high achievers I spoke with, music functions as a “hidden language,” as Mr. Wolfensohn calls it, one that enhances the ability to connect disparate or even contradictory ideas. When he ran the World Bank, Mr. Wolfensohn traveled to more than 100 countries, often taking in local performances (and occasionally joining in on a borrowed cello), which helped him understand “the culture of people, as distinct from their balance sheet.”
Credit Anna Parini
It’s in that context that the much-discussed connection between math and music resonates most. Both are at heart modes of expression. Bruce Kovner, the founder of the hedge fund Caxton Associates and chairman of the board of Juilliard, says he sees similarities between his piano playing and investing strategy; as he says, both “relate to pattern recognition, and some people extend these paradigms across different senses.”
Mr. Kovner and the concert pianist Robert Taub both describe a sort of synesthesia — they perceive patterns in a three-dimensional way. Mr. Taub, who gained fame for his Beethoven recordings and has since founded a music software company, MuseAmi, says that when he performs, he can “visualize all of the notes and their interrelationships,” a skill that translates intellectually into making “multiple connections in multiple spheres.”
For others I spoke to, their passion for music is more notable than their talent. Woody Allen told me bluntly, “I’m not an accomplished musician. I get total traction from the fact that I’m in movies.”
Mr. Allen sees music as a diversion, unconnected to his day job. He likens himself to “a weekend tennis player who comes in once a week to play. I don’t have a particularly good ear at all or a particularly good sense of timing. In comedy, I’ve got a good instinct for rhythm. In music, I don’t, really.”
Still, he practices the clarinet at least half an hour every day, because wind players will lose their embouchure (mouth position) if they don’t: “If you want to play at all you have to practice. I have to practice every single day to be as bad as I am.” He performs regularly, even touring internationally with his New Orleans jazz band. “I never thought I would be playing in concert halls of the world to 5,000, 6,000 people,” he says. “I will say, quite unexpectedly, it enriched my life tremendously.”
Music provides balance, explains Mr. Wolfensohn, who began cello lessons as an adult. “You aren’t trying to win any races or be the leader of this or the leader of that. You’re enjoying it because of the satisfaction and joy you get out of music, which is totally unrelated to your professional status.”
For Roger McNamee, whose Elevation Partners is perhaps best known for its early investment in Facebook, “music and technology have converged,” he says. He became expert on Facebook by using it to promote his band, Moonalice, and now is focusing on video by live-streaming its concerts. He says musicians and top professionals share “the almost desperate need to dive deep.” This capacity to obsess seems to unite top performers in music and other fields.
Ms. Zahn remembers spending up to four hours a day “holed up in cramped practice rooms trying to master a phrase” on her cello. Mr. Todd, now 41, recounted in detail the solo audition at age 17 when he got the second-highest mark rather than the highest mark — though he still was principal horn in Florida’s All-State Orchestra.
“I’ve always believed the reason I’ve gotten ahead is by outworking other people,” he says. It’s a skill learned by “playing that solo one more time, working on that one little section one more time,” and it translates into “working on something over and over again, or double-checking or triple-checking.” He adds, “There’s nothing like music to teach you that eventually if you work hard enough, it does get better. You see the results.”
That’s an observation worth remembering at a time when music as a serious pursuit — and music education — is in decline in this country.
Consider the qualities these high achievers say music has sharpened: collaboration, creativity, discipline and the capacity to reconcile conflicting ideas. All are qualities notably absent from public life. Music may not make you a genius, or rich, or even a better person. But it helps train you to think differently, to process different points of view — and most important, to take pleasure in listening.
The “self-esteem movement” in this country is coming to an end. We have learned that giving a trophy to all kids just for participating hasn’t worked, and — even worse — has undermined the natural grit that our nation is built upon.
We are also at a crossroads in education, where people are starting to finally wake up to the fact that passion and perseverance matters more than intelligence when it comes to being successful. Hard work and stick-to-itiveness trumps “talent” and “good genes” every time, and usually gets most of us to where we want to be in our life and in our work. Grit is what we want our children to cultivate during their time in school, not just good test scores.
What is grit?
I write about grit quite a bit on this blog. Grit is the result of struggle, risk-taking, determination, embracing failure, working relentlessly toward a goal, and perseverance to accomplish tough tasks. Make no mistake about it: Like talent, grit can be learned and cultivated. In my opinion, developing grit should be one of the core goals of raising and educating our children, and sadly is missing from our test-rich school culture these days.
Failure in a safe environment is how our children learn. Considering that failing is the worst thing that can happen in school (think red pens, slash marks, and standardized test scores), we need music instruction now more than ever to help our children cultivate grit throughout their K-12 education.
Here are four ways students learn grit through music — perhaps more than any other subject in school:
It takes guts to perform. Once the honeymoon is over with choosing an instrument or singing in choir, students must engage in performing, both alone and in an ensemble. And it takes some guts to “put oneself out there” for all to hear — blemishes and all — even if things aren’t going to go that well. It’s up to parents and teachers to use performance as a future motivator in order to increase the opportunities for students to build up their grit. Think of how great you would feel knowing that your child is building confidence for the tough road ahead that we call life.
With the right help from adults, children learn resilience through music study. Playing a musical instrument does not yield a lot of immediate gratification — at first. This is a new concept to our ever-connected young generation, yet it’s more crucial now than ever before that we create a culture in our schools that allows our students to embrace failure and frustration in a safe environment. Parents’ whose first instinct is to protect their child from embarrassment or setback must develop grit of their own and remember the struggles they had that led them to their successes. Teachers must constantly reinforce the concept of resilience and give students the tools to succeed as the result of some sweat equity on their part.
