Xavier Flory | Is there a secret?
The Gadfly | Discipline, not music, is the secret to success
October 13, 2013, 9:33 pm · Updated October 13, 2013, 11:19 pm·
Having spent Fall Break laboring over three measures of Ravel’s piano trio, I want to believe yesterday’s article “Is Music the Secret to Success?” in The New York Times that links the serious study of music with success in other fields.
In the article, Joanne Lipman interviews famous successful people who play music — from Woody Allen to Alan Greenspan — to find out what it is about music that leads to success. In the end, she says that music teaches discipline, collaboration, creativity and the ability to reconcile conflicting ideas and that these qualities translate to success in any field.
She implies causation, when for the most part I think there is only correlation between the study of music and the traits that lead to success.
First, people who study music seriously often grew up in privileged circumstances. Lessons and instruments are expensive — a decent violin costs at least $1,000 — but even more important than the finances involved are the parental commitment and supervision needed for a child to become a serious musician.
When I started violin, my mother practiced with me every day for an hour, took copious notes at my lessons and drove me to lessons, group class and recitals. Every week she made the four-hour round trip to Baltimore so that my brother could have lessons with a famous Russian teacher — he ended up going to Juilliard and is now a professional violinist.
Most children don’t get that much attention or that many resources. Furthermore, anyone with parents so dedicated — whether they are taking the child to recitals, soccer games or spelling bees — is more likely to be successful than other children.
Singing, which does not require the same amount of resources as instruments, is absent from this and most other articles that link success to the study of music. Unlike playing instruments, you don’t need to have expensive lessons or involved parents to have a good voice.
I joined the Vienna Boys Choir without ever having had a voice lesson, and many great singing talents are discovered as late as college. Unlike classical violinists and pianists, singers do not predominately come from well-off families. The group of serious singers is much more diverse — financially, socially and racially — than that of other musicians, and so if music really causes rather than simply correlates with success, then we should focus on successful people who are also serious singers.
The counterargument might run that singing does not require or teach the same amount of discipline as, say, violin does. Singers don’t start as early or practice seven hours a day, as many instrumentalists do — however, they do often rehearse two or three hours every day. Singing in a choir or in an opera certainly instills the other qualities Lipman identifies, such as collaboration, creativity and the ability to listen, and so the absence of singers from the list seems to suggest that other factors — such as social status and caring parents — are what really pave the way for success.
Nonetheless, the actual attributes needed to succeed in music are also highly correlated with success. For example, learning a piano concerto requires the memorization of thousands of notes, practicing every day and a long-term plan for mastering the entire piece. Different instruments also teach different skills. Singers learn to integrate text and melody, violinists learn to lead in chamber groups and pianists understand complex harmonies.
Like most grand endeavors, music requires sacrifices. The notable violinist and pedagogue Victor Danchenko once told my brother, “I don’t care if your mom is calling or the house is burning down, do not stop practicing!”
Most great musicians, like many successful people, are single-minded and even selfish in their pursuit of excellence. They do not let anything — friends or fun — get in the way of their work, and this prepares them to pursue other endeavors with vigor.
If you’re willing to make the sacrifices necessary to become a good musician, you will probably realize your goals elsewhere as well, but you will succeed thanks to your character and resources rather than what you learned playing Schumann.
Xavier Flory is a College senior from Nokesville, Va. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @FloryXavier. “The Gadfly” appears every other Monday.