Life Lessons from Playing in a Band

I actually come from a musical family. My mother and father both studied music, my father being a professor in Mannheim, and my mother working as a piano teacher up to retirement. I got my first teaching lessons from my mother, but she handed me over to a colleague because it turned out to be too stressful to exactly know how much I practiced. Later I would quit altogether for two years in my teens, and when I started again, I chose to play jazz, mostly because I decided not to spent months on practicing a specific piece. I picked up on music theory pretty quickly and then just played along songs on the radio, got in a band. Taught myself the electric bass, had three rehearsals per week in my mid twenties. The past few years I taught myself to play guitar, IMHO the best compromise in terms of portability between a piano and a solo instrument. It can also be played very softly, excellent for practicing at night.

This is, in a nutshell, my story with regard to music. I’ve gotten okay, not as relentlessly good as a professional musician. Sometimes I don’t exactly know what my fingers are doing and I’m definitely more at home in some keys than in others but overall, but I can manage and to the untrained ear it definitely sounds legit.

Then again, what is the point? I won’t get rich or famous doing this. Still I always come back to realizing that learning an instrument and playing in a band taught me things beyond music, about life itself.

Practice make perfect

Till my twenties, I never practiced a lot. I could pick up pieces somehow with a little effort but it never felt as if I was getting somewhere. Then I started to practice more regularly and suddenly realized over the course of weeks and months that I got better. My fingers moved faster and it took less effort to think about what I was doing.

This is neural plasticity at work. I am really enjoying how at first thinking about what you are playing becomes not only faster but more abstract at the same time.

When I started to learn guitar, I barely knew where the individual notes on the fretboard were. I had the abstract knowledge about music theory, but putting a song together with melody note on top and some chord notes below literally took forever. Even moving the fingers into position took effort.

Then over time, things got marginally faster, until suddenly it wasn't about individual fingers anymore but I started to think about all the fingers at the same time. Next up was changing between chords. Then not just thinking about individual chords in terms of shapes but really knowing about the individual notes and their position with respect to the root note.

This probably doesn’t mean much to you if you have no background in music theory, but I have found this layered approach to learning over and over again. When you learn a new programming language, you first think only about the syntax, then you get familiar, see common blocks of code, then patterns, then architectures, and so on.

The bottom line is that as long as you keep exposing yourself and practicing, you will get better at almost anything. And the further you go, the more abstract will your thinking become, while still executing the same basic actions in reality. Also, learning an instrument is as much about the physical level, the finger movements, as it is about thinking.

Listening over Playing

One of the most surprising lessons to learn when you play in a band is that listening is just as important as playing. I was lucky to always have had good teachers that would push me to work on myself, and I will never forget that for a while they told me not to play at all.

The thing is, maybe especially in a jazz band where a lot of the music is improvised, but I think also in classical ensembles, what you play has to fit into what everybody else is playing. In so many ways. It has to fit in terms of timing, loudness, intensity and so on. And the first way to learn to respect this is to listen.

Listening can actually be learned just in the same way like any other skill. A trained musician can focus his listening on individual instruments, professionals (not me) can even write down what is played to some extent.

I think this skill to listen is just as important in any kind of team setting, to understand what everybody is doing, to see how you can fit in. Too many people are just listening to their own thinking without taking in what others are saying.

Miles Davis was known for being an immensely good listener. In interviews, his old bandmates would describe how sometimes he wasn’t playing at all but just listening and then playing a few notes, essentially summarizing everything that was going on, and giving a new direction, and then everybody was suddenly understanding what was going on.

It is not just about the technique

Just like programming, music can be an incredibly complex multilayered creative activity. Not only do you have to master your instrument physically, you also need to know which notes to play and when, convey some emotions, create a groove, and so on.

One important lesson I learned is that the technique is not the end goal, but it is just a tool to actually create music. Music speaks on so many more levels than just consisting of correctly times and phrased sounds. In the best case, music evokes associations, emotions, makes you want to dance, open ups a space for you to breath, or gives you a channel for your pain and angriness.

In a similar way, programming is not just about frameworks and paradigms, but about solving problems and creating value for humans, a fact which is sometimes overlooked. So next time you get hung up in a discussion about framework X vs Y remind yourself that these are just tools.