Initiative and perseverance are traits we want all our children to learn. Learning a musical craft helps children learn to take initiative. As long as parents and teachers give ownership of learning to their students, children — over time — will become self-starters. We are all trying to educate future leaders, and taking initiative is one of the primary determinants of leadership.
Once children begin their musical journey, they must stay focused on it. It’s this perseverance that is at the core of cultivating grit. We see it all the time: someone has a setback and overcomes it only to be stronger moving forward — as long as they don’t quit. That said, arguments I hear from colleagues about how testing also develops grit mostly falls on my deaf ears. There is much choice involved when it comes to music as opposed to tested subjects; children choose which instrument they want to play and make music with others — this concept of student choice is a stark difference music has from other subjects.
Today’s digital age is eroding grit in all of us. At the end of the day, children still need focused attention for an extended period of time to realize their full potential in any subject in school, and also as human beings. We need to teach our children that working harder and smarter is something they can control — and music consistently gives them rewarding feedback through sound as to how they are doing.
We know more now about how the brain works than we ever have before. Psychological studies of children have finally shown us that “talent” and “intelligence” is not always what leads to success. It’s clear that it’s not only a small percentage of us who are destined to rise to the top. Grit is something that we can cultivate in all our children, regardless of race or socio-economic status. While education reform will hopefully catch up with this old yet often-neglected idea, music education has been providing children the opportunity to cultivate grit for ages — and every school in our nation must embrace music education in its curricula for music’s beauty and its benefits in this regard.
Every year, hundreds of thousands of students around our nation start studying music in school. What if administrators, teachers, and parents used this opportunity to not only commit to supporting their child’s potential lifelong love of music, but to also cultivate their children’s grit that will serve them well throughout their lives by simply not giving up when times inevitably get tough?
As a public school music supervisor, I saw firsthand the shift in our education system toward an emphasis on “constant student engagement” in the classroom. To this day, there still is this push to keep students busy from the moment class begins to the dismissal bell. Teachers are worried about the possibility of moments where students don’t have something specific to “do” and aren’t producing something concrete — especially when a supervisor walks in.
Ultimately, there is a huge problem with this education model. Schools have become too concerned with the business of keeping students busy and labeling it “engagement.” In a culture of immediate gratification, smartphones, social media, and streaming everything, I believe we are perpetuating a fast pace of life that will prevent our children from thinking slowly and critically, and hinder their ability to think and reflect independently on any topic. Students expect to be put to work at every moment, and don’t get used to what it really takes to learn something challenging. Even homework is an exercise in multi-tasking alongside listening to music, watching TV, and streaming shows.
Often it takes silent effort, reflection and mindful thought to truly learn something — habits of mind that are difficult to qualify as “engagement” on an observation report or a report card.
Luckily for schools and the communities they serve, musical instrument instruction provides students the time and space to devote themselves completely to the study and understanding of one specific thing. In order to improve on an instrument, students (and parents) must carve out time each day for solitude —something that is definitely becoming a lost art in our culture.
The constant connection that technology provides makes it even harder for children (and their parents) to spend time completely alone. The thought of going into a room all by themselves is enough to prevent a child from practicing altogether, yet the importance of overcoming distractions through concentration and even separation may be the most important skill they can learn in school.
Here are a few ways parents and teachers can build their students’ tolerance for solitude through music instruction:
Make sure students have a clear goal for each practice session. Solitude without a purpose slowly kills creativity, especially in young people. No one wants to sit alone and work all by themselves without a reason to deal with the initial discomfort that comes with it. Students should start with one goal and put a timestamp on it — and teachers should be clear with their goals for each student. For instance, a teacher can assign 4 measures of an etude at a specific tempo for the week; each evening the child’s goal could be to work it up to X tempo in X number of minutes.
Slowly build up tolerance for solitude. Depending on the person, one minute may be the threshold for sitting alone on the first day they try it. But they can work up to two minutes the next day, then three, and so on. Anyone can handle one minute of alone time — an instrument can be put together and cleaned; music can be perused and listened to, etc. Children should work up to ten minutes a day of practicing in solitude, then extend it to a new comfortable time. Ten minutes a day of solitude and mindful practice of an instrument will yield amazing results over an extended period of time.
Explain the importance of solitude. Whether you have a child who really is driven at a young age to be great at something or a child who is just starting their musical journey, it’s important to explain that solitude and deliberate practice are absolutely necessary to becoming great at any craft. Solitude is not about being a hermit and avoiding other people — at least not for great lengths of time. But the solitude and concentration applied in music practice is key for musicians to develop their skills and become mindful learners in general. There is no substitute for solitude and spending time alone with things; mindful time spent thinking about concepts and working on a craft with clear and specific goals in mind is the only way to become great at anything.
Interestingly, it is a decrease in external stimuli and an increase in solitude that can facilitate creative play. What initially may seem like “boredom” soon can become a beautiful leap into a child’s inner creative space. When a child can’t watch TV or play video games and isn’t over scheduled by their parents, imagination and creativity takes over — they are capable of dealing with the alone time that it takes to become great. Instrumental music practice creates a bit of this space in every child’s day with help from schools and families.
It is rare to find ourselves alone in this world of constant interconnectedness. Children need more solitude and less external, electronic, and structured adult-world stimulation. That said, solitude should not be confused for being completely alone — we are never lonely when our mind is engaged, and there is much strength that is derived from relying on our own mental resources. Making music instrument practice in solitude a daily part of childrens’ lives will help build strong musical skills, cultivate creativity, and build self-reliance — three priceless gifts that they will treasure forever, whatever field they choose to pursue in life.