10 Leadership Lessons From 5 Piano Teachers And Myself
Posted by Mitch Mitchell on Nov 30, 2012
I don’t know how many of you know that I play the piano; well, played the piano. I was a music and history major in college, missing that history degree by one class but that’s okay. I was going to be a songwriter and composer, did write songs but never got to take any composition classes.
I had 5 piano teachers in my life. Each one had a different style and a varying degree of competence. Each one interacted with me in ways that I either liked or didn’t like. Some of the best lessons I learned came from me; how about that? I always figure if you can’t learn anything from yourself then you’re not trying.
Indeed, I not only learned music lessons, but lessons on leadership, and not all of them good. Truth be told, sometimes a bad experience can be a great learning experience towards leadership and, well, pretty much anything else. Don’t make me quote the line about Edison and the light bulb. Without further ado, let’s see what 10 leadership lessons I learned from piano teachers and myself.
1. I started playing piano when I was 10 years ago. I don’t even remember her name, and I didn’t have her all that long. She’s the only teacher I ever had where we had to go quite a distance to get to, since there weren’t any piano teachers in the area where I lived. The leadership lesson I learned from her was how to pass along enthusiasm to others.
She was telling my mother I was some kind of prodigy; how nice that was to hear. Of course she could have been telling every parent that, but I made it through the trainer book and the 1st level book in 3 months. That’s all the time I had her for, as my dad came back from Vietnam and we moved out of state. But she got me going; that was great for the time.
2. My second teacher was Mrs. Maine. I remember her because we moved to Maine; strange coincidence, right? She was a very unpleasant woman and I hated going to her house for lessons. Her kids were there, a couple around my age, some younger, and she’d spend half the time yelling at them, and a quarter of the time yelling at me.
I both excelled and stunk under her. The problem; neither one of us knew the material. She never played any of the songs for me, just critiqued me. For my part, I was playing music that I never knew if I was playing correctly or not. If I didn’t miss a note, she said good and we moved on. The lesson I learned from her is that you can’t be an effective leader if you can’t prove you know what you’re talking about.
3. Her husband retired and I thought I was done with her. I was, for about a month, as he decided to retire in the area and thus she could continue my lessons. However, now she had to come to my house to give them.
I had told my parents about her teaching style and they wouldn’t believe me. They thought I was just being lazy; I hated practicing because I didn’t like any of the music she had me playing. I also didn’t like her teaching style. When she came to the house, Mom was home. Mrs. Maine got 2 weeks in before my mother ended the lessons; if anyone was going to yell at my mother’s child, it was going to be Mom! lol The lesson I learned there was when people complain, you at least have to look into what their complaints are before you dismiss them. You never know for sure if someone has a right to complain unless you verify it for yourself; often they’re correct.
4. I don’t remember my next teacher’s name. She was young and nice looking and her husband was an officer. She hated the way I played, knowing it was because of the other teacher. She did play some of the songs the way she wanted me to play them. I could play them, but she hated my finger movements. So what she did was make me play scales over and over; I hated that, since I felt I was way past that.
Next thing I know, I was being pushed into a recital I didn’t want to participate in. My parents didn’t come either; how sad is that? She gave me a song to play that I only had a couple of weeks to learn, and I struggled learning how to play it. The day of the event I sat down at the piano, started playing, and immediately started thinking about a Bugs Bunny cartoon. I watched the entire cartoon in my head, and when it was over I was done playing the song. I got a standing ovation, was told by the teacher that I played perfectly and never looked at the music… and I didn’t remember a minute of it.
That was the last time I saw her or played piano for a very long time. I told my mother I wasn’t playing anymore and wasn’t taking any more lessons, and that was that. The leadership lesson I learned from that experience was that you can’t force people into doing something they’re not ready for. Yeah, I got lucky at the recital, but if I’d crashed and burned how would that have worked out?
5. I didn’t play piano for 3 years. You know what brought me back into it? Of all things, it was Barry Manilow’s song Mandy, which hit #1 in January 1975. It was the first true piano song I’d heard on pop music, which was relatively new to me; I’d only heard one Elton John up to that point, Philadelphia Freedom, which wasn’t a piano song.
I loved that song but we couldn’t get the sheet music for it in Maine. However, when we ended up in New York in July of that year, we found a music store locally and I bought the songbook, and I started playing that song and all the other songs in the book, as I also bought the first two albums. The leadership lesson I taught myself there is that if you’re enthusiastic about what you’re doing, you’ll not only love doing it but you’ll do it over and over until you get it right. I was on my way.
