Here's why musicians actually make great employees
Music majors tend to get labeled. You know the stereotypes: you major in philosophy because you don’t know what you want to do, you study the arts because you have a romantic notion of starving for your work, or struggling to “make it” as a working musician who will barely ever be able to put food on the table. What’s the difference, they say, between a pizza and a musician? Unlike a musician, a pizza can feed a family of four.
Musicians are often called to perform professionally for far less than union wages—or asked if we’d be interested in starting a Cranberries cover band. I graduated with a B.A. from one of the best music programs in this country, but now I’m facing the thing that everyone talks about: Trying to commute that degree into an actual for-real job.
Nothing against human resources; they do the best they can to filter résumés in order to meet the immediate needs of the company. But my experience during interviews has gone something like this: HR directly asks me about my music degree, including why I’m not performing music professionally. HR politely points out that they don’t see how my music degree applies to their opening. I don’t have a business or technical degree, and as a recent college graduate I lack extensive corporate experience that might compensate for that.But what they don’t realize that I’m just as interested in Six Sigma as I am in Saint-Saens. I get enjoyment from trying to figure out how to cut down the time it takes to perform simple tasks. Areas of quality improvement, efficiency, and making spreadsheets to document trends are all music to my ears. So on paper, I might not look like the right fit. But there are very good reasons musicians make great employees.
We ask the right kinds of questions to get the job done efficiently
If you were to ask me how my degree applies to working in business, the answer is this: I treat my work like Bach. That’s right: Johann Sebastian Bach, that Baroque composer. As a violinist, I know that there are key things I must do in order to do justice to Bach’s music. It would be incorrect to just play the notes as they’re written on the page without doing the research that is required to perform the piece as Bach intended it.
Essentially, musicians know how to do our homework. We research the time period, we spend hours dissecting what would have been acceptable performance practices of the time. For example, does this piece require heavy vibrato? Do I really need to drag this measure out? Where does the emphasis go, and how often does it need to occur? In business, the same questions are required, the kind of inquiries that get to the real meat of the subject, and that most people wouldn’t think to ask. The answers, for both business and music, boil down to logic and time management.
We’re trained in perfecting details
A lot of people have this really Woodstock-ish notion about what musicians do when we leave the classroom. Personally, I’ve never found myself in half-stoned, Bob Marley-induced, existential conversation on someone’s patio when I left class. Truth be told, musicians aren’t as edgy or as laid-back as people often hope we’d be. In fact, the one undeniable fact about musicians is that we’re a dedicated breed.
When you hire a music major, you can be sure that we’ve spent countless evenings in the practice room (or the kitchens, the bedrooms, a tiny soundproof closet we created so our neighbors would stop banging on our door at 2 o’clock in the morning) perfecting small passages of music. One or two measures at a time, note by note, agonizing line by agonizing line. Why? Because we know that those minute details are parts of the larger plan: The show. The performance. The product we sell to our customers – the audience.
Our moments on stage are where we make it look like it takes nothing to perform at this level. It’s the same at work: We set goals for the day, knowing that if we can perfect the seamlessness of the little details in our job, the show will go on, the customers will be pleased, and it will look effortless. But what happens in the inevitable moments where we can’t manage to make it look effortless? Where the cards just weren’t in our favor, and despite our best effort, we came up short?
We use our failures to fuel our success
After each course in musical performance as a music major, you have to face a jury. Sleep deprived, nerves on end, we stand in front of a panel of esteemed music scholars and faculty, and lay our best performance out for them to judge. No one ever gets a gold star. No one gets a note that says “Congratulations, you have mastered everything that your instrument has to offer, now here’s a job and a trophy.” We gratefully accept constructive criticism and feedback that is designed to help us improve, to be the best musicians we can be – because it is a highly competitive field.
We know, too, that it would be a disservice to us if our instructors were to say, “Well, this is the best that you can do. You’ve gone as far as you can go.” As much as we shudder to hear criticism (just like anyone else) we crave it because it gives us guidance in how to reach the next level of success. It’s the same in business; we welcome the performance review, the opportunity to hear what we’ve done well and how we can do even better. Music majors are never satisfied with yesterday’s performance; each one must be even better than the last. We compete against ourselves constantly, and we know that if we don’t make the rest of the orchestra look good, we look worse.
Ultimately, you want employees who treat their work like a masterpiece and an extension of their creative and professional abilities. Not every job is as challenging as Bach, but every note matters.
The truth is, I love music, but I love business more. Choosing not to be a professional musician doesn’t mean that I failed at music; I succeeded at it for over eighteen years, and have now decided that it’s time to explore other fields I find equally engaging. There are others out there like me—the creatives with entrepreneurial hearts, who might be too afraid to turn the car around and switch careers, and It’s my hope that HR can change the hiring algorithm to not filter us out before we have a chance to demonstrate just how well we can perform in a business environment.
Because if there’s truly one thing we excel it, it’s performance.
Katie Jahangiri is a life-long violinist turned roller derby player residing in Denton, TX. When she’s not on the flat-track, you can find her writing, curating a mildly excessive record collection, and inventing dance moves. She secretly hopes that Spelling Bees will become socially acceptable for adults, and that they’ll make just one more season of The Newsroom. Follow her on Instagram @katie_jaha