Making Music vs. Playing the Notes

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I enjoy playing the piano. People may not enjoy listening to me play the piano, but I still enjoy it. This morning I was playing through a jazz version of the Beatles’ Strawberry Fields Forever. I started working on it this past weekend, and I’m pretty close to having it under my fingers now. In a couple of days, I should have the notes down. But it will still be far from “audience ready.” See, there’s a difference between “playing the notes” and “making music.”

When you’re still just “playing the notes,” that’s where your focus is: the notes. You don’t have it down cold yet, so you’re still concentrating on what note comes next, where you fingers should be, is it a sharp or a flat, and any number of other details. Success means making it through the piece without making a mistake.

When you’re “making music,” you forget about the notes. Your fingers just know where to go. At this point you can turn your attention to things like the ebb and flow of the music, how it develops, how you want to interpret it. Success means creating an emotional response in the hearts and minds of your listeners.

If you’re not a musician, think of it this way. When you’re just learning a new language and are trying to have a conversation in that language, you’re “playing the notes.” Your focus is on the mental translation, what word comes next, what’s the correct grammar. But when you’re carrying on a conversation in your native tongue, you already have these elements down. You don’t have to think about them. Your focus now is on developing and communicating a thought. You’re “making music.”

So here’s my question to you today. In your work, your business—are you “making music,” or are you just “playing the notes”? Whatever it is you do for a living, do you have it down cold? If you’re a salesperson, do you know your product inside and out, so that when a customer askes you a question you don’t have to focus on remembering the details, but can instead focus on communicating those details in the most effective way to make the sale? That’s what it means to be a professional.

The Beatles made music—but only because they put in the time and effort to learn the notes. Captain Sullenberger “made music” when he landed that jetliner in the Hudson River, but only because he had spent countless hours in the cockpit and in the simulator, practicing emergency situations.

I don’t know what constitutes an emergency situation in your world, but have you “run the simulations”? Have you practiced your responses so thoroughly that if and when one of these situations arises, you don’t even have to think about it? (For example, if somebody cuts you off in traffic, or a child runs out in the street, do you have to think about moving your right foot five inches to the left and pressing down on the brake? Nope—by the time you think it, you’ve already done it.)

Don’t be content to just “play the notes” in your work. The people who do that are the ones who don’t make it through the tough times. Trust me—your chances of success are much greater when you truly “make music.”


About the Author:

29-time Emmy Award winner and Hall of Fame keynote speaker Bill Stainton, CSP is an expert on Innovation, Creativity, and Breakthrough Thinking. He helps leaders and their teams come up with innovative solutions — on demand — to their most challenging problems.
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