Why Learning An Instrument Is More Than Music

by rubenharris

“…the ability to play the instrument well is a byproduct of the life skills we’re teaching them.” – Ruben Harris

Many of us have tried to learn an instrument.  Some stick to it, some don’t.  As a cellist that continues to play, I wanted to post some important traits that are developed as a musician over time – qualities that go beyond the arts.

1. The Art of Stretch Targeting

A stretch target is a goal that pushes you to achieve it.  From a young age, you learn grow to another level, at a certain rate.  For most of us it’s weekly. You meet with your teacher, you review what you learned last week, and set a new goal for the week.  Where stretch targeting can get difficult is knowing how far to stretch.  This threshold increases over time.  Here is a great video from Harvard Business Review on stretch targeting.

2. Objective Analysis

Evaluating the relevant facts of the piece that you’re working on is very important.  This includes the form (ABA, AABA, etc.), time signature, key signature, historical background of the piece/composer/style, etc.  This keeps your eye on structure.

3. Subjective Analysis

If everyone played a piece objectively there would be no reason for me to buy two different recordings of it by two different artists.  What’s the difference? Their interpretation of it.  Maintaining the story and the feeling that the composer intended is critical, but the way you play it tells me what it means to you.

4. Attention To Detail

Bringing out all of the details separates the great from the good.  When someone emphasizes all of the dynamics and what is described in the tempo markings, the result is intoxicating.

5. Competition

To succeed as a musician is difficult.  Particularly, because of your competition.  Top musicians trained with the best teachers, at the best conservatories, won multiple prestigious competitions, attended the best summer institutes, etc…and even they aren’t recognized (part of that is lack of networking skills in my opinion, but I digress). My point is, even when you are the best, someone is always gunning for you and you have to have that competitive spirit in you if you want to keep your crown.

6. Persistence

There are times when we get discouraged.  Difficult passage? Time changes? Chords? Whatever it is, you have got to focus on the light at the end of the tunnel and tough it out.

7. Doing Things You “Don’t Like”

One my cello teachers told me the new piece we were going to be working on and I told him I didn’t want to because “I didn’t like it”.  He said, “Ruben, nobody gives a **** what you like.  The fact of the matter is, in life we have to do things that we don’t like.  Try to find utility (usefulness) in anything.”  That changed my life.

8. Working With Others

Learning to collaborate is essential for group success.  You have to learn how to lead at certain times and play in way that lets your colleagues shine at others.  You analyze your strengths and weaknesses and how to effectively work together as a team.

9. How To Follow

When you play in a symphony, you have to follow the conductor.  Further, sections are assigned leaders (concertmaster, principal, associate principal).  Even if you have a type A personality, you have to learn how to humble yourself and take orders.  They are the leaders for a reason and you can learn a lot from them.  

10. Mastery

Practice makes perfect, and that goes for any skill, music or not.  

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