Like many, my early musical training followed a fairly traditional path. In college, though, I found myself bouncing between possible careers. I had enrolled at Stanford, but during my sophomore year I took a leave of absence to study at the San Francisco Conservatory as a full-time student.
I felt I needed to answer some of my questions about a career in music: Could I really practice for six hours a day? Did I love playing the viola as much as I thought? Yes, it turned out, I did. Equally important, I developed a deep appreciation for the difficulty of forging a career as a classical musician.
When I returned to Stanford, the two sides of my education finally started to come together. With a new enthusiasm for my coursework, I started taking classes in the Management Science and Engineering department and at the Stanford d.school (short for design school), while keeping up my playing through private lessons and chamber music. Surprisingly, I started noticing parallels between the design thinking that my professors were teaching and the skillsets I had developed through my years of music training.
But before I get into some of these parallels, design thinking deserves its own explanation.
…I started noticing parallels between design thinking … and the skillsets I had developed through my years of music training.
Broadly, design thinking is a methodology used to solve complex problems. It draws from many components of a designer’s tool kit – including empathy, experimentation and prototyping – to arrive at innovative solutions. One example is the story of the Embrace Infant Warmer, which came about as the result of a Stanford class assignment. Students were tasked with designing an incubator for low birthweight newborns in developing countries that would cost a fraction of its typical $20,000 price tag. After traveling to Nepal, one group realized that in addition to the cost, two other problems compounded the situation: Most babies were born in homes without electricity, and many never made it to the hospital to begin with. This insight led the group to design a product that functions like a sleeping bag and requires only hot water from the stove. Since 2007, the product has helped over 200,000 newborns across 200 countries.
The story of Embrace embodies many of the principles of design thinking: building empathy with your audience, developing an insight into a problem or idea, and prototyping new ideas before springing into action. After studying these ideas in depth, I came to realize that musicians’ training primes us to become great design thinkers, if we can only learn to see the connections between the two.
Take empathy. As musicians, empathetic relationships are built into what we do – it’s hard to have a concert without an audience! For whom, after all, are we making music?
Ideally, empathy leads to insight, which is an important discovery about your audience that other people may have overlooked. I find that this is similar to developing a deep understanding of a piece of music. At first, we focus mostly on learning the notes and understanding the work’s structure. But then, the underlying ideas of the piece become intuitive. Similar to how a great insight leads to meaningful product design, this kind of deep understanding leads to a compelling performance.
Prototyping, or testing out ideas before committing to them, is another important step in the design thinking process. As musicians, we prototype new ideas whenever we experiment with phrasing or try a new technique in rehearsal. We can apply this same methodology to the entrepreneurial aspects of our careers as we prototype a new concert format or put together a new ensemble.
As I realized how our musical training primes us to become successful design thinkers, my two backgrounds started to intertwine. Since graduating, I’ve provided creative consultation to several companies, including a New Mexico-based accelerator, a startup working at the intersection of music and health and my own project: Parallel Play, a concert series that produces live music and art shows. As someone who’s been lucky enough to have training in the two fields that fascinate me, it’s important to me to share these connections with other musicians. So I’ve developed a series of exercises that will help you start to flex those design thinking muscles! Whether you’re figuring out how to get more gigs, start a private studio, create a new ensemble or secure funding for a project, developing your inner design thinker will help you accomplish your goals.