Sticky Notes of Thoughts

…because some thoughts are worth remembering

On Management Skills I Learned From My Piano Teacher


When I decided to take some piano lessons during my senior year in college to have some sort of a balance between writing my thesis and the rest of the world, I didn’t realize I would learn skills for life.

It’s OK to Know What You Want; It’s OK to Be Different

I was assigned to a piano teacher, who phoned me to assess my expectations. I did not make a good first impression when I opened with “I don’t really care for Mozart’s piano music”. The conversation ended abruptly with “I see, you haven’t yet developed your appreciation for Mozart. Let me refer you to a ‘different’ teacher.” Had I not spoken up, I would not have met Maria who taught me more than she or I realized at the time.

…and so my lessons started.

Own Your Experience

On my first day when I entered the room, there were two pianos. After a brief hello, she asked me to play on each of them pianos. I assumed it was some sort of technical assessment, so I played sheepishly. She then asked me which piano I preferred, which felt better for me. I remember feeling warm inside with gratitude that she cared about my experience before she even started teaching. I picked the second one with more tactile resistance. From then on, it would be my piano.

Share Your Spotlight & Experience Being Part of Something Larger

Despite being the most junior student she had, she asked me if I would be willing to turn pages for her at her recital. When I agreed, she took time to chat about what to expect, and answered my questions. Why would she risk having a newbie turn her pages for her own concert? Being on stage with her was nothing short of magical. Seeing my own teacher in action. I remember thinking I want to think larger than just my own performance in life.

This lesson continued when I told her how captivated I was with her performance, and new music she introduced me to through the concert. I think I mentioned something about Paul Juon (I believe it was his Piano Trio), and immediately she stashed out her piano part and asked me to play a few bars. Wait, what? That’s the piece a professional played at a real concert…with audience and everything. I’m just barely sight-reading. My heart must have been beating close to the speed of light because it felt like forever, but I did manage to play all the notes in the end. I don’t think I’ve ever felt such a sense of accomplishment attempting something so grand in my mind and completing it so poorly. I remember thinking, this is another way of being larger.

Instructive Guidance & Visionary Instructions

It must have been that sense of accomplishment which carried me through when she suggested I study the piece a few bars at a time. It took me a whole week to muddle through 4 or 5 measures. When I played them for her, there was no expression of judgment on her face. She looked pensive for a second and then she said something like “play as if there is a ghost in the room”. When I did my best to interpret that, I noticed my tempo got better, and I hit gently all the notes that needed to be soft, and the other notes came out appropriately firm. My awkward fingering somehow got straightened out, and my “hand posture” was nice and rounded as it should have been. I remember thinking there must have been some magic spell in her single instruction that corrected so many of my faults.

Looking back on it years later,  I realized how there is a place for specific requests I make of them (e.g., “we need customer emails to be responded within 48 hrs”), but that there are probably more opportunities where everyone working towards a common shared vision (e.g., “providing customer service we would want”) can transcend specific instructions.

I strive to give visionary instructions where possible. Because it requires a certain level of mindfulness, wisdom and experience, I don’t succeed very often. Identifying a shared vision, however, is a good start.

Make Yourself Obsolete

At my last lesson with her, we chatted at the end about lessons I can give myself, even though she knew I wasn’t a serious student or had any sort of natural talent to polish. “You can record yourself play. Train yourself to listen.” “Sometimes you have to play with other people to be able to listen to yourself.” Every sentence she uttered seemed to come from a place of mastery and she was so willing to part with it… part with her role as my teacher. The lesson was immediately applicable in everything I did: to be able to have some level of objectivity in assessing your own work. But it wasn’t until much later when I started teaching physics in high school that I realized my role as a teacher is to make myself obsolete. The lesson stayed with me as a manager as well.

I am grateful to have had Maria Choban (check out her blog and record company) as my piano teacher whose lessons I still practice (and a big thank you to my first assigned teacher who had the foresight to refer me for an experience that was something “different”)

Photo: A Christmas street market in Aix-en-Provence, France


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This entry was posted on June 5, 2015 by in Uncategorized.
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