Tools, training, time, and a great piano teacher

It was Monday night after dinner.  My thirteen year old son and I got in the car and started on the drive to hockey practice.  I drove and he texted.  I was in the middle a struggle to come up with a topic for this post.  My son finished a text, snapped his phone shut, and blurted out “Mozart wrote a note to his dad.  He told him that he thought silence was the most important part of music.”  I responded, “Really.”  “He was a rule breaker,” he said.  He paused then continued, “The music of the time was smooth with a regular pattern.  But he did things that weren’t pleasing to the ear like using 7th notes and Bs right next to B flats.  Do you know what else he did?”  “No,” I said.  “He put a fermata right in the middle of one of his pieces.  That’s a rest that’s as long as you want it to be.  When you use a fermata you can stop, go out and get a cup of coffee, and come back later and start playing and that’s okay.”  “Really,” I said.

I dropped him off at the rink and pulled into a parking spot so I could write in the car (don’t knock it until you try it).  I jotted down some scattered thoughts, and it hit me.  Jackie!  It was Jackie.  His piano teacher was behind all this.  That morning she taught him about Mozart.  I now had my topic.

Jackie is a great piano teacher – really great.  Sure, she’s got the pedigree, but more importantly she has the ability to reach my son.  She can help him grow his thinking, help him think differently, help him build new thinking for himself.  And this new thinking isn’t the kind that stops at his head, but makes it all the way into his chest.  He feels this new thinking in his chest.  We can learn a lot from Jackie.  I want to look at her system for teaching new thinking, which she does under the cover of teaching piano, and compare it to how we improve our engineering thinking under cover of developing new products.  Sounds like a stretch, I know, but I’ll take a shot at it.

The framework for Jackie’s system can be described by the three Ts – tools, training, and time.  Let’s start with tools.

On tools, Jackie says we must have a piano at home and she wants it tuned regularly (she wants him to hear the right notes).  I am not complaining; she knows what will help him.  When my son gets really good, she will say our upright’s action limits his progress and we should buy a good, used baby grand.  Thankfully, he’s not there yet…or is he?  `

On tools, we in the product development community do things differently.  We say – your computers are fast enough, and we’re not buying new ones; that new analysis software is too expensive; you don’t need that new oscilloscope because I don’t understand why you want it, and it’s too expensive anyway; quit your complaining and design me a better product.  Jackie expects my son to improve his playing and knows that good tools are essential.  We product development folks certainly expect our engineers to improve their designing, but don’t want to pay for the essential tools.

On training, Jackie holds one-on-one training sessions with my son every week.  Every week the teacher and the student spends 45 minutes together in front of two very nice pianos (more good tools).  This is where Jackie reaches into him and helps him create new thinking.  He comes out of the training session smarter and more capable and with new thinking.  The training is not free.  We must pay her for her time.  I am not complaining; that’s the cost of doing this business.  And, that’s not the only cost.  My wife picks him up from school in the middle of the day, drives him to his training session, waits for the session to end, and drives him back to school.  This is a big commitment, but she pays the price because it’s worth it.

On training, we in the product development community do things differently.  Before we consider training we ask for a ROI on the training, like it’s even possible to calculate such a thing.  When we do decide to provide training, we balk at the very best stuff and go with the stuff that’s the best bang-for-the-buck.  And we certainly don’t do one-one-one training; we dilute the teacher beyond all effectiveness with a student/teacher ratio in the hundreds.  Sure more engineers sit through the training, but do they learn anything?  Do they create new thinking for themselves?  Do they use their new thinking and go at their product development work like their hair is on fire?

On time, Jackie expects my son to practice during the week.  She knows that’s part of the deal.  No practice, no improvement, and practice takes time.  She knows there is little value in investing in a piano and paying for lessons without making the time for practice.  Makes sense to me, and it works.  She can tell when he does not practice, and, thankfully, she calls him on it.  He is accountable for his own improvement, but she is there to help.

On time, we in the product development community do things differently.  If we do manage to make the investments in the tools and training, it’s not required to give the engineers the time to practice, to learn, to do the work.  Do they really need all that time to incorporate new thinking into their work?

Jackie finishes the year with a nice recital, a culmination of the year’s work where the students get to show their stuff.  It’s beautiful to watch, to see their progress, to see them do more than they ever thought possible.  Beautiful, too, is to see a team of engineers given the tools, training, and time do more than they ever thought possible.

After writing, I call Jackie and thank her.  She thanks me back.

Click here to see the video

It’s beautiful when it all comes together.

3 Responses to “Tools, training, time, and a great piano teacher”

  • Ship,

    Awesome post drawing fantastic analogies, as well as an amazing performance. If you haven’t, you all should see Ben Zander perform I have known him for a few years and he is amazing performer, teacher, and leader. You can see more here – please watch this video – he’s awesome:


  • Dorothy Judd:

    Mike, I got something totally different from this post. That “Fermata thing” is what caught my attention. I think we need one for our lives. I would like to be able to stop right in the middle of things, go out, get a cup of coffee [or a margarita :-)], and come back and pick up where I left off with no ill consequences!

  • Mike:

    Dorothy, what a great notion — stop right in the middle of life and do whatever you want. I think it’s possible, but the hard part seems to decide to stop. They serve margaritas after 12:00….

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