Playing the “Big Game”

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People are often surprised when I tell them that studying entrepreneurship helped me become a better musician. And no, it’s not just that I got better at marketing myself and networking (though those were welcome byproducts). Developing an entrepreneurial mindset — a mindset characterized by openness, creativity, positivity, resilience — gave me the tools I needed to transform my technical music training into playing the “Big Game.”

Embracing failure

“Creativity isn’t about wild talent as much as it’s about productivity. To find new ideas that work, you need to try a lot that don’t. It’s a pure numbers game.” — Robert Sutton

If you’ve spent any time around the Stanford d.school or Silicon Valley startups, you’ve probably heard the mantra “fail early and often.” In the startup world, entrepreneurs accept failure as a necessary step towards innovation. As researcher Brené Brown succinctly puts it,

“There is no innovation and creativity without failure. Period.”

Why? Because in order to do something that’s never been done before, you have to try things that have uncertain outcomes. Some of them will work, and many will not, but it’s impossible to know which ones will lead to success without giving all of them a shot.

There are many examples of failing to succeed in the world of technology innovation. Thomas Edison famously failed “1,000 times” before inventing the light bulb. The adhesive that became the essential component of the Post-It Note® was a failed attempt at creating a super-adhesive.

In the tech world, while people don’t necessarily WANT to fail, they see a failed outcome as an opportunity to learn and grow. Because of this, the industry supports a healthy culture of risk-taking.

In the music world, many of us learn to fear failure from a very early age. Our teachers guide us through the “right” and “wrong” ways to play different pieces of music. Recordings, many of which have been engineered to sound as flawless as possible, teach us that perfection is our end goal as performers. This quest for perfection and adherence to what’s “right” in classical music often comes from a good place — our desire to uphold tradition, do right by the composer, and deliver a strong performance. But it also has the unintended side effects of making us deathly afraid to try something new, to put our own spin on things, and to take risks onstage. This fear of failure leads to the stale, rigid performances that unfortunately permeate much of today’s classical music landscape.

How did we get here? Classical music didn’t used to be this way. For centuries, many of the best classical musicians were not only performers but also composers and improvisers. J.S. Bach improvised organ music during church services. Mozart and Beethoven used to improvise on popular tunes of the time and complete their compositions onstage in performance.

Clive Brown, Professor of Applied Musicology at University of Leeds and editor for Bärenreiter, believes that our strict adherence to musical scores plays a large role. He explains,

“The old musicians understood that there were many aspects of an effective and engaging performance that could not be embodied in the score. Tempo was often expected to be more flexible. Rhythms could be bent in a manner we still hear in jazz and other types of popular music. Notes weren’t always [to] be taken cleanly, but often approached with various kinds of slides and tonal inflections. Vibrato was an ornamental effect rather than a continuous and regular oscillation of the sound…

These are just a few of the ways that musicians built on the raw notation in order to turn a merely correct performance into a fine one, making concerts much more exciting and vibrant events. But these practices were gradually eliminated in the early 20th century.”

Brown credits these changes to the modern recording industry, music competitions, and rigid conservatory instruction. As someone who grew up within that ecosystem, I agree. While my early conservatory training helped me build a strong foundation as a player, it also taught me that there is a “right” and “wrong” way to approach classical music, and that it’s better to play it safe than to do something interesting at the risk of having it flop. The end result, while I learned how to play in tune and make a nice sound, was that I became so scared of playing something wrong or making a mistake onstage that I stopped thinking for myself as a musician. I became the rigid musician that I was trained to be, and in the process, I lost touch with the creativity and vitality that is at heart of musical masterpieces that I was presenting to my audience.

When I started school at Stanford, two things changed. I began taking entrepreneurship and design classes, which helped me understand the relationship between risk, failure, and creativity. I also stopped taking regular weekly lessons, and for the first time in my life was largely responsible for my own musical development. The combination of coursework and unstructured time with the instrument gave me the tools and the space to start thinking for myself as a musician, for the first time in the nearly 15 years that I’d been playing. The conversation in my head slowly started to change from “am I playing this the right way?” to “I wonder if this phrasing or color choice will resonate with the audience in this passage.” I stopped caring as much about what people thought of my playing and started to focus on my relationship with the audience instead.

By slowly changing my fear of failing and being “wrong” into a quest for a connection with the audience, I not only lost some of the anxiety that often accompanies a high-stakes performance, but I also began to feel freer onstage.

That small insight from the startup world — that failure is not inherently bad, but instead a necessary step towards discovering something new — freed me from the rigid structure of my classical training and set me on the path towards becoming a more dynamic and creative musician.

Technique serves musicality

“The most perfect technique is that which is not noticed at all.” — Pablo Casals

As a student in the Mayfield Fellows Program (a 9-month fellowship rooted in Silicon Valley technology entrepreneurship), I learned about the role of “vision” and “execution” in technology companies in the Valley. Put simply, “vision” is the why of the company, and “execution” is the how. Both are essential to starting a successful business: without a vision, there is literally no point to the startup, and without top-notch execution, the company will not be able to succeed amidst the highly competitive landscape. In the startup world, the relationship between vision and execution is clear: great execution is the means to achieving a vision. It’s never the end game, but rather the toolkit for achieving success.

