Sunday, October 20, 2013

Music and Success

The New York Times has an amazingly positive article about some unexpected benefits to studying music: a disproportionate number of highly-successful people either studied music in their youth or are today closet amateur musicians.
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.
Oddly enough, despite the article collecting quotes from many of these people about just why music is so helpful, I don't get a sense that they managed to articulate it very well. Here is the conclusion of the story:
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.
I'm not sure I can do any better! Music is somehow resistant to description in words. I'm pretty good at words, and pretty good at music, but they are really very different universes. I think the universe of music can be a kind of workshop that teaches you discipline, organization, creativity and humility. I like to say that the very best way to step outside yourself and learn humility is to practice Bach every day! But there is a lot more to it and it is probably in the details.

I remember an interesting thing a professor said in a graduate seminar in musicology. We were doing Guillaume DuFay and a practice of the time was the granting of sinecures from which he benefitted. A sinecure was an official post that paid a salary but did not actually require doing any work. It was a way of giving patronage. While living in Italy, for example, DuFay was paid for a sinecure in Burgundy where he didn't even have to be present. Knowing about this sort of thing might seem irrelevant to the music, but as the professor pointed out, "as musicologists, we are interested in the details." Ah yes, those details! They are what present all the difficulty.

This might give us a clue about music. If you set out to learn a piece by Bach, for example, you are presented with innumerable challenges both technical and musical--and they are all in the details. You have to find a way of playing, not just some of the notes, or most of the notes, but indeed, all of the notes. And you have to play them with precision, control and grace. Not only that, you have to play them musically, that is, the phrases have to be phrased, the articulations have to be articulated and so on. Finally, you have to make a good and appropriate sound and put the piece together as a whole. Oh, yes, and if you are going to perform in public, then you have to make all this look easy!

You know, part of why music helps people achieve success in life might just be that if you have worked with this kind of challenge, just about everything else in life is going to seem easier.

Here is some Bach to show you what I mean. This is Mischa Maisky with the prelude to the Cello Suite No. 3:

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