What You Can Learn from the 7 Habits of Highly Effective Musicians

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The other day, I referenced one of my all-time favourite books, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. It’s a fairly lengthy read, but I cannot recommend it enough. I can’t recall if Covey actually recommends that you do this in the book, or if I read it somewhere else, but I’ve found that the most effective way to down the whole thing AND build the principles into your life is to read one “habit” at a time, integrate it, then wait a bit before picking the book back up and moving on to the next habit. Buy yourself a hard copy this January and put it on your desk or your bedside table and return to it a few times through the year – I promise it will bring rewards you aren’t even aware of right now.

To give you a little taste and hopefully get you intrigued, here are the 7 Habits in brief:

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The Original 7 Habits

Summarized by moi

1.    Be proactive.

You can’t change anything by just sitting around. Can. Not. Even if the “action” you take is to raise your vibration by doing things you enjoy and inviting blessings from the universe (thanks, Abraham Hicks!), you’re still DOING SOMETHING. The only person that can change your life is you. Period. As Sir Mix-a lot would say, “jump on it!”

2.    Begin with the end in mind.

When I was doing my MBA, I had a prof who always said “is your ladder against the right wall?” He was paraphrasing Covey, as it turns out. This principle can be construed as “make sure you have a good plan before you start anything” (if you’re a black-and-white kind of thinker), OR, “what you visualize and believe, you will manifest” (if you’re a little more woo woo). Me, I like a hybrid of the two.

3.    Put first things first.

This principle has been rephrased and repositioned by other authors as “prioritize the important over the urgent.” It’s all about getting ahead on tasks that actually move the needle, and placing more value on them than on the endless (and largely unimportant) demands of your day-to-day. Easy to say, hard to put into practice.

4.    Think win-win.

I love this one, because I truly believe it can change how we think about the fine arts. Thinking win-win is about refusing to give in to outdated thinking that trade-offs are a necessary part of life/transactions/relationships, and instead, allowing yourself to think creatively, empathetically, and collaboratively to find win-win outcomes. Love. It.

5.    Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

When I first read Covey’s book, this habit SHOOK me. When I was in music school, occasionally someone would point out something I did when I sang that I had NO idea I was doing. That’s how I felt about this. Become a wildly different learner, lover, friend, and colleague just by following this principle every time you listen and speak.

6.    Synergize.

If you’ve ever been fortunate enough to work on an extremely effective team, you understand the value of synergy. Synergy is about magnifying your efforts and the efforts of others through incredible collaboration, openness, and creativity. It’s 1+1=10, because of the unique magic created by uniting your specific contributions with those of your teammates.

7.    Sharpen the saw.

Finally, Covey identified that, in order to truly be exceptional, you gotta take care of yourself. You can’t just work relentlessly and expect to be effective; you need to tend to your own unique physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual needs. I love this view of self-care, because it’s based on the end result: continuously replenish yourself so you can keep kicking ass in whatever ways fire you up.


I love guiding principles, which is probably why I adore Covey so much. As you know, I’m a musician by training, as is my husband (who is still a professional classical musician as his full time job). As well, most of our friends are also classical musicians, and we’ve spent a LOT of time with musicians over the years. As such, I’ve come to notice some trends in what I would describe as “highly effective musicians.”  

Covey’s 7 Habits are actually in three groups: the first three habits are what he calls “self-mastery” habits, the next three are about working with others, and habit seven is about renewal and taking care of the whole person. So, using (stealing) that model, I want to dive in to the habits I see in the most elite, well-rounded, grounded, effective musicians.

You will be unsurprised to see that these, like Covey’s original 7 Habits, are pretty universal, and I hope you will have a read and see what could be reframed for your own life.  

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7 Habits of Highly Effective Musicians

Self-Mastery

1.    Always move forward.

Kaizen – continuous improvement – is the name of the game for highly effective musicians. The drive to persevere and improve as technicians, and to grow and evolve as artists, is the fire that continuously burns under exceptional musicians. It’s what gets them up early in the morning to practice, what makes them take on new challenges, and what keeps their playing fresh and exciting. As well, truth of the matter is that even the greatest musicians in the world make mistakes – it’s just the nature of the art form, especially when you’re doing a lot of performances each year. Highly effective musicians absolutely must be able to move forward from mistakes, learning from them, forgiving themselves for them, but most importantly, leaving them in the past where they belong.  And on that note…

2.    You must be both kind to yourself and hard on yourself.

The best musicians are able to find the balance between being honest with themselves (read: hard on themselves) when things just aren’t good enough, but also kind to themselves about how to move forward. As a musician, you have to learn to be your own teacher, since you’ll continue to learn your whole career. So basically, you need to learn to be a strict and demanding task-master who gets shit done, but also a nurturing comfort to yourself who is understanding and patient.

