Music Skills That Transfer Successfully to Business

Kurt Meisenbach said: May 30, 2016
Kurt Meisenbach
Suzuki Association Member
Viola, Violin
Plano, TX
45 posts

If you or one of your students are planning a career in business, medicine, or any career outside of music you may find this interesting.

Many musicians are curious about the transfer of music disciplines to the business world. It is a subject that receives much attention within businesses that are looking for high performing employees and candidates with specific skills. Unfortunately, much of this information remains within the business world and is recognized by only a few musicians who plan to pursue a career outside of music.

I majored in music and played professionally for 12 years. I changed to business at age 33 and worked in the US and internationally for over 25 years. The views in this article are based on my personal experience.

Good Musicians Make Good Problem Solvers

Most musicians make good problem solvers in business. This is because most musicians have to analyze complex problems and develop long term strategies to solve them. They also have a sense of patience that enables them to repeat activities over a long period of time without becoming discouraged or losing sight of the long term goal.

Many musicians make successful transitions into business. I advise all of my more serious students that even if they do not pursue music as a career, they will find that their music problem solving skills will give them unique advantages in the business world, where the rush to judgment frequently results in incomplete solutions that lack staying power.

Many businesses actively recruit candidates with strong musical backgrounds. The artificial language skills of the musician have made them attractive recruits in data processing and systems development for over 50 years.

Music Skills That are Useful in Business

There are many skills musicians have that are highly transferable to business. They include, but are not limited to the following:

  • The ability to read and communicate in an artificial language. Music notation, like mathematics, is an artificial language. For this reason, musicians make good programmers.
  • The ability to deal with large amounts of detail. Musicians are able to navigate large amounts of detail in a meaningful way, while still maintaining an understanding of the higher level objectives.
  • Good memory skills. Most students memorize a number of pieces during their study. This strengthens the mind’s ability to remember speeches, lists and especially diagrams and charts. I worked in data processing and international systems design for many years. My ability to read and remember a music score enabled me to remember system diagrams for years even after the project was completed. This gave me a significant advantage over many of my colleagues.
  • The ability to work on a repetitive task for a long time when results are not immediate. The need for and importance of meaningful repetition are sometimes overlooked in business. Musicians are better at identifying what needs to be repeated and how to repeat it in a successful way. Many business people have a problem with repetition. They see it as a sign of weakness or inefficiency. Many failures occur in business due to a lack of thoroughness and a desire to “move on” before the problem at hand has been understood well enough for a solution that will last to be developed..
  • The ability to manage long term projects. Becoming an expert on a musical instrument is a series of medium and long term projects. Mastering a difficult work is a long term undertaking that can take many years. This discipline prepares the musician to become a successful project manager when they go into business. They understand the interaction and interdependence of small and large inputs and can manage them in a balanced way during a long and complex project.
  • The ability to prioritize and use time efficiently. The performing musician must frequently prepare a performance with inadequate time. They learn how to prioritize and make the best use of their time to generate the best results possible within the time allowed.
  • The ability to visualize results. Like a successful athlete, the musician must visualize results often in order to achieve them. This practice is used by many successful executives, who frequently visualize the desired results in order to achieve more useful outcomes.
  • The ability to multitask. The musician must prepare multiple works for multiple concerts simultaneously. As a result, they have exceptional multitasking skills.
  • The ability to change directions quickly when needed. The musician must change directions frequently. They do this without losing focus. They are able to concentrate on the new tasks immediately without any down time. A key success factor in many projects is the ability to change directions frequently and rapidly without losing momentum. Trained musicians are very good at this.
  • The ability to anticipate and plan for opportunities that others do not see. Musicians have an enhanced ability to anticipate future problems that others do not see. In music they frequently prepare for concerts that they may not play in order to be ready for opportunities that may present themselves in the future. In business they have the ability to identify and prepare for opportunities that others may not see. This was true in my case, and it enabled me to take a leading role in several important projects because I could anticipate an opportunity and prepare for it before it became public knowledge.
  • The ability to analyze a problem more thoroughly and more accurately before designing a solution. Musicians know how to walk around a problem carefully before they jump to a solution. Their solutions tend to be more effective and longer lasting than those who embark on a solution before they fully understand the problem.
  • The ability to solve problems in a creative, non-conventional way that generates better and longer lasting results. This is a result of the above characteristics of the disciplined musician. Because they have these characteristics, they tend to design more thorough solutions. They can approach a problem from multiple perspectives. The mix of these skills frequently results in more robust and longer lasting results.

These skills are not unique to musicians. The point here is that most well trained musicians have them and they are very useful in business.

Making the Change to Business

Most people who study music pursue other vocations as a career. In addition, a number of highly trained musicians switch from music to business at some point during their music career. Some have an easier time of it than others.

