3 Surprising Truths Piano Lessons Can Teach Us About Enhancing Employee Engagement; And I Saved the Best for Last!

January 17, 2024 by Gregory Offner

In my work as a keynote speaker, I use music as a metaphor to help my audience experience the similarities between an engaging musical performance, and an engaging workplace experience.

While these audiences may be dissimilar in their industries and day-to-day responsibilities, they’re united in their frustration with the state of employee engagement and talent retention. Whether it’s an opening general session or the closing keynote, they attend my session eager to learn tips and tricks useful for enhancing employee engagement, and keeping top performing workers happy.

The stories and strategies I share with them are mostly drawn from my time as a dueling pianist, however I realized recently that the story of my first piano lesson—back when I was a child—held a valuable piece of the puzzle when it comes to keeping new employees engaged, and ensuring that top talent doesn’t run for the exits at the first sign of changes or challenges.

The Beginning

It all began in the basement of an elementary school, in a spare room adjacent to the cafeteria. The sunlight barely snuck into this room through a solitary, small rectangular window. Inside the room was a piano, worn from years of students plunking out melodies, with a bench that was much too low to accomodate a child’s juvenile body.

This was the setting for my first ever piano lesson, and it’s also the beginning of this story about a valuable insight you can use when it comes to increasing engagement and success in the workplace.

My small arms couldn’t reach the piano. Mrs. Salerno (my piano teacher) intervened with a series of throw pillows, which achieved the effect of boosting me higher but left my feet dangling like an air freshener from a car’s rear view mirror. Compounding my discomfort was the way I had to learn to position and move my fingers about the keyboard. It was downright unnatural.

Still, for thirty minutes each week I voluntarily succumbed to this form of child cruelty. I dutifully bent my fingers and dangled my legs til my knuckles were sore and my butt cheeks went numb. My parents were adamant that learning to play the piano would prove to be valuable later in life, but I had doubts as to whether I’d even survive the lessons.

If you’re over the age of 30, there’s a good chance you’ve had to work in an environment that’s less than ideal. Maybe your workplace wasn’t adequately cool in the summer or warm in the winter. While ergonomics can factor into the engagement equation—to say nothing of sound risk management strategy—they can become a distraction. After all, human beings are remarkably resilient creatures.

The true problem, some might say adding insult to perceived injury, was I found the music I was being asked to learn unbearably boring and irrelevant. I wanted to learn to “play” the piano, but instead of being taught songs that I enjoyed, I was being asked to learn something called “scales,” and instructed to plink out nursery rhymes like “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” None of this felt particularly useful. Even when we did get to “songs” they were by Bach, Beethoven, Chopin. The artists I wanted to emulate sounded nothing like these dead (de)composers. I wanted to play like Billy Joel, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Little Richard.

So you can see that here there are two perceived problems: the “work” is physically uncomfortable, and mentally uninteresting. The physical connection is something I’d rather not have, and the emotional / mental connection is missing completely. There’s no relevance, no purpose. There’s no point except, as a child, to appease my parents.

As the years went on my skills and repertoire grew, I began to realize those initial discomforts and frustrations were necessary “growing pains.” now see how my fingers ability to glide across the keys is directly correlated to learning how to position them properly; despite the initial discomfort. The chord progression in the fourth movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony I now recognize as a close cousin of the one found in Billy Joel’s chart-topping hit, “My Life.”

I would go on to spend more than a decade working as a professional entertainer in piano bars around the world, and I can trace the skills I use in each performance back to that first lesson. Which brings us to the part about you, and the engagement challenges you’re having. 

When it comes to new entrants to the workforce, leaders would do well to put context and connection to the work a new employee is being asked to do. Create a meaningful connection between even the most mundane of tasks, and the ultimate impact that has on the success of the company, the service of the customer, and the development of the employees skills which can be used later on in their career. (And a side note: If you struggle to do this as a leader, perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate that task)

With more seasoned employees, or those who’ve got a bit of work history behind them, leaders must alter their approach. In this case, meeting employees where they are (professionally and personally) and then learning where they’re trying to go. Take that information and formulate a plan to help them get from where they are to where they’d like to be. The best piano teachers do this with their students, and the best piano bar performers do this with their audiences.

Just as patrons in a piano bar shape the night through their participation, song requests, and tips, people engage more deeply when they have an active voice in the creation of their (employment) experience. In fact, each patron who’s walked through the doors of a piano bar started out as an engaged audience member. The same can be said of piano students in their first lesson, unless they’ve been forced into lessons by their parents. So it is with your employees on the first day of work, too.

In my book, The Tip Jar Culture: How to Re-Engage and Reignite Your Workforce, I discuss the three principles I utilized while working in piano bars to ensure a highly engaging experience for audience members. The three principles are “Take a sip, Fill out a slip, and Leave a tip.”

  • Take a sip refers to an organizational culture, and organizational norms (that is, the behaviors exhibited in an organization) are harmonious.
  • Fill out a slip refers to the avenues available for employees to actively shape and participate in the work they do each day. Just like audience members at the piano bar, workers don’t just want to execute on a plan, they want a voice in the planning process.
  • And finally Leave a tip refers to a culture where going above and beyond is not just recognized, it’s meaningfully rewarded. But I’ve come to realize those principles didn’t create engagement, so much as they deterred disengagement.

Leaders and human resource professionals should stop trying to “create” more engagement; that isn’t their problem. Their problem is the inability to keep employees from deciding to disengage.

Identifying this decision point, and the elements they can employ to avoid it, will stop the lost profits and lackluster productivity caused by workforce disengagement. It will reduce unwanted turnover, and enable leaders to truly build a culture of high performing, highly fulfilled people.

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