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15 Years Playing Classical Piano Taught Me This 1 Unforgettable Lesson About Discipline

Nicolas Cole

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I grew up in very musical household.

From the kitchen, my mother (a voice teacher) would sing. From the music room, my sister would practice classical violin–Bach or Tchaikovsky or Vivaldi. From the upright piano downstairs, my younger brother would play his latest piano composition. From the living room, my youngest brother would play a Jason Mraz or John Mayer song on the guitar. And after dinner, when it came time to put the dishes away and clean the kitchen, it was not uncommon for us, as a collective, to start singing a well-known family song in four part harmony.

It was like a movie musical.

I started playing piano when I was 5 years old. Honestly, my musical training started long before that. In the womb, my mother would teach choir classes and dance routines to college students, some part of me (I’m sure) internalizing the rhythms. When I was born, the only thing that would get me to stop screaming was very loud opera music–preferably sung by my mother. And when I was 2 years old, we would play this game on the piano where she would play a constant back-and-forth left hand melody, and I would get to pick notes to match with a right hand melody of my own.

I went on to study classical piano for over 15 years, and spent a good portion of my college years composing pieces of my own. 

The other night, my co-founder and I were talking through all the business items on our never-ending To Do list.

6 months ago, I launched my first company, Digital Press.

Interestingly enough, my co-founder and I have been making music together for almost a decade. From jamming out with a keyboard and drum set, to obsessively crafting hard-hitting rap instrumentals and even combining hip-hop drum patterns with legendary Beethoven sonatas, the way we approach business is half analytical, half expressive.

And any time we find ourselves faced with an obstacle, we draw parallels to lessons we’ve learned making music together.

Too many founders get caught up trying to tackle an entire musical piece at once–instead of breaking it down task by task, measure by measure.

If you’ve ever seen what a rigorously edited 25-page Chopin piece of sheet music looks like, then you know it’s entirely unrealistic to sit down and try to play the entire thing straight through on the first try.

Or even the second try.

Or even the seventy-fifth try.

My sheet music from my music notebooks as a kid are practically unreadable–thick red lines underlying entire measures, circling individual notes, with pencil markings so aggressive holes ripped through the paper. Mediocrity was not tolerated well by my brilliant and very accomplished piano teacher, and every single note in a piece was subject to scrutiny.

That said, it taught me a very important lesson about the learning process–as well as what it means to play a piece in its totality.

You can either look at an entire piano piece and see hundreds, if not thousands of notes, and immediately get overwhelmed by the task in front of you. Or, you can take it note by note, measure by measure, and immerse yourself in the process.

That’s lesson number one.

But the more important lesson starts to come when the learning begins to sink in–you’ve learned the notes, and now it’s time to start playing.

When you’re a founder, you are a conductor. 

You’re hiring people to fill certain roles–think of your sales team as the violin section, your account managers as cellos, your content strategists as the bassoons in the back. 

As these roles begin to take shape, it can become very easy to fall into the trap of saying to yourself, “I have so much to manage. There are so many moving pieces–I’m so stressed out.”

The same happens on an individual level when you’re playing a very difficult piece on the piano. You can either internalize that stress, feel your forearms light on fire and have every note carry an unnecessary amount of weight. Or, you can relax, remember that you’ve done the learning process and remind yourself it’s time to play–and play the exact same piece, same level of difficulty, effortlessly.

As a new entrepreneur, I have noticed too many entrepreneurs take pride in showing how stressed they are–as if their stress level is a positive reflection of their work ethic and devotion.

It’s not.

Being an overly stressed, anxious, hyperactive entrepreneur shows the opposite, actually.

In music, these would all be signs of a sup-par musician. And almost always lead to a mediocre musical experience.

It’s the musicians who can play in a complete state of relaxation that move audience members with their songs, and who stir emotions in anyone listening.

That’s the kind of entrepreneur you want to be.

This article originally appeared in Inc Magazine.

Nicolas Cole is the founder of Digital Press, a content marketing agency that turns founders, executives, and entrepreneurs into world-renowned thought leaders. As an author, Cole is a 4x Top Writer on Quora and Top 30 Columnist for Inc Magazine with over 50 million views on his work. His writing has appeared in TIME, Forbes, Fortune, Business Insider, CNBC, The Chicago Tribune, and more.

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