I just read Tony Schwartz’s recent blog on the Harvard Business Review describing the six keys to achieving excellence. I enjoyed it and was inspired. Then, I thought how my music training, apart from providing a lifetime of enjoyment playing music, has given me a first-hand experience achieving excellence. Sometimes, I forget that not all people have had that excellence, so they don’t know why things are tough or don’t they don’t get the results they want.
I’ve taken Mr. Schwartz’s six points and applied them to my experience in music to draw some inspiration in other areas of my life where I feel, er, less accomplished:
- Pursue what you love. This is a no brainer as nobody in their right mind would pursue music for any reason other than he or she loves it. A couple of years ago when I started questioning the wisdom of leaving a promising career as an orchestral musician for technical writing (what?), I had an epiphany that has helped me rejig my career back into something I can say I love.
I was using my head to make big decisions (what shall to do with my life?) and my heart to make small ones (what should I have for lunch today?). I should have been doing the exact opposite.
I realized I’d been directing my life to things that were rational and, um, boring instead of inspiring. On a daily basis, I was being capricious in a way that was essentially undermining my plans. I needed to start doing the exact reverse: plan my life from my heart and my daily affairs from my head. “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” — “Practice!”
- Do the hardest work first. In music, the fastest way to do something is slowly. Orchestral musicians meticulously dissect a passage of music until they can play it with ease. Getting to the ease part can take a long time and a lot of patience, but things don’t necessarily come easy—even in music.
- Practice intensely, I think people imagine that playing music is relaxing. Well, it is but only after conquering the Himalayan peaks of practice. I don’t know whether musicians practice because they love music or they love music because they practice so much. I think I practiced my way into loving music. It became all consuming in the best possible way. Don’t do things by half measure.
- Seek expert feedback, in intermittent doses. There is nothing so humbling as bearing your soul before a more accomplished musician. I’ve always been suspicious of the self-taught musician. How can anyone grow surrounded only by there own opinions and habits? There’s no better way to acquire new abilities and to go beyond what you thought yourself capable of than by seeking out an expert to help you reach your goals.
- Take regular renewal breaks.When I studied at the Banff Centre for the Arts, we would play chamber music in the morning and then go skiing in the afternoon. By the next day we were indeed renewed. Besides, when you’re doing what you love (or loving what you do), you’re integrating new information all the time—even when you’re asleep.
- Ritualize practice. As a musician, I really liked playing scales. It was like a morning ritual. I had the most brutally difficult study book I’d found somewhere. It was called, “Vade Mecum” which I think means “Take along companion” and it was actually written for flute. It included every possible scale and arpeggio configuration in every register. Two hours of that and I felt like I could wrestle a bear!