Non-musical benefits of serious music study
A few months ago, I reached out to many of my friends who grew up seriously studying music and now are flourishing in non-music careers. As a Suzuki violin teacher, I believe that the skills I am teaching translate to many more vocations and aspects of life, but it was amazing to hear what these people had to say! I’ve arranged their explanations of benefits into categories and used their exact words whenever possible. Here’s what they had to say about the benefits of serious music study!
John Dickinson, principal member of technical staff at Sandia National Laboratories, says: “I think one of the most important skills I attribute to my violin study is the ability to focus hard while I figure something out with immense persistence. When I have to solve a problem at work, I can focus very intensely for a fairly long period of time and I don’t get distracted or lose motivation.” John’s ability to focus intently has helped him in his work developing space electronics. He helped build the Jovian Auroral Distributions Experiment (JADE) (is orbiting Jupiter on the Juno spacecraft), the instrument suite known as the Integrated Science Investigation of the Sun (ISʘIS) (studying tiny particles emitted by the sun), and the Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) (which aims to improve extreme weather prediction by orbiting the earth, measuring ocean surface wind). I still think of John fondly as a member of a Suzuki violin tour group which traveled to Hawaii and Alaska when I was a student.
Seeking solutions to problems by approaching them from different perspectives
Jessy Wood, an occupational therapist who I knew as a viola player in the Albuquerque Youth Symphony program, says: “If there’s a tricky rhythm, you can clap it, slow it down then gradually speed it up, play it in 8th notes, and so forth. When I have a tricky issue at work, I can problem solve different ways to “break it down.”
John Dickinson says, “I’m not a neuroscientist, but I believe the neuroplasticity built up studying music transfers generally to all your activity and helps you approach problems in a unique way.”
Kristi Lindgren, a colleague in the Houston, TX area, says: “Learning an instrument teaches you to set long-term goals and work consistently toward those goals, knowing that results and progress take time and cannot be brought by way of “cramming” at the last minute. Most things worth achieving in life take long-term commitment and effort; music helps people adapt to that mindset.”
Studying in depth
Cristina Loyola, who I met as an opera student during college, found that those skills helped her work as a paralegal: "I discovered that my habit of getting deep into my scores translated to going deep into files. By “going deep” I mean whenever I had a new role to learn, I’d read through the libretto, read through the music, reorganize it in different ways, and look at it from all angles, including contradictory ones, so I could really get to know the character. I found that I tended to study case files in much the same way, while going through discovery, or looking at previous pleadings or intake paperwork, and it helped me find a lot of connections between pieces of evidence or testimony that would help inform the case. It also helped me come up with questions to ask our client and helped me see what I needed to clarify."
Relieving stress by using your brain in a different way
Richard Obenauf, a violinist who got his PhD in medieval English literature and now teaches seminars in history, politics, and literature in the Honors College at the University of New Mexico, says: “I rarely play with others anymore, but I got through my dissertation by getting out my fiddle and playing for breaks to let my mind work through some of the intellectual problems I was trying to solve. I know I'm not the only one who does that. Jefferson, Einstein, and...Obenauf!”
Sharpening your mind and your competitive edge:
TSgt Rob Vitale, who I met in college as a music major and is now a clarinetist with the United States Air Force Academy band, says: “We recruit through music because it bears fruitful applicants. Here’s a cool statistic for you: Our United States Service Academies are the most highly sort after and competitive public collegiate institutions in this country. With 10 thousand applicants annually, only about 12% will be accepted. Of the 1,200 accepted, 33% of the country’s brightest minds that make it to the top have a background in music from high school.”
Solving problems by breaking them down
Nisandi Silva, one of my previous Suzuki students, states: “I have always tried focusing on the bigger picture instead of breaking down large problems into smaller ones. I don’t know why but it was something I’ve always done and it sometimes led to unnecessary stress and frustration. During my time as your student, you continuously assigned micro assignments for me to learn. I’ll admit, at first I didn’t always like when you did that! I just wanted to learn the song and be done with it. But breaking big problems into smaller ones really helped me produce a better quality version of the song. I’m extremely grateful to have learned this skill from you. I took this skill with me to college and as an accounting major who stares at numbers and spreadsheets for hours on end, it helped A LOT! I now know that focusing on the little things are what make big things happen.”
