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The Benefits of Studying Classical Music: Computer Consultant-turned-composer, Kieren MacMillan

The Benefits of Studying Classical Music: Computer Consultant-turned-composer, Kieren MacMillan featured image

I love writing about the “stuff you don’t think about” when it comes to life as a musician, but in this ongoing series, I wanted to investigate something a little different: those who aren’t classical musicians, but studied it enough to reap the benefits in other aspects of lives. One reason I chose this topic is very basic: “studying classical music is good for you” and while that’s a given, I wanted to personalize why. The other reason was to sort out my own personal experience with studying music to a certain level, which sometimes conflicted with my knowledge I didn’t want to be a performer. I didn’t realize the advantages until much later.

In this ongoing series, posted every week or so, I’ll be speaking with doctors, lawyers, marketing professionals, accountants, actors, arts administrators, and people in all kinds of fields who studied classical music and are thankful they did. I’ll keep this going until I run out of participants. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I did.

Today, let’s meet Kieren MacMillan, an IT guy who couldn’t fully let go of music. He now refers to himself as a Composer and Computer Consultant – he’s been working on music taking precedence over his IT work. I was thrilled when “KB” (nicknamed after “Kirin Beer”) responded to my call for a Q+A. I met him at the University of British Columbia, where we both earned our Bachelor of Music. He was a huge fan of Calvin and Hobbes (his dorm room dorm had the comic all over it) and we bonded over our mutual decision to quit piano – a difficult decision for us both. He’s funny and smart, quick-witted, and was equally good at math as he was in music, something I envied and found somewhat annoying.

Please summarize your current career, and your duties.
I have two careers, really: music and computers. For more than a decade after I graduated (with my Master of Music in Composition), I worked almost exclusively as a subcontractor in the IT industry, doing systems analysis and design, programming, and end-user training. I would characterize my musical efforts during that time as “dabbling”, a hobby: I composed a few commissions, music directed a few community theatre shows, performed a few church gigs, that kind of thing. In the past few years, however, I’ve been making a serious effort to focus completely on my music career, slowly replacing computer work with commissions, teaching, and music directing contracts.

What instrument(s) did you study, and at what stage in your life?
I studied piano on and off (mostly off!) as a young child; starting in elementary school, I also started learning trumpet and trombone in band, and learning the fundamentals of playing the pipe organ. In high school, I started working a little more diligently on my piano studies, getting pretty serious in Grades 12 and 13 when I attended Interlochen Arts Camp in Michigan. After high school, I entered the Pure Math program at the University of Waterloo — but in the middle of my first year, I realized I would rather be in music. So I transferred to the University of British Columbia, where I studied piano and organ.

Were music lessons intended as a hobby or did you have a performing career in mind?
As a child, the lessons were simply a hobby; it became more and more serious as I grew older. During the last few years of high school and the first few years of study at UBC, I seriously entertained the dream of a performing career — but by my third year, I realized that life wasn’t for me.

Was quitting your music lessons a welcome relief or a complete heart-wrenching moment of reckoning?
Given how many years I had dreamed of “making it big” as a concert pianist, the exact moment of stepping off that track was a little heart-wrenching, to be honest. But that very quickly changed to relief: I immediately replaced intense piano practice with lots of other music activities and study — singing in choirs and small ensembles, composition and arrangement, church organist gigs, you name it — and I was much happier as a result.

How did your classical music studies (and music theory, if you studied that too) impact your ability to do your job today?
Of course, the discipline and focus required to play an instrument well made me better able to focus and work hard on everything I do in my non-musical life — I think that’s a given for everyone. But there were more explicit and direct benefits in my particular career. First of all, studying music — and especially studying music theory — forces you to focus on the relationships between things: between notes (sounds and silences), between instruments (in everything except solo music), between cultures and time periods, between people (creators and re-creators and audiences), and so on.
Those observational and analytical tools were immediately and profoundly applicable to relational databases.

Secondly, learning a piece of music in the practice room often requires rather inventive problem-solving: What fingering works best for this passage? How many different ways can I practice this run, so that it becomes part of my muscle memory? What’s the most efficient way to fix my technique so that this section is enjoyable rather than taxing? Again, having done those mental exercises (and more) while learning music made me quite an effective computer programmer.

Finally, I believe it’s very hard to study classical music as long as I did without having or acquiring a healthy appreciation for beauty and elegance. In both back-end coding and front-end user interface design, that appreciation was a significant asset.

Is classical or music in general (playing, listening, attending concerts, getting your kids to practise) a part of your life today? If not, do you think you’ll return to it?
Music is a huge part of my life, and the lives of my wife and children. I have just recently decided to get back to serious piano practice — my “chops” are a mess right now — so it will become an even greater part of my life in the future.

Want to share your experience how studying classical music shaped your life and career?
[email protected]

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