The single most important success factor in moving from music into business is the ability to move from a highly subjective environment into a more objective one. The accomplished musician must have an inward focus and an ability to spend long periods of time working alone. The business person frequently has greater need for interaction with their colleagues. The accomplished musician will pursue perfection as a normal objective of their efforts (i.e. perfection for perfection’s sake). The successful business person will pursue perfection only when it makes a commercial difference.
The musician who moves into business must adapt to the non-perfectionist environment in which many successful businesses operate most of the time. If they do not, they will not be respected as a practical minded member of the business community.

Problem Solving in Business

Sometimes a problem must be reviewed for a long time before a successful solution can be designed. There is a tendency in business to want to be the first one to propose a solution, regardless of how unsuccessful the solution might be. In my business life, I frequently worked with colleagues who rushed to a conclusion, then forced their decision on a project team that had to overcome deficiencies in the original decision. The musician who converts to business will not always be able to avoid this trap, but they will be more aware of the dangers associated with a rush to judgment, and will try to avoid this dilemma whereas others may have a stronger tendency to join in the decision frenzy.

The problem solving exercises provided in many college curriculums cannot fully prepare the student for solving problems in the real business world. This is because real world business problems frequently involve incomplete information, political barriers and intentionally false guidance provided by antagonists of the project in question. These intangible factors are difficult to replicate in a textbook environment where the student is frequently required to prove his problem solving skills in isolation. The test problems they are given to solve must include enough information for them to develop a solution. This is not a criticism of the business school training curriculum. It is simply a comparison of the types of problems the business school student must learn to solve to graduate compared to the types of problems the serious music student must solve to master their instrument.

This above example is over simplified. However, it is fair to say that the simplistic problem solving environment described above frequently does not exist in music, where a new work may require the application of new techniques, interpretations, combinations and relationships that are unknown to the musician when they first begin to study a new piece. The student must first identify the unknowns, and then develop a strategy to acquire the new skills necessary to solve them, continually monitor their progress and make adjustments as needed during a problem solving exercise that may span many months or many years of time. This iterative process requires patience and discipline to avoid a rush to judgment not inherently present in the majority of business managers with whom I worked during my 25 years in business.

For this reason, the skilled musician frequently arrives in business with more experience of solving problems in situations where insufficient information is available than the typical business school graduate. Most music problems involve learning new skills. The business problems that must be solved to graduate from business school require using skills the student has already acquired, not learning new ones during the time it takes to complete a two hour test or complete an overnight assignment. For this reason the skilled musician enters the world of business with a problem solving skill set that it different from that of the business student. The problem solving skills taught in business school are excellent for passing an exam. The problem solving skills learned in music prepare one better for solving problems in the real world.

Consider the Long Term

Trained musicians have the patience to pursue long term solutions. One of the pieces my teacher played (and later recorded) required ten years of study before she was ready to perform it for anyone. During those ten years she was intensely focused on what she was doing and confident of her ultimate results. This type of long term project management is not typically resident in most business graduates and practitioners in the real world.

Many managers believe that rushing to judgment is a sign of intelligence and a demonstration of managerial leadership. In one of my previous companies, there was a rush to judgment contest every time a problem was discussed in a management meeting. There would be at least one clever sounding solution before the problem was even fully presented or understood by the group reviewing it. No one on the management team ever seemed to question the inherent contradiction in this approach. The winner of the fast decision contest would beam with pride that they had been the first one to “solve” the problem. These were exceptionally intelligent people. They just were not good problem solvers.

The musician who has spent long hours and months in the practice room polishing a work knows better. They know that complex problems frequently require a “getting to know you” period in which the problem is examined from different perspectives and dimensions before a solution can be articulated and then pursued. They will frequently be frustrated by the frantic solution process expected by management. As long as they are able to manage their perfectionist tendencies in the business world, this long term vision will make them excellent project managers, although their efforts may be occasionally impeded by an overzealous management.

If you are a musician and you are planning a business career, I encourage you to review the list of skills at the beginning of this article. You probably have many of these skills but may not be aware of it. They will serve you well in your business career.

Good Luck!

Danielle said: May 31, 2016
Danielle Dotson
Suzuki Association Member
Piano, Violin
Madison, AL
15 posts

Thank you for this. Do you have a link to this article I can forward to my students?

Danielle Dotson

Kurt Meisenbach said: May 31, 2016
Kurt Meisenbach
Suzuki Association Member
Viola, Violin
Plano, TX
45 posts

Hi, Danielle. Thank you for your interest.

I don ‘t have a link yet, as my web site is under development. However, I can send you the MS Word document. If you send me your email I will email the document to you.

Carol Waldvogel said: Jun 1, 2016
Carol Waldvogel
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Cello, Viola
7 posts

Hi Kurt,

Thank you for your thoughts on this transition from music to the business world. I think that it would be very beneficial for more teachers, parents and even students to read it. Would you consider writing this up and submitting it to the SAA journal for publication?

Lori Bolt said: Jun 2, 2016
Lori BoltPiano
San Clemente, CA
261 posts

Would be great for the Journal!

Lori Bolt

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