When the people I engage learn about my classical music background I’m often met with a blended reaction of curiosity and confusion: They’re curious to know what it’s like to play an instrument. But, they’re also a little confused. After all, how does a University background in classical music performance even apply to the business world? To help mitigate their confusion I’ll offer them one music skill I use daily that’s both practical and universal. I tell them it’s even a skill they can learn and develop too. And when I’ve piqued their interest I tell them:
This answer typically gets a raised eyebrow or frown. It’s mostly because we don’t often associate music with self-awareness. After all, isn’t self-awareness just some kind of existential destination we reach when seeking our place in the universe? (Think: meditating, Yoga, spiritual practice, or a New Age fad.) Well, maybe. But maybe not. I think this is because it depends on where you orient your self-awareness. And, because there can be many orientations of self-awareness (e.g. social, physical, emotional, operational, spacial, aural…), what I’m referring to here is a specific kind of self-awareness: one that’s practical.
To explain, classical musicians develop a practical self-awareness because we must constantly self-assess. And, practical self-awareness is necessary for us to notice and focus on those musical aspects and technical abilities that are not quite on par with the rest of our expertise. From this assessment we determine our practice regimen (i.e. how best to direct time and energy) to bring them up to speed.
For example, an expert flautist’s practical self-awareness can develop to the point of assessing minute and nuanced technical details. Let’s say he notices his trills are inconsistent. His practical self-awareness pinpoints the cause of the inconsistency- a weakness in his right-hand ring-finger. He’ll now direct his focus only on that one finger and run through finger dexterity strengthening exercises (addressing the root cause) until his trilling technique is up to speed with the rest of his musical abilities. To accomplish this, it is not uncommon to spend long hours practicing trills with the intense focus of, say, a surgeon or Olympic athlete.
The point here is that classical musicians use practical self-awareness to objectively analyze the many parts of their skill set. You could say it’s the ability to “multi-cognize” (not to be confused with multi-tasking), whereby the mind has parallel foci. It’s a kind of simultaneous or parallel processing. However, this is not to be confused with what cognitive science refers to as parallel processing. I don’t mean the kind of parallel processing that’s hard-wired in the brain like how our vision is processed through multiple pathways to determine the “what” and the “where.” (See: MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences) The parallel processing I’m referring to is a learned skill that develops over time.
For the musician, this self-assessment parallel processing is like a code script that’s constantly running in the mind’s background. For instance when the performer assesses her relation to the instrument (i.e. as instrumentalist) while at the same time assesses that relationship to the bigger picture (i.e. the ensemble). In other words, expanding the scope of self-awareness. So, what would it look like if we expanded our scope beyond technique and beyond the relation between performer and instrument?
Using our flautist example, it would look something like this: During a performance the flautist’s eyes are mostly trained on the sheet music while simultaneously using peripheral vision to watch the conductor. But, every few seconds the eyes will indeed glance up directly to the conductor. While this is happening, the ears are focused on her own instrument while simultaneously listening to the players around her to make subtle adjustments in pitch, tempo, timbre and volume. Let’s say this is a two hour performance at an outdoor venue where the temperature drops 15 degrees during the second hour: subtle real-time intonation adjustments are required to compensate for the instrument’s physical reaction to the cooler temperature (i.e. the instrument goes out of tune with changes in temperature). And while all this is happening she’ll be engaged in self-assessment by critiquing her overall performance; taking mental notes on certain musical passages and any technical challenges with the instrument that require honing for the next performance.
This is not a one-time occurrence. This self-assessment happens with every performance and rehearsal. And again, because the self-assessment parallel processing code script is constantly running in the mind’s background, it means even outside of the practice room and rehearsal hall we are still self-assessing through self-awareness.
Now, imagine if we adopted and developed this type of real-time self-assessment/self-awareness as common practice in the business world. I’m not referring to general process improvement here. I’m referring to our individual processes (instrument & technique), how we interact with our teams and clients (the ensemble) and our execution of outward-facing activities like high-stakes meetings, negotiations, and presentations (the performance).
What would it look like if you developed and applied a similar type of practical self-awareness in your workplace? How would this impact your work performance? What result would this have on your business or company? How would this impact your life in general?