In music, we have similar concepts, but instead of “vision” we call it “musicality” and instead of “execution” we call it “technique.” The same truth exists in music: technique exists to serve the musical vision. However, because of the emphasis on perfecting technique during the early stages of musical development, most classical musicians grow up thinking that technique is the end game, rather than a means to an end. Learning technique becomes the sole focus of many young musicians, and musicality only reappears in conversation once students have a certain level of mastery of the instrument.

As a result of spending so many years focused exclusively on technique, many classical musicians lose touch with their unique sense of musicality and become incapable of exercising that muscle when the situation finally calls.

I’ve experienced the effects of overemphasizing technique myself. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve locked myself in a practice room trying to get a tricky passage to sound perfect, only realizing later that this pressure for perfection took away from my ability to communicate while playing those perfectly rehearsed notes.

I’m not suggesting that technique doesn’t matter; in fact, it’s essential to communicating any musical idea. But the purpose of learning technique should be contextualized at all phases of musical development, so that instead of learning technique for technique’s sake, we learn technique to broaden our musical toolkit.

What if, from the very beginning of a classical musician’s education, the point of learning technique was to become a better musician, not a better operator of the instrument? What if the musical instrument was not the center of attention, but merely a tool to communicate the thoughts and emotions behind the music?

Violinist Vilde Frang, who is one of the most creative and powerful performers of her generation, embodies this ideal. In an interview with The Strad magazine, Frang explains that playing the violin “had [always] been about the pleasure of music making.” It wasn’t until she turned 16 that she started practicing scales and nailing down her technique, because “I knew that I also had to take on the serious technical element if I was to achieve the right level.” For those skeptics who believe that rigid technical development is a necessary step towards musical freedom, just listen to Frang’s version of the Mendelssohn violin concerto.

When the focus is musicality, rather than technique, musicians can quit the quest for perfection and start focusing instead on communication with the audience. The outcome is performers like Frang, who have total command over the instrument but who also captivate you with their musical storytelling from the moment they walk onstage.

As musicians, no matter what genre, our job is to communicate with the audience. To tell a story. To take people on an emotional journey. That’s the Big Game.

Why it matters

Here’s the good news: the classical music world has started to appreciate the importance of entrepreneurial skills. Schools like Juilliard and Curtis now require all undergrads to take classes like “Social Entrepreneur” and “The Musician as Entrepreneur.” Major competitions and management agencies are starting to seek out musicians with entrepreneurial drive in addition to artistic talent. Orchestras have started experimenting with programming and concert venues. All of this is a great start, but we are still falling short.

Entrepreneurship is so much more than building a website, or starting a concert series, or programming a concert with a twist. It’s about embodying an entrepreneurial spirit, characterized by openness, a willingness to take risks, a desire to learn from our failures, and a relentless pursuit of truly connecting with our audiences. If we want the future of classical music to become truly “accessible” and enjoyable for audiences, we need to bring this approach to everything we do as musicians every single time we pick up our instruments.

The philosophy and techniques that have been behind the phenomenal success of Silicon Valley can be taught and learned. It’s time to infuse them into our musical education system.

I encourage you to start playing the Big Game. We owe it to the creative geniuses whose musical masterpieces bring joy and inspiration to our lives.

Illustrations by Eric Kofman.

About the author

Violist Deanna Badizadegan enjoys a diverse performing career, including recent solo performances at TEDxStanford and with Boston’s Eureka Ensemble, a performance for which she was praised for “command[ing] the orchestra with her outwardly expressive style.” An avid chamber musician, she has performed with the Boston Chamber Music Society, the St. Lawrence and Borromeo String Quartets, and the Perlman Music Program Chamber Music Workshop and Four Seasons Winter Workshop. She has received numerous awards for her playing, including the Stanford University Peter & Carol Polk Undergraduate Music Award, Stanford University Dan Robinson Music Award, and SFCM Germain Prevost Viola Scholarship. She currently holds a one-year position as Section Violist with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, East Coast Chamber Orchestra, and Sejong Soloists.

In addition to her musical studies, Deanna Badizadegan earned a M.S. in Management Science & Engineering and a B.S. in Organizational Design & Engineering from Stanford University, where she graduated both Tau Beta Pi and Phi Beta Kappa. She also holds a Professional Studies Diploma from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and is currently on leave from the Graduate Diploma program at the New England Conservatory. Her teachers include Kim Kashkashian, Paul Hersh, Lesley Robertson, Jodi Levitz, and Michelle LaCourse.

About the illustrator

Eric Kofman has been drawing ever since he could hold a pencil. When he’s not doodling he can be found playing guitar or working on his current project, an original rock opera about the life and times of Fritz Haber.

Deanna Badizadegan