6. Or was I? I got to college and decided to take piano lessons once more. My teacher’s name was Mr. Crain, and he was the first true musician I’d ever met. He was a perfectionist, and as you can probably guess, he hated my finger work as well.
We had problems from the start, and he dropped me as a student after the first semester. The problem? It turned out not to be my finger work as much as how I was playing the music. I had learned to listen to songs on record (we had records back then) so I had an idea how to play them. What I hadn’t realized at the time is that different pianists not only play similar songs differently, but some artists are recognized for playing one composer’s music fantastic, while being hated for how they play someone else’s music.
I was playing Beethoven, my favorite composer, in the style of a pianist named Glenn Gould, who was known as a great interpreter of Bach, but not as respected for how he played Beethoven’s music. Unfortunately that’s all I knew because Dad loved the way he played it. And it turned out that my teacher’s belief was that I should have automatically known what each song I was playing was supposed to sound like when, for the most part, I didn’t know most of the songs at all. The leadership lesson I learned from that fiasco was never to assume anyone knows anything unless I test them, because we might not be on the same page as to how something should be done.
7. I don’t remember my next teacher’s name and I want to kick myself for it because I had her for 3 1/2 years. I was actually crushed and upset when my other teacher let me go, and she took me on. She even indulged in allowing me to play some of the other music I heard and liked, but had difficulty playing.
She also worked with me on fingering, and I got much better at it. Instead of giving me scales to play, she got me the works of Chopin, which were beautiful songs, very lyrical, but great songs for finger work, along with Czerny. The leadership lesson I learned from her was that not everyone learns things in the same way. If you care, you’ll find another way to help people get things right.
8. When I reached my senior year, I asked her what musical piece I was going to learn for the concerto competition. She gave me one of those looks like I had shocked her, which I didn’t understand at the time but figured out quickly. I was a pretty good player but I wasn’t concerto good. I had just assumed I’d be doing it because I was a piano player; bad assumption.
She asked me what I wanted to play and I said Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto; I loved that piece. I had already bought the sheet music for it. She said we would start with the 2nd movement, which was my favorite. Within 2 weeks I realized that no matter how much I practiced it, I wasn’t ever going to get performance good. I also realized she knew that and had decided to let me figure it out for myself. That’s when I learned the lesson about compassion, which is a leadership trait I don’t see often in others. She let me try, knowing I couldn’t do it but maybe hoping I could, and I let her off the hook by learning a lesson on my own.
9. I got out of college and, after a bit, got into the working world. For the next 5 or 6 years I played between 4 and 6 hours a day. I got really good, but didn’t have an audience for it. That is, until I was asked to sing and play at the wedding of a co-worker. Outside of singing in a dorm, I had only performed once ever, that being in college, where at the last minute I forgot the chorus of a song I knew very well, as I was on film, and made up words I thought I’d get away with, only to be outed when they decided to show the film on TV.
The very first song I had to perform began with me singing before I started playing. This meant I had to work on making sure I hit the correct note and was in the right key, otherwise the rest of the song would be a mess. It all worked perfectly, and from that wedding I got other weddings, and I performed at weddings for the next 15 years. I knew that I was much better than I had ever been in college because of the extra hours of dedication I had put into it once I left, and I could pretty much play anything at that point. The leadership lesson I learned was that if you rehearse over and over, even while changing things and adding new things, you will end up being very good and in peak condition, and one’s skills were be finely honed.
10. I did my last wedding in 1999. I played for my friend’s, who hadn’t ever heard me play but knew I had played. But I was a much different person at this juncture. I was driving a lot for work and had little time to practice anymore, and now I had to find the time to put into it.
I did 3 songs at the wedding, one of which I’d written years earlier. I was singing a song from Phantom of the Opera as well, and a part of it was suddenly out of my range, as I hadn’t sang at a wedding in 3 years at this juncture. I had to work hard at playing two of the three songs; luckily, the song I wrote came back to me easily enough. I had to call a friend of mine who is a voice teacher for lessons on how to hit the high notes of this particular song, all this while still playing.
Finally it was the day of the wedding, and I played all 3 songs pretty well. The last song I played was the one I had written. At the end of the song I got my one and only standing ovation, very unexpected in a church, with my wife sitting in the front row. I was humbled and decided on that day I was done playing at weddings, and pretty much done playing piano. The leadership lesson I learned that day was that sometimes one has to decide that there are things they have to let others do so that they can move onto doing other things that are more important. That’s a hard lesson for many people, but it’s one that every leader has to deal with eventually, in some capacity.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my journey of leadership lessons from my piano playing days. What a journey, eh?