Everything I Know About Business, I Learned at the Conservatory

by Brian Pertl

My guess is that the title of this blog caught your attention, because it seems so incredibly unlikely. The world of business and the world of music appear to have very little in common. What on earth could playing a Mozart symphony have to do with leading a budget proposal meeting? Most of us would say, “absolutely nothing at all.”

At one point in my life I would have agreed, but from where I sit now, as a conservatory trained trombonist, the current dean of a major conservatory of music, and a former senior manager at Microsoft with 16 years of experience in the business world, I see the connections between conservatory training and core business skills from a unique vantage point. Over the years, as I analyzed the reasons for my successes as a business manager, it always came back to the skills I had learned as a musician and had honed at my conservatory of music. Now that I am back in the world of the conservatory, many worried parents of prospective students ask me what good conservatory training will do if their child doesn’t happen to become a professional musician. So I thought it might be helpful to devote this blog to the subject.

When hiring employees, Microsoft and every other successful company looks for an underlying set of skills that will bring the most benefit to the business. These skills are easy to list, but very hard to find in a single individual. For this discussion I will focus on five of these traits. The perfect employee should be:

  1. Focused
  2. Self-motivated
  3. Collaborative
  4. Communicative
  5. Creative

So let’s start by putting aside all of our own preconceptions about music being concerned only with the expression of emotion and beauty. Instead, we will now take a cold hard look at what goes into creating a successful musician.

Focus & Self-Motivation

In most conservatory settings, a student has one hour of intense one-on-one instruction during their weekly lesson. For the rest of the week, they spend 3 to 6 hours a day, all alone in a small practice room steadily working towards that week’s goals. That averages out to about thirty hours of practice for every one hour of instruction. This is not an easy task, either physically or mentally. The student has to develop her own strategies to maintain focus, overcome obstacles and achieve her goals. Focus and self-motivation are vital to success. The goal of any successful conservatory is to help students develop the skills of self-criticism, self-motivation, and self-focus to the point where, upon graduation, they can become their own best teacher. For a business manager, having an employee who can work for days at a time with minimal instruction, solving their own problems and working steadily toward their goal isn’t just nice, it is a dream come true!


In the world of music, learning to work well with other musicians is key. In a quartet, for instance, the four musicians discuss how they want to approach the work before even picking up their instruments. Opinions may differ and there could be disagreements, but the process of collaborating as a team to reach mutually agreeable solutions is key to a successful performance. As you can imagine, this type of collaboration occurs every day in the world of business. But you may be surprised to discover that most employees have nowhere near the depth of experience with the process as musicians!

But for musicians, this is just the beginning of their collaboration skills. Once the discussions stop and the music starts, teamwork moves to a whole new level of refinement. Each musician must be acutely aware of everyone else’s input while still being completely focused on her own individual contribution to the whole. The ability to really hear all facets of the group’s performance while making instant micro-adjustments to create the best performance possible is an amazing skill to master.

You probably agree with that statement, but aren’t quite sure how that particular skill translates to the world of business. After all, meetings where everyone is talking at once should be the exception rather than the rule. This is quite true, so luckily these skills have little to do with handling meetings that have spun out of control! Instead, this highly refined listening ability has everything to do with success at the extreme ends of collaboration, negotiation, and communication. When negotiations or collaborations become difficult and delicate, being able to pick up on the slightest cues and then react instantly and appropriately can mean the difference between success and failure. That minute waiver in a voice could indicate a tentativeness that will give you the chance to step in and lead the conversation; or that hint of aggression, may cause you to step back and calm the waters.

The skill also lends itself to one of the core functions of management–understanding people. As a manager at Microsoft, I spent a great deal of my time listening to people. Often times the real crux of the matter at hand isn’t contained in the spoken words. Someone may be talking to you about diminishing workloads, but their real worry is job security. The key here isn’t the act of listening, it’s the art of hearing. It’s what musicians do every day, and it can help make the difference between a good manager and a great manager. The business world would be better off if every manager spent a few years playing in a quintet!


Communicating your ideas and thoughts to groups of people is also a critical part of business success. The presentation may be to a meeting room of five co-workers or an auditorium full of conference-goers. In either case it is vital to communicate your point clearly and convincingly. Whether your proposal or idea is adopted can hinge entirely on the effectiveness of the presentation. I have seen many good ideas fall by the wayside because of bad presentations.

As musicians we have a natural advantage. For us, these aren’t presentations, they are performances, and all the same rules should apply. The performance should be engaging, captivating, interesting, and clearly communicate the core ideas. The conservatory provides the perfect training for this important business skill. You would be amazed at how many people in the business world are terrified of standing up in front of an audience to speak. How lucky a conservatory student is to get all of that great performance experience under her belt! When a critical presentation is coming up, who would you rather have delivering the message: a professionally trained performer or an accountant?


Finally, let’s consider creativity. A new study by IBM just identified creativity as the most highly valued leadership quality for success in business!  Creativity! Isn’t that both wonderful and amazing? Now I know that studying in a conservatory does not guarantee that you will emerge a creative person, but it certainly is an environment that provides ample opportunities for creative exploration and development.  From composition to improvisation to the interpretation of musical masterpieces, creativity is at the core of what we do.  This topic is so rich it definitely deserves its own blog, but for now, I’m sure you get the point: creativity at the conservatory can translate into creativity in the board room.


The bottom line is not to sell conservatory training short when it comes to developing skills that extend well beyond the realm of music. Whether in the concert hall or the board room, conservatory graduates can give truly great performances! Our challenge as musicians is to successfully convey this message both to disbelieving conservatory students, and to disbelieving HR departments of leading businesses. If we are success in our efforts, we can help change the world!

Brian PertlBrian Pertl has led the life of a savvy musician. He lives by the motto: “be prepared for anything and anything just might happen!” He received his BM in trombone performance and a BA in English from Lawrence University. Then the fun really began!  As a Watson Fellow, he studied didjeridu in Australia and Tibetan sacred music in Tibet, Nepal, and India. While pursuing higher degrees in ethnomusicology, he lectured on world music themes and performed widely on didjeridu, trombone, shell trumpets, as as a harmonic singer. 

When Microsoft called in the early 90s to get a 30 second didj sample, he managed to turn that opportunity into a full time job as an ethnomusicologist at Microsoft!  After 16 years at Microsoft, first selecting music for the Encarta Encyclopedia, then as a high-level manager, he was asked to return to Lawrence University to give a recital.  This visit back to his alma mater got the Lawrence faculty and administration talking about a crazy idea: what if Brian left Microsoft and returned to Lawrence to become the Dean of the Conservatory of Music? And this is exactly what happened!  He is now the Dean, and he is thrilled having the chance to help the current class of students “get savvy!”

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