Much to my parents’ chagrin, as an elementary school student I was enamored with instruments. I found it fascinating that moving a bow across 4 strings could make a listener feel as though their surroundings had changed, that blowing air through a brass tube would produce a smooth, rich sound, or that 64 black and white keys could capture nearly every emotion. In the fourth grade I played the cello—albeit briefly—in the school orchestra; in the fifth grade I learned to play the guitar, but only stuck with it long enough to play Smoke on The Water using the G string. When I got to middle school I began playing the saxophone—this time for a much longer period. I played in the concert band, and in eighth grade joined the jazz band.
In my brief years as a cellist, guitarist, saxophonist, and jazz musician I learned important lessons; lessons that I have now come to realize are quite transferrable to the workplace.
In order to sound good, you have to warm up. The saxophone is made of metal, the mouthpiece is made of wood, and in order to make a noise other than that of a screeching toddler the pieces need to be warmed up. Dampen the reed. Blow warm air through the body and out the bell. Play some scales. And it needed time—if there was a concert at 7:00, the process better be started no later than 6:50. In the office, you have to warm up too. Prepare for the meeting, show up early, do work that no one sees to look incredibly skilled when everyone watches.
If you don’t practice, you have no business being first chair. In all my time as a musician I was hung up on first chair. There were at least 12 other saxophones in the band, and I wanted to lead them. But truth be told, I didn’t practice as much as my fellow saxophonists. The one time the director gave me a high melody—along with 3 other players as the rest of the saxophones took the harmony—I didn’t sound as good as I could have because I didn’t practice as much as I should have; I had absolutely no business taking the melody, let alone being a first chair. The same is true in the office: unless you’re dedicated and put in the time, you have no business leading a group, project, or even being responsible for business outcomes.
The band is only as good as the worst player. In jazz, all instruments work together to paint a picture, move the audience, and create the swing that characterizes jazz. This simple fact that all instruments—the woodwinds, brass, and percussion—are integral to the story means that if someone is a poor performer, the audience will know. The player themselves can hide, but their sound will certainly give them away. The poor instrumentalist makes the entire band look incompetent, unrehearsed, and unprofessional. In an office, the whole team is only as good as the worst contributor—they can hide, make excuses, or whatever else, but when push comes to shove the clients or customers will surely know that the band is unrehearsed and go listen elsewhere.
Everyone knows Hot Crossed Buns. It’s the first song you learn as a “musician.” It is the easiest song to play: 3 notes whose progression repeats three times. As a 9-year-old, I learned Hot Crossed Buns on the cello—I could pluck it, draw it, and sing along with it. I thought I was spectacular, and so did my family. I realize now they were just being supportive, as any family is, because it sounded nothing like music. The lesson, though, was that if something is the easiest, and everyone learns it right away, it doesn’t set you apart—you’ll have to find a new gimmick that differentiates you. The other lesson I learned from HCB is that your friends and family will likely lie to you—it’s their job—so take their advice and comments with a grain of salt.
I may have only spent 5 years as a musician, but the lessons I have learned as a result have stuck with me since I got my first job 7 years ago and will likely remain with me until I retire some 40 years from now. I only wish the same were true about my musical abilities—at least I can play Hot Crossed Buns!