5 Lessons from Music to Help You Succeed at Work

I’ve been fortunate to spend a good portion of my life playing music, first as a full time job and then on nights and weekends while helping organizations improve as my “day job.” I’ve often reflected on what the two worlds, music and business, can learn from each other. Today, I’d like to share 5 lessons from the world of music that I think could make a big difference for anybody looking to be more successful at work.

What can we learn about effective teamwork from the world of professional music? In this episode, Peter shares insights from his recent experiences playing in various musical groups and draws parallels to creating high-performing teams in any work environment.

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Episode transcription

Peter Green

Phoenix, where I live, is a very seasonal town for musicians. We’re releasing this episode in the summer, and for most professionals in town, performances have slowed to a trickle. I intentionally don’t play nearly as much as I did 10 years ago–check out Episode 120, called Immunity to Change, for the story of why and how I decided to scale back how often I play.

But there are still times when I choose to play a bit more, and that happened a few months ago. I was playing lots of different styles with lots of different groups, all within a couple of weeks, which is really fun. And, in this episode, we’ll reflect on some of the things I noticed about playing music professionally and share five lessons that I think are critical for any kind of work.

Richard Lawrence

But, before that, this show is a free resource sponsored by the Humanizing Work company. Where we work with business leaders, product people, and teams to help them sustainably and effectively create outcomes that matter. Want your work to feel like it flows more smoothly, with everyone engaged, aligned, and pulling in the same direction? Visit the contact page on humanizingwork.com and schedule a conversation with us.


OK, I don’t have video from all of those gigs that I mentioned, but just to give everyone an idea of a pretty common mix of styles that I would play over that period of time, I did grab some recent video of me playing in an orchestra, a jazz big band, a salsa band, and a Latin jazz group. Richard, let’s watch that video together, and I’ll ask you what stands out to you.

So, what’d you notice as you watched the video?


The thing that was most striking to me was the body language of the musicians, which seemed to match the formality of the music. The orchestra and choir were engaged with the music but in a serious, formal way. The big band players were less stiff—like, you see a sax player smiling and nodding at another sax player—but it was still clearly a more ordered style overall. You’re playing what’s in your charts and you’re wearing suits to do it.

In the salsa, the band musicians are all grooving and appreciating the music, and the interaction between the band members and the audience seems to be a key part of the experience.

And then, finally, I got the sense with the Latin jazz quintet that everybody was very present and engaged, listening and responding to the music. And the sheet music seems way less important in that setting. It actually felt more like the 5 of you were creating something new together.


Yeah, and as a musician yourself, I’m sure you’re well aware of what it feels like when everyone is present and interacting in that way. It’s such a cool feeling being in collective flow with others.

I’ve been fortunate to spend a good portion of my life playing music, first as a full-time job and then more recently on nights and weekends while helping organizations improve as my “day job.” I’ve often reflected on what the two worlds, music and business, can learn from each other. We did one full length episode about the similarities between a jazz group and a team way back in episode 7. And, today, we’d like to share 5 lessons from the world of music that we think could make a big difference for anybody looking to be more successful at work.

So, the first lesson is that It’s About “The Hang” as Much as Musical Skill. In the music world, we spend more time together off stage than we do on it. We’re setting up, we’re rehearsing, we’re communicating details before a gig, hanging out before and after sets, it all adds up. Musicians that are easy to get along with, easy to communicate with, and make a positive social contribution, we call those musician’s a “good hang,” and they are the first call, sometimes before more skilled musicians that are harder to get along with.

I think being a good teammate is the same. Be easy to get along with, communicate with, and make a positive social contribution to your team. It amplifies your skills and makes your team that much more successful.


Yeah, and it’s important not to confuse being a “good hang” with having to be friends with everybody on your team. I can think of a lot of people I’ve been in music groups with who are definitely a good hang—I enjoy my time with them during setup and teardown and while we’re playing—but we never go have a beer or something outside the gig. And that’s fine.

It’s the same at work. Being a good hang means it’s pleasant to do the work and all the stuff around the work with you on the team.

I’ve found that’s a characteristic you can often cultivate just by being aware of it. Ask yourself, and then pay attention, “Apart from just doing my job, is it a better experience to be part of this team because I’m on it?”


All Right. On to Lesson 2, which is this: Prepare Well Then Be Present in the Moment

As musicians, we spend decades in the practice room drilling so that translating the notes from the page (or our imagination if we’re improvising), to the audience is muscle memory, it requires little or no conscious effort. Then, when we take the stage, we can be fully present in the moment, the music, and the space with the listener. This is the difference between a good technician, and someone that can transport the audience to some shared emotional state.


There was an epic example of that, that Ben Zander talks about in his book “Leading from Any Chair.” And I’ll just read that bit from the book. He writes:

The legendary Kolisch Quartet had the singular distinction of playing its entire repertoire from memory. The alertness, presence, and attention required of the players in every performance is hard to fathom, but in one concert an event occurred that surpassed their ordinary brinksmanship.

In the middle of the slow movement of Beethoven’s Opus 95 String Quartet, just before his big solo, violist Eugene Lehner suddenly had an inexplicable memory lapse, in a place where his memory had never failed him before. He literally blacked out. But the audience heard Opus 95 as it was meant to be played, the viola solo sounding in all its richness.

Even the first violinist, Rudolph Kolisch and the cellist Bennar Heifetz,  both with their eyes closed and deeply absorbed in the music, were unaware that Lehner had dropped out. The second violinist, Felix Khuner, was playing Lehner’s melody, coming in without missing a beat at the viola’s designated entrance, the notes perfectly in tune and voiced like a viola on an instrument tuned a fifth higher. Lehner was completely stunned, and offstage after the performance asked Khuner how he could have possibly known to play. Khuner answered with a shrug: “I could see that your third finger was poised over the wrong string, so I knew you must have forgotten what came next.”


