Leadership skills and music training (or, “What’s violin got to do with it?”)

Those of you who have been to one of my parent seminars know that I believe that our habits toward lifelong learning (by which I mean our attitudes toward growth and willingness to change) are established early in life and apply toward any new challenge we face. The violin training offered through The Music Within Us program – which includes individualized instruction, performances both in groups and individually, and a social community of like-minded families – seeks to maximize each child’s potential and, along the way, leave them with a lifelong framework for approaching new challenges and pursuing their own passions in any field. In my teaching, I emphasize the balance between discipline and creative freedom in music-making, the importance for children to learn both individual accountability and the ability to function as part of a team, and through hard work, to earn the opportunity to become a leader.

My perspective on music education, particularly that certain approaches to music training can actually develop important skills for our future leaders, is rarely talked about in concrete terms. While most people acknowledge the value of music as a subject of study for one’s general education and awareness, it is rarely discussed for its potential to develop more sensitive communicators, more attentive listeners, more patient learners, and more confident public presenters. In short, I have rarely seen a convincing discourse on the value of quality music training in supporting the development of better leaders outside the field of music.

In the current issue of Harvard magazine, there is an article describing Maestro Daniel Barenboim (former conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra)’s recent series of lectures at Harvard. I was struck by this comment, addressing what he believes is required of musicians pursuing the art of performance:

“A performer, particularly an instrumentalist in an orchestra, must assert his individuality while listening to others and realizing his or her place in the larger picture—and at the same time achieve a poise between discipline and passion.”

The notion that we must first listen before expressing ourselves is often emphasized in business leadership books (see Stephen Covey’s 5th habit of highly effective people: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”). It is also one of the first disciplines one must develop in order to begin to make music (not just “play the notes”).

The “self-critical” listening that every instrumentalist must also develop through practicing and feedback from a good teacher is trained in our program beginning at a young age, when many children’s “musical” activities are focused on passive consuming of images and sounds, without opportunity for active involvement, reflection or questioning. Introspection and self-inquiry are essential first steps toward the self-awareness that mature leaders work constantly to nurture.

Live performances are the ultimate acts of risk-taking for the performers onstage, requiring confidence that is rarely “innate” and more often cultivated through deliberate practice. When we train young children to prepare and present the best of themselves to share with others, we give them a specific experience to demonstrate the value of a process directed at a goal. While the attainment of any particular goal is never guaranteed in life, even with the best of preparation, it is through the earnest pursuit of the highest goals that we guarantee our own growth and change. It’s no coincidence that most championship sports teams have a mantra that focuses on the path or the process that leads to winning, not just winning itself.

Finally, our community of families, who are educating themselves and supporting each other through their commitment to this process, is the foundation upon which all of my teaching rests. Last year, in my second annual survey of parents’ feedback from their experience in this program, every respondent described this program as “challenging” or “rigorous”, some even expressing surprise at how challenging it was (despite my seminar Powerpoint presentation!). But more telling, and amazing, to me was that every respondent also described the process as “rewarding” or “inspiring” or “worthwhile”. These parents’ spirit, their positive attitudes in the face of great sacrifice, and their joy at seeing not only their own children but other people’s children grow and learn in this environment together are an inspiration to me. I see in The Music Within Us program a vehicle to create better people, not just better violinists.

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