What I’ve learned from Playing in a Band

By Patrick Tambor

Career Insight Series.

The Career Insights Series consists of articles offering advice on entering the world of work, the more unconventional paths you may take and how you can work to achieve your goals. Stay tuned to receive deeper insights into the dynamic nature of the world of work.


I’ve been playing in bands as a drummer, singer and songwriter since my teens, and I’ve come to realize how much I’ve learned – about life, and work – by doing so.  Lessons about the balance of creativity and commerce, managing different personalities and conflicting agendas, and, of course, putting on a show.  There are many similarities between performing in a band (my avocation) and performing in a job (my vocation); parallels that have allowed my experience in each role to provide meaningful insights for the other. Here are some lessons I have learned along the way:

  • Practice Your Scales

At IBM we have a Practice (one of nine that defines how we aspire to behave in our work) called ‘Think, Prepare, Rehearse.’  A great idea, but I think the value of thinking, preparing and rehearsing is not that it allows you to get the pitch down – it’s that it frees you to deviate from the script.  Just like musicians learning their scales so that they can improvise with ease at the gig.  It’s important to know your stuff, but do so in order to confidently ‘riff’ – change tempo, adjust keys, alter the sequence – based on the what’s happening in real time (aka the live show).

  • Know When to Step Up, and Back

Sometimes you are on point to take a solo, and sometimes you are playing along and providing support for someone else.  There are even times in my band when three of the five members are needed for a particular song, and the other two use that time to quench their thirst or be an observer.  This, to me, is the real definition of collaboration – not just sitting around a table, or sharing ideas, or playing together – but knowing when to step up, and when to step back, in service to the music (or business objective).

  • Think of Your Audience

While there are times we play on to please ourselves when no one is interested or listening, (for the love of music), most bands evaluate a show based on how the audience reacted, and feed off the energy of the crowd.  Of course, that may mean playing the song they came to hear (versus the one you just wrote), or letting the guy in the front sing along to the chorus through your microphone (though not for the whole time, please).  The job for my band is to entertain, not necessarily challenge.  Of course, as ‘artists’ we must experiment and take risks to express our creativity, but it’s wise to show up with your best show every time.  To paraphrase an old quote by baseball player Joe DiMaggio, “there’s always someone there who is seeing you for the first time”

Keep the music playing.

Patrick Tambor is Transformation, Talent & Learning Leader with IBM. You can find previous editions of the career insights series here

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One thought

  1. I ran a band (a youth marching band) when I was at IBM and it was extremely helpful. The leadership skills I learned at IBM helped me to be a better band leader and the leadership and other skills I learned in the band helped me to be a better IBMer.

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