By Meghan Cummings | From the January/February 2020 issue of Strings Magazine
When it became clear that playing the violin wasn’t going to constitute my livelihood, I didn’t know how to transition from life-defining commitment to mere hobby. I played sporadically for a few years and got frustrated when my fingers could no longer deftly handle a tricky passage that my decade-younger self played as a simple warm-up. But the joy of playing returned and, over the years, my violin became a tool of escape—a carefree outlet to release the professional pressures of leading a nonprofit organization tackling poverty and equity issues.
I love the work to which I’ve devoted my professional life, and making positive, long-term, systemic changes to support the self-sufficiency of women in the Cincinnati area is vitally important—but it is equally complex. My job is a swirl of competing priorities and personalities that requires all my skills as an organizer and leader. I never thought that music would teach me how to do my job better.
I joined a community orchestra and relished my time making music with others. Rehearsals became dedicated time to practice mindfulness—zeroing in on the sound of the oboe solo during my 16-measure rest, feeling the pressure of my fingertips on the fingerboard, smelling the cloud of particle dust rising from my newly rosined bow as I drew it across the strings.
My stand partner, Amy, and I had already gracefully relinquished the days of competitive auditions and self-worth defined by one’s seat assignment. That drive for perfection that marked our early Suzuki days was replaced with an authentic longing to learn and grow in our musicality. We knew we were ready to for the next musical challenge, so we booked tickets to the edge of our comfort zones: a three-day Scor! string camp for adults led by Eastman School of Music graduates Beth and Kyle Bultman.
I was nervous. Would my playing stack up? Would we be subjected to hours of Wohlfahrt drills or be put on the spot with a solo request?
But the anxiety I experienced before the camp was completely unfounded. They welcomed musicians of all playing levels with warmth and enthusiasm, putting each participant immediately at ease. Scor! was one of the best things I’ve ever done. It unlocked my playing, in both technique and confidence. It gave me permission to try new things and fail. The experience completely transcended music. In this firmly musical space, I unexpectedly learned a lot about leadership that had everything to do with my social-justice work. In three magical days, as we played our hearts out and laughed in camaraderie, I realized this wasn’t just music camp. This was a master class in leadership. Here’s what I learned.
10 Leadership Lessons from Strings
1. Sometimes as a leader, you play the melody out in front and sometimes your job is to play the strong quarter notes in the background to keep the group together. Both jobs are equally important.
2. We will inevitably get lost in our lives, both personally and professionally. Camp faculty made us look away from the sheet music during key passages so we would intentionally lose our place. This rattled every fiber of my perfectionist core. But it taught me that what’s important is finding your place again and jumping back into the action.
3. Our tables are not complete unless we have diverse perspectives represented, just as symphony orchestras are not complete without different instruments playing. How can you have a complete sound if you are not inviting all the instruments to play?
4. The rests are just as important as the notes. Silence shapes a conversation just as it shapes a phrase of music. Don’t fill the silence—let it do its job. The Hallelujah Chorus is nothing without that grand pause before the last phrase.
5. Progress is not linear. In developing skills as a violinist, there are times of stagnation and times of growth. The same goes for work on complex community issues. Be patient with yourself and the work.
6. If something is easy for you, find a way to do it even better. There is always more to learn and perfect. Even basic half notes can be played with better tone, different bow technique, and more feeling. A growth mindset is key in music and in leadership.
7. Good technique is the foundation to everything. If I didn’t learn the correct posture, bow hold, and finger placement when I first started the violin, I’d never be able to stack new skills and techniques. Invest in your younger staff and give them the opportunity to master foundational skills. It will give them a base on which to grow.
8. Let’s rename mistakes as “miss takes.” On a movie set, it’s expected that multiple takes will be required for all the elements to come together perfectly. Mistakes are not fatal in most careers. Certainly, no one will die if I play an F-sharp instead of an F-natural. When you have a “miss take” at rehearsal or in your career, listen, adjust, and try again.
9. Context is important. Your style has to vary based on the situation. When I’m playing Baroque, my notes are separated and light. When I play classical, I can use a lot of vibrato and draw out a longer, richer tone. It’s a musical code switch. As leaders, we need to match our style to the context of the situation.
10. Doing something that is hard is a great way to develop grit. Grit is passion plus perseverance. Whether you are trying to master a difficult étude or address a complicated community issue, there are no shortcuts. Grit gives you the strength to take the long road.
This article was last updated in November 2022.