Music has been a major part of my life, starting early on. My mother’s diary speaks of the day when the 26-week-old me discovered that a piano responds to my touch to make a sound. By age two, I was able to sing over fifty Japanese songs with precise intonation.
I must have decided early on, although not consciously, that it was okay to not be the best at everything, if it meant that I could play more music. Of course I wasn’t thinking that deeply about my life, but now I realize this about my past self, because whenever I got a time-consuming assignment or a project from school, I tended to not do them, opting to practice with my time instead. Of course I tried to make sure that my grades did not dip so low to a point to fail the class, but I was not always successful.
One evening after I came home with a failing report card, I was trying to sleep when I overheard my parents discussing in the dining area. The topic was whether I should stop playing music so that I can focus on my studies more. Thankfully, they decided against that idea. My father’s precise words were, “But if we take away music from Shin, he would have nothing left.” I think he underestimated me a bit though, as I have achieved some things outside of music too. I was just a late bloomer on most of my pursuits in life.
When I got in trouble with my mother, unlike most mothers who would take away their video games or a day out with friends, she took away my ride to music lessons. That did not deter me, and I simply walked. My cello teacher’s house was a 1.5-hour walk each way, and so I walked from and to the lesson, with a cello on my back.
When I was in high school, my father left his job to pursue more education. My parents said that they were financially okay to continue paying for our living expenses, but the music lessons had to go. That’s when I decided to take the only job I knew how to get at that time, a minimum wage job washing dishes in a restaurant in the evenings and weekends, and used almost all of my earnings from the job to continue with the lessons. Surprisingly, this was a change for the better (take note, parents). Did you know that people value things much more when they have to pay for it? I never knew until then, but from that day forward, I have never hesitated spending money for my education. I even asked my piano teacher to charge me more so I would take my studies more seriously.
When it came time to decide on a college major, I considered studying music for a bit, but the practical side of me won out and I chose physics instead, and I eventually changed to an even more practical major in engineering. Little did I know that the lessons I learned through music would propel me in all these pursuits.
Looking back, I still don’t know why music has always been such a large part of my life, but in hindsight, I do realize what a positive force it has been in all aspects. I attribute so much of the beauty of life: my happiness, a meaningful and challenging career that I’ve been lucky to have, relationships with other growth-oriented people, and the insights to make good decisions. Here are some key takeaways:
I couldn’t bullshit my way through music.
In an academic environment, I can have the illusion of having mastered something. For example, if I do everything that a teacher tells me to do, I can expect to receive an “A” in a course and I would think that I have mastered it. But in reality, getting an A is hardly “mastering” that subject, as plenty of students get A’s, unlike in the real world where only a few are called “masters” of any field. Compare that to music. Music is very honest, and less confusing. The music that comes out when I sit down at the piano and improvise is a very real reflection of the work that I put in, and my limitations because of the work that I did not put in yet. I doubt that I will ever get to call myself a “master” of music. As such, just sitting down in front of a piano daily aligns my goals to my long-term growth. It’s the small things that matter. The daily decisions to act in ways that improve the unseen future, that’s what most of life boils down to.
Music taught me about “abstraction”.
Some people are puzzled why pianists can memorize a long piece of music, such as a 3-movement sonata. If you think just in terms of the number of notes, it should be impossible that any human can just memorize so much information. But music is not about memorizing notes. It is about how the notes are combined with other notes, and how that combination of notes moves to the next combination of notes. All of those follow a few common patterns that appear in lots of different places within all genres of music. These common patterns are the “abstractions” of music, and by having the knowledge about more and more of these abstractions, what I am able to create musically has increased exponentially over time.
I later learned that my other pursuits in life, such as physics and engineering, are also largely built on this concept of abstraction. So a difficult problem is actually not a complex problem. It is a combination of many simple problems that add up to give it its seemingly complex nature.
Something I’ve noticed about my philosophy in life is that unlike many people who tend to focus on the end-goals and results, I don’t have long-term goals, nor am I interested in what the final result of my actions will be. Kind of like a good poker player, who can detach the aspect of decision making from the result of their actions which are driven by luck. I have never had typical aspirations in life such as getting married, buying a nice house, or being successful. If they happen, great. If not, also great. My focus has simply been on building up my skills from the foundation up, like a pyramid, and I just let life unfold. As a result, I get off to slower start compared to others, but I eventually get to a point where my foundation is strong so that I can learn things faster. That explains my struggles in math classes early on, and my eventual success in physics and engineering. It also explains I was never the kid to enter piano competitions. What I could play was extremely basic compared to other kids taking piano lessons. Instead of learning to play impressive-sounding pieces by these genius composers, I was slowly building up my ear for music by listening to songs and learning them by ear, note by note and chord by chord.
The result is that now I can hear a piece of music and learn and understand both the melody and its chord progressions in a matter of minutes. I can join a band and come up with a piano part on the spot to make the band better. I can compose a piece of music at will. I can accompany a singer singing in any key without sheet music. I can improvise my way out when I get lost during a performance. It turns out that all these skills are important to a musician.
Abraham Lincoln apparently believed in this “foundations-up” approach too, as he said “give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”
Music is more science than art
Although music is so powerful in appealing to the listener’s emotions, the process of becoming better at music is very scientific in nature, and has so much to do with planning effective practice sessions and executing on them. To detach the emotional part and focusing on the science almost seem wrong, and I even remember being told by a non-musician friend that I should “feel” the music more while I was drilling on a left-hand passage methodically with a metronome, but such practice can be a very effective way to develop the techniques so that later on when you are feeling that emotion in music, you have the capability to express that emotion by moving your hand in a very specific way that matches what the emotions require.
But music is still art
After all I said in the previous paragraph, the purpose of music is still to capture the beauty in the moment in time and space with your music. Music’s power is in its fleeting nature, as no same sound will ever be produced again. As such, music parallels life, because after all, there is so much joy in being alive and experiencing each current moment. It’s a tragedy that we forget this, and life goes on without us basking in the beauty of it.
Yesterday does not exist anymore, and tomorrow is not guaranteed. Today is different though. Today, we can choose what to make of it.