Editor’s Note: Grace Ueng is the founder of Savvy Growth, a noted leadership coaching and management consulting firm, and an expert on happiness and human performance. Grace writes a regular column on Happiness & Leadership for WRAL TechWire.


RESEARCH RIANGLE PARK – I am so grateful to everyone who made the trip to see my concert Friday in person and by livestream. Link for those who would like to watch (I’m first up):


Key to wellbeing is continuous learning as well as stepping outside one’s comfort zone.  I can vouch that playing piano as well as performing has contributed enormously to my wellbeing and is an important part of my happiness hygiene.

Faster progress

I am now taking lessons because I want to, not because anyone is making me or society expects it. I have a new openness to learning that I didn’t have as a little girl, so I am progressing faster. Every lesson, I take away something new. I’ve experienced the distinct difference in outcomes between being intrinsically versus extrinsically motivated.

(See: https://wraltechwire.com/2023/01/24/music-business-success-listen-to-all-voices-to-reach-the-miracle-goal/)

Did you know that you can earn an MBA from Juilliard? I have three Juilliard trained coaches and teachers, Teddy Robie locally, my sister in Boston, and Noa Kageyama, performance psychologist on faculty at Juilliard.  Each knows that I liken what they teach me to business.  Making these relationships accelerates my learning process.  They know that is the way my brain is wired.  I am a lifelong business person who now loves playing piano too.

Bach & Viola:  polyphonic voices and middle voice holding all together

Last year I started to listen to Lang Lang’s Goldberg Variations album and thought I would like to learn to play the starting Aria, not realizing in total, these variations are known to be one of the most difficult works to learn to play.  Teddy explained that Bach composed contrapuntal music, often polyphonic with many voices, and encouraged me to listen to the variations performed by a trio of violin, viola, and cello versus by a solo pianist.

So I put aside Lang Lang’s album, and then experienced an a-ha in listening to the trio and hearing the three individual voices. Then and only then did I realize the richness and depth of the Aria and how important the viola is in holding the inner voice between the cello and violin.  I liken the viola to middle management, the critical folks who flow information up and down.  I now have more respect and curiosity for Bach’s masterpiece.  As a performer or a leader, it is Important to listen to ALL voices!

Not all practice is equal

Given my age and desire to play more difficult pieces, those that my mom and sister performed, I knew I had to be strategic in my practicing in order to make good progress within my lifetime. I created the 728 rule instead of the 10,000 hour rule!

Not all practice is equal.  And most importantly, I bring forth the art of listening, and its importance in piano performance and in life. See: https://wraltechwire.com/2022/10/04/guest-opinion-how-the-art-of-listening-can-apply-well-beyond-music-into-our-work-culture/

Deliberate practice: with a good teacher and coach

More recent research shows that hours of practice is not enough. The importance of a good teacher who is in synch with you is also a key difference maker.  Teddy tells me that his role is to help me practice better.  My pianist sister, who like Teddy, earned two degrees from Juilliard, said that her more advanced students learn a piece on their own and then ask her for guidance.  I had an a-ha that this is highly correlated to my coaching.  Our clients are advanced in their careers, and we partner with them to help them be even better. The fit between coach and coachee is critical.  I encourage each to feel confident in the fit before engaging.

Practice is important, and it’s surprising how much it takes to master something complicated. Internationally recognized researcher in human performance, Anders Ericsson, suggested that someone could practice for thousands of hours and still not be a master performer. They could be outplayed by someone who practiced less but had a teacher who showed them just what to focus on at a key moment in their practice regimen.

What worked best, said Ericsson, is for students to receive personal instruction with a teacher who is able to assess them individually and determine “what would be the next step for them to actually develop and improve.” Otherwise, students might stall out, despite hours of practice.  This is similar to our working with leaders by conducting 360s and then working on a leadership development plan with them as their coach.

Deliberate practice is often guided by an expert, skilled coach, or mentor, “someone with an expert eye,” according to psychologist and internationally known author Daniel Goleman. These coaches and mentors are offering feedback on specific ways to improve, and “without such feedback, you don’t get to the top ranks. The feedback matters and the concentration does, too – not just the hours.”

