Not only do I lack any particular talent for playing the piano, but I didn’t even start taking lessons until early middle age — far too late to develop the neural pathways I’d need to play well. As a result I’m not very good, and I never will be. But I go to my lessons, I practice as much as I can (I’ve gotten good at squeezing my daily one-hour practice session into as little as 10 minutes on some days), and, unexpectedly, I find a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction in my incompetent playing. It also turns out that taking piano lessons has benefits that go well beyond personal satisfaction — it’s a great form of cross-training.
With any exercise regimen, months of repetition can make your body extremely efficient at performing certain movements — but only those movements. Someone can be in good enough shape to complete a three-hour marathon, for instance, but still be sore all over the day after playing a 30-minute game of pickup basketball. Doing only one kind of training limits your overall fitness and in fact reduces your overall training benefit. Rather than continuing to improve, you just stay at a certain level. This is where cross-training comes in — one reason that, for instance, sprinters spend a fair amount of time in the weight room working on upper-body strength.
Learning to play the piano is terrific cross-training for running a business. Following are some of the lessons my infinitely wise (and even more patient) piano teacher, Guy Urban, has taught me.
“Don’t practice your mistakes.”
I once started playing through a piece for my teacher and hit a wrong note about halfway through. I halted, said something to the effect of “Darn it, I always make that mistake,” and then continued on.
My teacher stopped me, saying, “Why do you practice it that way, then?” And he was right: Through thoughtless repetition, that particular mistake had become to feel completely natural — almost part of the music.
There used to be a key moment in every sales meeting where I would always make the same mistake, a particularly dangerous one: I’d set too-low expectations regarding what the project would cost. My client empathy — or high need for approval, or whatever you want to call it — would kick in, and I’d tell the homeowners their kitchen might be about $60,000 when I knew in my bones it was not going to be a penny under $80,000.
My piano teacher told me how to stop practicing my mistakes: I should play right up to the note just before the one I kept missing and then stop short. I shouldn’t play a single note until I knew it was the one I wanted to play. After a few times through this exercise, my fingers would be retrained, the pause would get shorter and shorter, and eventually the mistake would be permanently fixed. Similarly, when it came time at a sales meeting to discuss budget, I learned to pause, take a breath, and not say a word until I knew it was the right one.
“When performing, keep going even if you miss a note.”
People listening to someone play music hear momentum and phrasing more than individual mistakes. If you stop short when you make a mistake (usually with a grimace), go back a few measures, and start the passage over, everyone will focus on the mistake. If instead you move right on past the problem with confidence and renewed accuracy, listeners will quickly forget the flaw. It’s like an inadvertent insult: You can apologize profusely and at agonizing length, at which point the victim of the insult starts wondering whether it really was so inadvertent after all, or you can apologize quickly and just move on.
A few years ago we were planning a large project and the client kept adding features. The cost kept going up, and I did not do a good job of keeping them informed about the cost increases. Inevitably, it came time for a reckoning. I presented the revised budget, and they balked. I could have groveled in apology and backed off, and maybe thrown some money at the problem in a vain attempt to make what had already happened appear not to have happened after all.
Instead I said that I regretted the situation and we could build the project for the budget as presented, cut the cost by removing some aspects of the project that had been added in, or agree to part ways. We agreed to part ways. Within a month, they had called me back and asked to get back on our schedule. This was a particularly lucky resolution (and most such stories do not have such happy endings, in reality). But even if they had not called back, I was better off moving on to the next step than I would have been if I’d tried to change current reality by backing up and starting over.
“Dissonance is not always ugly.”
Most Bach keyboard works are pretty hard for me, so I have to learn them at a painfully slow tempo to get the fingering right. Playing slowly, I really hear how many dissonances there are in the music. (To understand what I’m talking about, play two adjacent keys on a piano. You’re hearing a minor second, the most dissonant sound in tonal music.) Move through these dissonances slowly and it can sound like you’re doing something seriously wrong in places. But get the piece up to tempo and you don’t think twice about the dissonances — they fit right into the music. And, in fact, if you removed the dissonances, the music would become a lot less interesting — there’d be no sense of movement, no real interest or progress.