Boost Your Game Like a Classical Musician

"You don’t go through all of this work and suffering that we have to do as artists because your mother said so," Roberto Diaz says. "At some point, you have to have it inside."

If you think the industry you work in is tough, try being a classical musician. 


Despite the fact that 77 percent of Americans have a favorable view of classical music (yes, pollsters actually track these sorts of things), Americans don't tend to vote with their wallets for classical. There is no classical equivalent, for instance, to the so-called "BieberArmy," groups of fanatical fans who show up at record stores and buy out all of Justin Bieber's albums

With the classical recording industry in a downward spiral and orchestras around the country hampered by budget cuts and labor disputes, you really have to love what you do to pursue a career in this field. So how does one make it work? And for those of us who put the trombone down in high school, what lessons can we learn from successful musicians that might be applicable to our own industries?

These questions are tackled in a lesson on Big Think Edge, the only forum on YouTube designed to help you get the skills you need to be successful in a rapidly changing world. According to Roberto Diaz, a violinist and president of the Curtis Institute of Music, the key to a successful career in music begins with a sense of awareness about the world of music in general and how it is rapidly changing.  

"Musicians now depend less and less on someone else," Diaz points out, like a "major recording company or a PR firm to do the things that they used to do."  Musicians are starting to self-produce CD’s and distribute content on the Internet. "They’re doing many things that are really brand new in many ways, especially in classical music," Diaz says. 

In this sense, a classical musician today needs to take the initiative to invent his or her career. But it can no longer be a one-dimensional career. 

"To just play in a symphony orchestra or to just be a member of an opera company or to just play in a string quartet is a fine thing to do," Diaz says, but musicians need to use their position "as a platform to do many other things." That might involve starting a chamber music series, or teaching - "things that are different than what they do in the orchestra, and yet are representing the institution, the orchestra and themselves in a much more varied way."

For instance, the cellist Yo-Yo Ma founded the Silk Road Project, a non-profit that aims to connect the world's neighborhoods by bringing together artists and audiences around the globe. Diaz says that this project is not only indicative of Ma's multifaceted career, it is also a testament to the passion he has for music, a passion that is an absolute necessity if you want to succeed in this industry. 

"You don’t go through all of this work and suffering that we have to do as artists because your mother said so," Diaz says. "At some point, you have to have it inside."

Sign up for a free trial and watch Roberto Diaz's lesson Big Think Edge here

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The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

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"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.