Riffs: Music News from Out and About


By Patricia Myers

“Is music the key to success? What is it about serious music training that seems to correlate with outsize success in many diverse fields?” were questions presented in a recent article in the New York Times Sunday Review. Author Joanne Lipman cited high-profile politicians and business professionals who had studied music, linking that to high achievement.

“Condoleezza Rice trained to be a concert pianist. Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, was a professional clarinet and saxophone player. The hedge fund billionaire Bruce Kovner is a pianist who took classes at Juilliard,” wrote Lipman, co-author with Melanie Kupchynsky of the book “Strings Attached: One Tough Teacher and the Gift of Great Expectation.”

Lipman continued, “Multiple studies link music study to academic achievement. But what is it about serious music training that seems to correlate with outsize success in other fields?” She believes the connection isn’t a coincidence. “I know because I asked. I put the question to top-flight professionals in industries from tech to finance to media, all of whom had serious (if often little-known) past lives as musicians. Almost all made a connection between their music training and their professional achievements.

“The phenomenon extends beyond the math-music association. Strikingly, many high achievers told me music opened up the pathways to creative thinking. And their experiences suggest that music training sharpens other qualities: Collaboration. The ability to listen. A way of thinking that weaves together disparate ideas. The power to focus on the present and the future simultaneously.”

The writer wrote that many have applied music’s lessons of focus and discipline into new ways of thinking and communicating, even problem solving. She cited examples of musicians whose main careers are at the top of many industries. “Woody Allen performs weekly with a jazz band. Television broadcaster Paula Zahn (cello) and the NBC chief White House correspondent Chuck Todd (French horn) attended college on music scholarships. NBC’s Andrea Mitchell trained to become a professional violinist. Microsoft’s Paul Allen and venture capitalist Roger McNamee have rock bands. Larry Page, a co-founder of Google, played saxophone in high school. Steven Spielberg is a clarinetist and son of a pianist. The former World Bank president James D. Wolfensohn has played cello at Carnegie Hall.”

She quoted Greenspan, who played jazz clarinet and piano, saying “It’s not a coincidence. I can tell you as a statistician, the probability that that is mere chance is extremely small. The crucial question is: why does that connection exist?” Paul Allen, who began playing the violin at age 7 and switched to guitar as a teenager, suggested that “Music reinforces your confidence in the ability to create.” He said in the early days of Microsoft, he would pick up his guitar at the end of marathon days of programming. Todd cited a connection between years of practice and competition and what he calls the “drive for perfection.”

Advertising executive Steve Hayden credited his background as a cellist for his most famous work, the Apple “1984” commercial that depicted rebellion against a dictator. “I was thinking of Stravinsky when I came up with that idea,” he says. He added that his cello performance background helps him work collaboratively: “Ensemble playing trains you, quite literally, to play well with others, to know when to solo and when to follow.”

Wolfensohn described music as a “hidden language” that enhances the ability to connect disparate or even contradictory ideas. When he ran the World Bank, he traveled to more than 100 countries, often taking in local performances (occasionally joining in on a borrowed cello), which he said helped him understand “the culture of people, as distinct from their balance sheet.”

Lipman cited the much-discussed connection between math and music, each as a mode of expression. Bruce Kovner, the founder of the hedge fund Caxton Associates and chairman of the board of Juilliard, said he sees similarities between his piano playing and investing strategy, that both “relate to pattern recognition, and some people extend these paradigms across different senses.” Zahn remembered spending up to four hours a day “holed up in cramped practice rooms trying to master a phrase” on her cello.

Todd recalled a solo audition at age 17 when he got the second-highest mark rather than the highest, even though he was principal horn in Florida’s All-State Orchestra. “I’ve always believed the reason I’ve gotten ahead is by outworking other people,” he said, “a skill learned by playing that solo one more time, working on that one little section one more time.” It translated into “working on something over and over again, or double-checking or triple-checking. There’s nothing like music to teach you that eventually if you work hard enough, it does get better. You see the results.” Lipman closed with this summation of “the qualities these high achievers say music has sharpened: collaboration, creativity, discipline and the capacity to reconcile conflicting ideas. Music may not make you a genius, or rich, or even a better person. But it helps train you to think differently, to process different points of view – and most important, to take pleasure in listening.”

In summary, learning to play music has been universally linked to high achievers—many doctors, lawyers and journalists learned to play instruments as children and still enjoy hobby-playing or make listening a priority. During this holiday season, consider gifts of instruments and/or lessons, or tickets for any genre of concerts—jazz, classical or other.