John Dickinson explains it this way: “I take a very methodical approach to solving it with a succession of small steps. I can power through any problem that way.”
Richard Obenauf says: “As one of our old teachers used to say, practice doesn't make perfect--practice makes permanent. That's a lesson from learning a musical instrument that translates over to many other skills, from playing a sport to learning a language or becoming a better writer. Working intentionally is as important as being able to sustain focus. I emphasize this to my Honors students every semester.”
Working with patience and persistence
Cristina Loyola says: "We all need [patience and persistence] as musicians, and it can be so easy to get overwhelmed. It was the same way working on 40 simultaneous cases. I’d take a deep breath and approach it all methodically, much like a big work that needs to be broken down. That helped a lot."
Stage presence and comfort presenting in front of others
John Dickinson says: “I have an excellent stage presence and do not get intimidated being in front of a crowd. These days, I spend a good amount of time presenting information, and I think part of the reason I feel so confident while doing so is because of all the time I spent performing.”
Performing under pressure
Kristi Lindgren says: “the skills that I have learned to help manage performance anxiety in music have helped me in a number of situations from public speaking to managing my response during stressful events.”
Giving, seeking, and receiving constructive feedback
Jessy Wood says: “The ability to give, seek, and receive constructive feedback, and to take that feedback and incorporate helpful aspects of it into practice. My supervisor has to observe my interactions with people quarterly. Many of my coworkers feel anxious about this—I don’t feel anxious. I seek feedback and can see the value in it.
Normalizing discomfort as part of the learning process
In her book Daring Greatly, Brené Brown writes: “Periods of discomfort become an expectation and a norm” in true learning environments. As a student works to figure out a new skill or take a piece to a new level, there will inevitably be moments of discomfort or receiving constructive feedback. By normalizing this discomfort as part of the normal learning process, a student reduces anxiety, fear, and shame that could occur when receiving constructive feedback. (While Brené Brown was, in fact, not one of the people who responded to my survey, I feel that this concept is too applicable and important to pass over!)
Cristina Loyola explains: "As a musician, especially a vocalist, empathy is always at the forefront. I’m constantly putting myself in a character’s shoes, trying to understand her, so I can feel what she feels. That overdeveloped sense of empathy translated into my legal work as well, which is a double edged sword. While it helped me go the extra mile to help our clients, it devastated me in a lot of our more intense family law cases, especially nasty divorces with children. I wasn’t able to cut it off, so it ultimately became a factor in my leaving the profession and going back to music. BUT it helped me see that everyone who came through those law firm doors were coming to us with the biggest problem in their life at that moment and asking us to help, and it really drove me to help them to the best of my ability."
Learning to be punctual
Jessy Wood succinctly states: “Being at least 15 minutes early to everything, because showing up for rehearsal ‘on time’ equals being late.”
Working as a team
Richard Obenauf, violinist-turned-college professor says: “The teamwork of playing in an ensemble and the collaborative nature of music-making is a useful skill or mindset for lifelong success.”
Jamie Woleben, who played and taught violin professionally for many years and is now a nurse, says one of the greatest benefits of studying music has been the “ability to work on your own AND with others (some of whom may be temperamental”
Other workplace, mental, and physical benefits my respondents ascribed to serious musical study:
Ability to apply instruction/research
Ability to teach and train others
Attention to detail
Being prepared with all needed materials
Developing a growth mindset
Learning attention to form
Learning how to compete
Striving to always get better
The intersection of passion and intellect
Understanding body mechanics/ergonomics
Understanding how to win graciously AND how to lose graciously
Understanding nonverbal communication
I'd like to extend my deepest thanks to the wonderful people who contributed their responses and experiences for this article. You've enriched all of us through your insights!