I get goosebumps hearing that story.  Talk about being present in the moment!

I’m curious, what in our listeners’ work world would benefit from skill drilled to the point of muscle memory, so that you can be present in the meeting, on the task, or in the presentation?


I think it can be useful to consider both sides of that. I’ve seen people who are really skilled in what they do at work but kind of phone it in day to day. They’d benefit from focusing on presence and engagement, which would probably start by building a strong connection to the purpose of their work.

On the other hand, I’ve seen plenty of people who are highly engaged in the problems they’re solving but who never take the time to sharpen their skills. They’re present but they’d benefit from building up their skills to better contribute to the outcomes they care about.


On to lesson 3, which is this: Great Listening Matters as Much as Great Playing, and Is Much Rarer

In that intro video, I’m playing in lots of different groups, which is very common for a freelance musician. With so much variety, of course there are a range of experiences, from “I kinda wish I had turned this one down,” to “Wow, that was transcendent!” My enjoyment (and the audience’s) is almost always directly impacted by one key factor on the stage: were the other musicians listening? In groups where everyone is just playing their part, getting through the performance, the music is usually professional but uninspiring. On the other hand, in groups where everyone is locked in, listening to each other? It’s like a different form of art! There’s give and take, a conversation, and new things emerge that we couldn’t have planned!


In work, this is at least as true. Most of us are listening just enough to start formulating what we’ll say next. But, instead, stay curious about what others are saying, and trying to say, without worrying about how you will respond. That curiosity and active listening changes something in the conversation, deepens safety and opens more options.


All right, lesson 4 is that Great Teams Improvise Well

Not every genre of music involves improvisation. Several of the ones that we demonstrated her do. But even in styles where performing what’s on the page is expected, the ability to improvise in the moment is critical.

In the first clip, I’m playing in an orchestra that was part of a very large, multi-media performance. And, about halfway through the overall music, there is a section where the orchestra has timed some underscore to a video of a speaker who’s delivering a short, inspirational message. We had rehearsed the timing of that underscore section so that right as the video ends, the choir comes in and performs a section that quotes that inspirational message. We had what’s called a “safety” built in, where we could repeat a few measures if the adrenaline of a live performance meant we were slightly ahead of the planned timing. We started that section, and apparently the guy in the booth that was supposed to push play on the video got his sections a little mixed up. He didn’t realize we were at that part of the music. So we started playing, and no video started, we got all the way to the repeated section, and the conductor wasn’t sure what to do. So she gave a signal to restart the piece, hoping the video guy would realize what happened. But not everyone saw the cue. Train wreck potential here! Fortunately, a few of the section leaders in the orchestra helped everyone realize what was happening and using hand signals, we got everyone back in sync. Crisis was averted, and the performance continued without a hitch from there.

Even if your work team doesn’t need to improvise on a regular basis, for example if your team is built to deliver predictable, high quality work, sometimes things happen, and you need to improvise. The ability to jump in and come up with a creative solution to an unexpected problem is a pretty important capability, regardless of the type of work.


I think people often think of improvisation as creating some totally new thing—like a solo that’s never been played before. But a lot of times, practical improvisation is simply being prepared and present enough to respond to whatever emerges. Sometimes that’s creating something new. A lot of times, that’s just solving a problem that pops up.


That’s right.

Ok, finally, lesson 5 is that Different Styles appropriately use Different Structures

In the opening video, I was playing four different styles: classical music, big band music, salsa music, and Latin jazz. Each of these genres has a different set of expectations and very different cultures. The classical music is written out, note for note, and the players are expected to be able to read exactly what’s written with minimal room for interpretation. It’s a very formal style of music. A great outcome for classical music is one that is stylistically true to what the composer intended.

The big band genre has large sections of music that are written out, but a much wider range of interpretive license for the performers. Big bands have four sub-teams–what we call sections.  Trumpets, trombones, saxes, and the rhythm section, each of those sections has their own leader or “lead player”, who set the stylistic interpretations of the music. The section players are then expected to listen and match the lead players, and the lead players listen to the lead trumpet or lead alto sax, depending on who’s playing the melody at that point, to get the overall style for the band. So there’s a hierarchy, but lots of freedom within it. Interspersed with those written sections are improvised jazz that has much more freedom for the soloist. A great outcome in Big Band music, is for the band to be fully in sync with each other, or as we would say in the Big Band world, they’re really swingin’!

The salsa band has some similarities to the big band. There are lots of written sections and some improvisation, but the style and outcome are quite different. Salsa music is popular Latin American dance music, so a good outcome is that the dancers and the band have good energy between them.

And then finally, the Latin jazz group has the most freedom of the ones that we showed here.  There’s a very light structure within which the whole band is improvising, as you pointed out, Richard. Not much going is on with the sheet music, there. Any individual musician could take a live performance in a different direction than anyone had planned, and that would be viewed as a good thing. A good outcome in an improvising jazz group like that is that we collectively created something that was original and innovative.

Different styles have different structures and expectations, and that’s ok! Maybe the type of work you do requires following detailed checklists to reliably get high-quality results over and over again. Or maybe you’re on a team trying to create an innovative product or service the world has never seen before. Those two teams need really different structures, rules, incentives, and agreements. There is no one- size- all process for every kind of work.


I know there are a lot of musicians in our audience. So, I’m curious what resonated with you in the lessons we shared as well as what other connections you’ve seen between music and your work. Comment on YouTube or LinkedIn and share your thoughts.

Thanks for tuning in!


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