3.    Plan ahead… way ahead.

Highly effective musicians are really good planners because they have to be. They’re on top of their music-related calendars and to-do lists like nobody’s business. Musicians know about big upcoming performances many months or even years in advance, and they need to make meticulous plans for how they’re going to be ready for that date, because – guess what – the concert day is going to come whether they’re ready or not. And they don’t just prepare one thing at a time. Ohhh no. High caliber musicians are constantly working on several programs at a time, meaning a level of planning that would blow most people’s minds. But by planning ahead and staying on top of the organization side of things, musicians are able to set that stress aside and focus on what really matters: the actual preparation – i.e., practicing.

Interdependence

4.    Have convictions, but don’t be a dick about them.

Preparing a piece of music is a deeply personal endeavour. Musicians spend hours upon hours listening to recordings, reading about the work and its composer, interpreting the score, and, of course, playing the notes on the page. From all of that comes the musician’s unique interpretation of the work, which they then take into rehearsal with their fellow musician collaborators who have all just done the same thing. Forming convictions about the piece is not optional, because without this artistic viewpoint, not a lot of actual Art gets made. However, if a musician comes into rehearsal with such strongly-held convictions that they’re totally inflexible and closed off from the interpretations of others, ain’t no Art getting made there either. Also, everyone will hate them. Musicians need to explain their interpretation and where it came from (and it’s okay to have strong convictions about it!), but also be open to the ideas of colleagues, and show a little flexibility to arrive at a synergistic conclusion together.

5.    Listen, say “yes,” and react.

There’s a great convention of improv theatre that I’ve written about before known as “yes, and.” In improv, if someone throws out a CRAZY idea or character or line mid-scene, you don’t say “um, Geoff, I was really hoping this scene would continue along the path I laid out for it a second ago.” No. When Geoff says “oh my god the ground is lava!” you say, “YES, AND I’m the only one with lava-proof boots, so hop on my back and I’ll carry you to safety!” In classical music, it’s (shockingly!) really similar. All of a sudden, a fellow musician will make a subtle (or not so subtle) change in their interpretation, and in real time, you need to (1) listen, (2) say “yes”, and (3) react to what they’ve done. This is the beautiful dance of classical music, and if you’ve closed yourself off to it because you’re either not listening or not open to different possibilities, you’re really going to miss out (and so will your colleague, and so will your audience).

6.    Be a fucking delight to work with.

I can’t remember who I first heard say this, but I’m pretty sure it was an actor (if you know, email or DM me!). IMO, there is no better habit, particularly if you (like musicians) are in some sort of gig economy job. If you: answered your emails in a timely and clear fashion leading up to the gig, showed up prepared (and early!), were friendly and easy-going with staff and collaborators, and gave off an air of reliability, low-maintenance, and – if possible – fun, you WILL be hired back for whatever it is you’re working on. People like working with people who aren’t a pain in the ass. The fact that you deliver the goods at the end (here, a stellar performance) just isn’t enough. It’s a given. The rest is what really sets you apart.

Personal Care

7.    Be the master of your own life.

Truly exceptional musicians are very, very good at remembering that they’re running this show (the show being: their own lives). So if they need more sleep, they find time for it. If they need a new instrument, they find a way to buy one. If they need more stimulation after a year of touring the same opera role, they plan a recital. They treat tending to their body, their instrument, their mind, and their spirit all as proactive endeavours that require constant reevaluation and maintenance. In everything they do, they place an enormous amount of personal accountability, which is rare in our current culture and which also separates truly exceptional musicians from the pack. Grab the reins and drive this pony where you want to go because, as highly effective musicians know and as Covey says in the original First Habit, no one is going to do it for you.


There it is, guys – two sets of 7 Habits that I hope you are able to apply to your own life in whatever stage of development you’re currently at. If you’re a musician, I’d love to hear if these resonated for you, and if you’re not, I hope this has both given you some insight into the lives of exceptional classical musicians, as well as some ideas about other ways to frame your own continuous improvement. Until tomorrow!