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The Buzz: Amid the holiday-theme music events this month, Young Sounds of Arizona, a high-school honor jazz band and combo, will perform a free jazz concert at 7 p.m. Monday, Dec. 12, at the Phoenix Center for the Arts, 1202 N. Third St., Phoenix 85004, info 602-254-8838. The new CD of the quintet combo, “10 Minutes Late!” will be available for sale at the concert. The six tracks, recorded this year by Tim Downs at Winston Recording in Phoenix, includes versions of Clifford Brown’s “Joy Spring,” Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints,” Babs Gonzales’ “Soul Stirrin’ ” and two versions of saxophonist Kamasi Washington’s “Change of the Guard.” The combo has Chris Clements on trombone, Tom Dugan on tenor saxophone, Eric Nakamoto on acoustic bass, Peter Kim on drums with guest pianist Garrison Jones, an educator and Arizona State University graduate. Andrew Gross is director of Young Sounds.

Veterans, students and teachers are offered free admission to events at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts, via the continued support from Tiffany & Bosco P.A. and Great American Title Agency Inc. (since 2014). During the last season, more than 1,800 active-duty and retired veterans, students and teachers attended the center’s events. Tickets are available through the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts box office and its partnership with the Phoenix-based nonprofit Veteran Tickets Foundation (www.VetTix.org). When requesting tickets directly from the center, veterans need to show military ID or proof of service. Students and full-time teachers from any grade level from kindergarten to college may request one free ticket to selected events by showing a current school-ID.

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Musicians News: The Phoenix Musicians Union will stage another free first-Tuesday concert Dec. 6, featuring the guitars and vocals of J. David Sloan and Ray Herndon playing a mix of country and pop music. Donation for snacks and beverages help support Young Sounds of Arizona, the all-Arizona high school honor jazz bands. The event is from from 7:30 to 9:30 pm at the Musicians Hall, 1202 E. Oak St., Phoenix 85006, 602-254-8838.


Charles Lewis played two stunning solo sets of Duke Ellington music on a nine-foot Bosendorfer grand piano at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Phoenix. The concert was part of multiple tributes to Duke Ellington in connection with his performance in that church 50 years ago. The evening began with a talk by Phoenix Chorale vocalist Ryan Downey that told of this exceptional event in segregated Phoenix. Ellington and his orchestra performed his 1965 “Sacred Concert” (including “Black and Tan Fantasy” and “Freedom Suite”) with the church choir and local vocalists and dancers on Nov. 10, 1966. That week also featured Ellington and his orchestra for a jazz concert at Star Theatre (now Celebrity Theatre) that I was thrilled to attend.

During his performance, Lewis made extensive use of the additional four bass keys that define this exceptional Austrian piano, the extra strings accenting its incredible resonance. Choosing the most familiar Ellingtonia, he opened “Satin Doll” with stylish energy. He imbued “In a Sentimental Mood” with serene sounds, before exploring the catchy cadence of “Take the A Train.” The second set opened with infectious variations on “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” before offering “Sophisticated Lady” and “C-Jam Blues (Duke’s Place).” He closed the performance with “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” that featured left-hand stride-style leaps to invigorate the interpretation. Between selections, Lewis, 83, told of Ellington and the orchestra’s Phoenix visit. He also described the racial discrimination in 1960s Phoenix. He concluded with this assessment: “Exclusiveness is a by-product of youth and inexperience; inclusiveness is a by-product of maturity.”

The chorale’s three replications of the “Sacred Concert” were presented a week later, performed with the MPLE (Mesa Community College Performing Arts Center Jazz Ensemble) led by pianist Nick Manson, at the college and the church. The jazz band’s soloists included saxophonists Hugh Lovelady, Mary Petrich and Bryon Ruth, trumpeter James Kass, trombonist John Wise, plus Caleb Michel on congas and Manson on piano.


In Grand Rapids, Mich., two former Phoenix musicians are regularly working together: Pianist John Shea has Warren Jones on bass and Michigan drummer Fred Knapp, at JW Marriott Hotel’s Blue Room on Fridays, Noto’s on Saturdays and The Republicon on Mondays.


Vocalist Alice Tatum underwent triple bypass heart surgery in October, but soon was performing again in several local venues.

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Final Chorus: Melbourne “Bob” Cranshaw, 83, bassist-musicians’ union activist (longtime Sonny Rollins colleague, Blue Note record label), Nov. 2 in New York City; Leonard Cohen, 82, vocalist-songwriter, Nov. 7 in New York City; Leon Russell, 74, vocalist-pianist. Nov. 12 in Nashville; Mose Allison, 89, pianist-vocalist-composer, Nov. 17 in Hilton Head, SC.


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