Nine Lessons from Music You Can Apply to Your Life

One of the best bits of wisdom I’ve come across in my 30+ years on this Earth is as simple as it is effective:

Everything you do and learn in one part of your life has applications elsewhere. 

Nothing you do happens in a vacuum, because you were fearfully and wonderfully made

As Scott Adams puts it, every skill you acquire increases your odds of success

I’ve already written about what I’ve picked up in my law career that has helped me elsewhere. Now I’d like to share some lessons I’ve learned from my 25 or so years as a musician and how they can be applied to your life. 

As a primer in case you’re confused by some of the musical terms of art, check out my post “How to Appreciate Music.” 

So without further ado, here are Nine Lessons from Music you can Apply to Your Life:

It’s all about the grind. Music taught me from a young age that you have to suck (or blow, depending on the instrument) really hard before you’ll ever be ready to perform. I learned very quickly that there are no shortcuts to getting good. You have to put in your reps if you want to see results. Practice and discipline are lessons I’ve used in all of my other endeavors. And not just practice, focused practice. You have to know what you’re trying to accomplish by playing those scales. Find your why!

Composition. Whether you’re writing the music yourself or trying to perform it, music taught me to think conceptually. It really is all about the big picture. When worming on big projects in my career, this way of thinking had helped me keep track of what each moving part is trying to accomplish in the whole. 

But at the same time, studying composition helps you remember that the details are what separates a good composition from a great one. You could have a 95% good thing, but some miscellaneous percussion here or dynamic shifts there can make all of that difference. This is the musical equivalent is the 80/20 rule: The little things have a disproportionate effect on the end result. 

Teamwork. If you’re in a band or an orchestra, you will rely on everybody else to sound good as much as they will rely on you. Therefore, you need to learn how to manage personalities, including your own, and how to compromise. Not everybody will think that your part needs to be that loud, because it overshadows the flutes, who are playing the main melody… And the lead trumpet might be kind of a jerk, but we need him in a good mood for this to sound good, so how about we let him solo a little longer on the next piece…

It’s a balancing act: Everybody needs their time to shine, but everybody needs the whole to sound good. 

If you can’t work with other people or be ready to explain why you are making the decisions that you are, music is going to be one long clash of personalities. The same goes for your job, or your life. 

And the corollary to this is: If members of your band or orchestra are dragging you down, find some new ones. Toxic people ruin everything, so move on from Jen and don’t look back. 

Marketing. I was in a band for quite some time. We were pretty good, I have to say. At least, when people heard us, that’s what they’d say. When they’d see us…not so much. It was impossible to get people to come to our shows or buy our CDs. But the music was good, so what gives?

We didn’t understand the power of marketing. We had no theatrical flair, no look, no vibe, no artistry. That happened with a lot of rock bands in my day: they think the lower and earnestness of their music will change the world, man!

Pure garbage. It’s all about marketing. Creating hype and backing it up. Having a package you can pitch and sell. Music, while art, is also a commodity. I learned this in my next band, which had the wherewithal to create a distinctive look, feel, and mythology. We played packed clubs and has people clamoring for us to record something, already!

You have to market yourself in everything you do. You have to self-promote, because nobody is going to do it for you.

The workplace is a competition, no matter your field, so don’t be afraid to sell yourself and build your own hype. After a while, you might even start to believe it. 

Rehearse your performance anxiety away. I credit my experience performing with being a good public speaker. This translated seamlessly into the legal realm, particularly when I was a litigator. 

How did music teach me this? What was the magic bullet?

I hate to be a killjoy, but the secret is pretty mundane: The better prepared that you are, the more comfortable you will be. 

Getting your temps on stage helps, but not as much as knowing the music inside and out, getting your muscle-memory down, and leaving as little to chance as possible. There will still be nerves–there always are–but your mind will be free to enjoy the process of playing without stressing out over the actual notes

You’ll also be better prepared to improvise in the event that something unforeseen rears its ugly head. 

In life, I think of it this way: If you know your stuff and you believe in what you say, all of your performance anxiety will melt away. 

Be an autodidact. I’m larger a self-taught musician. Outside of the school wind and jazz bands and the college orchestra and other ensembles, I taught myself how to play music, save for three months of formal bass lessons when I was 18. 

I am not saying that lessons are bad. But music was something an introvert like me could pick up by playing along with my favorite albums or just buying a book and teaching myself. 

You don’t need expensive professors to reach most things, unless you want to be a surgeon or a fighter pilot. 

One of the greatest things about living in the 21st century is that literally all of recorded human knowledge is on the Internet. 

Whether it’s books, videos, or connecting with people, you have the ability to teach yourself nearly everything. Use this power. You won’t be sorry. 

The importance of process. Notes are like letters, bars are like words, melodies are like sentences, and phrases are like paragraphs. You can see where I’m going with this metaphor. 

Music is a language. Learning this language requires you to break things down into small blocks you can stack together until you create a wonderful structure. You don’t just learn a symphony all at once. You take it piece by piece, the way you eat an elephant. 

One bite at a time. 

This helped me approach other areas of my life in the same way: Start small and get the basics down first before moving on to the face-melting guitar solo. 

Rhythm and timing. Musicians have terms for how music feels: Stiff versus funky. 

I’m pretty sure you know exactly what I’m talking about. 

Does this tune plod along gracelessly, or does it swing? Can I dance to this, or does it make me sleepy? Do I clap on the “one” and “three” or the “two” and “four”? 

(Hint: Please, for the love of God, clap on the “two” and “four.”)

Everything in life moves with a music of its own. Everything has a rhythm: the way you move, the way you talk, the way you write, even the way you go about your day. Thinking of your life as music can help you keep these rhythms in mind and keep things from being too stiff. Get funky!

Visualization. Even when I’m not able to play my instrument, I am able to practice in my head. 

Hold on, what?

It’s true! Thinking about where my fingers go and what stuff is going to sound like helps me keep my skills sharp even during long absences of practice. 

There’s nothing like actual practice, of course, but visualization helps. After all, the mind and the body are undeniably connected. 

Athletes use visualization techniques all the time as a way to focus and keep their minds sharp. For more on this, I highly recommend you check out Ed Latimore’s blog and the book Gorilla Mindset by Mike Cernovich. Both make this concept easy to understand. 

As with anything, musical concepts can be applied to just about any other area of your life. Life is a performance anyway, so you might as well make that sucker swing.

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