This is the concept of deliberate practice – having a coach.  It’s similar to clients who come to us who are working extremely hard, but not experiencing success on par with the work input. These performers need an outside experienced and objective partner to guide their performance to bravo.  What Boston Philharmonic Orchestra musical director Benjamin Zander leads his masterclass students toward. See: https://wraltechwire.com/2022/09/27/grace-ueng-new-starts-state-of-flow-the-art-of-possibility/

 Mastery & My 728 Hour Rule

Malcolm Gladwell got one thing right: it takes many years of concerted effort and practice to become a true expert in a field. But while the time spent practicing is important, it is far from the only factor. Your genetic makeup, when you start, and how you learn all combine to determine how many hours it would take you to master a specific craft – or if “mastery” is possible at all.

Consider the research of master chess players by cognitive psychologists Fernand Gobet and Guillermo Campitelli. They found that there were actually huge differences in the number of hours of practice it took chess players to reach a specific skill level. The number of hours to reach “master” status ranged from 728 hours to 16,120 – meaning some players needed 22x more practice hours than others to reach the same skill level. The 10,000 hour rule could be a myth. Let’s rename it the 728 to 16,120 Hour Rule.

I am hoping that my piano restart can follow a 728 Hour Rule

Listening for new

My happiness teacher, Tal Ben-Shahar, encourages us to read the classics, known as the Great Books, over and over.  His Shakespeare professor at Harvard, said that even after teaching for decades, she learns something new each time she reads his works. When I started to learn the second movement of Beethoven’s Sonata Pathétique, Teddy told me that musicologist Karl Hass would play this piece as the introduction for each segment of his long running syndicated radio show Adventures in Good Music, rather than use a recorded version. Perhaps Hass felt something new and therefore learned something by playing anew for each show…

…I look forward to doing the same.

The art of listening can apply well beyond music, into our work culture. How can you listen differently and more intently to the same “melody” this week?

Front Row Seat in Leadership & Life

Research has shown that those who sit in the front row in a classroom make the best grades (self selection was taken out as the research revealed that assigned seats follow the same pattern). In the end, no seat is a bad seat – it is your attitude toward being present that defines how much you enjoy a performance. See:  https://wraltechwire.com/2022/10/18/guest-opinion-front-row-seats-a-present-you-can-give-yourself-in-order-to-be-present/

How can you have a front row seat to life?

  1. Think Ahead. I had been looking at Lang Lang’s world tour dates for quite a while.  When the Boston Symphony Orchestra released the date of when his tickets would go on sale, I marked the time off weeks in advance as sacred in my calendar, so I could be among the first in line.A few months ago, when my sister received tickets for her big birthday to hear the 2022 Van Cliburn winner Yunchan Lim perform Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 3 in February 2023, I decided to purchase tickets to join them to hear the youngest winner of the competition in its history.  Research shows that anticipation of a vacation is just as important to your well being as taking the vacation itself.Looking forward to your front row seat experience is good for your health!
  2. Be interested. I started listening to the concerto Lang would perform weeks in advance to fully appreciate his chosen repertoire. Seek to understand what you will experience. It’s no wonder that when I have had the opportunity to have a backstage tour, I have appreciated the actual art more.  I was thrilled to be a part of a small tour that Valerie Hillings, Director and CEO of North Carolina Museum of Art, gave last year for the International Women’s Forum. She shared a behind the scenes look at the museum that completely whetted my appetite for seeing the People’s Collection, Reimagined. More important than being interesting is to be interested.  Doing more listening than talking deepens understanding as well as relationships.
  3. Arrive early.  Building in a 10 minute buffer for everything in your schedule will allow you to be more relaxed and therefore more present for each event. My son Nick made sure he was several minutes early for my performance on Friday.  He knew this event was important to me, and texted me 45 minutes before I would walk on stage, “we’re gonna be very very early 😀”
  4. Fully savor the experience.  For someone who struggled with being in the moment, I have been surprisingly more present after my struggles with depression two years ago. I am more grateful for each opportunity I have now. I don’t take things for granted. Finding a front row seat literally as well as metaphorically has really helped me fully savor my activities in the last couple of years.  This makes a happier experience for you as well as for those around you.
  5. Discuss your experience with others.  Anyone who has gone to a movie or performance with me knows of my insatiable curiosity. I can’t help asking a question during a show. At last year’s North Carolina Symphony performance, there was an extremely long line at intermission for the ladies’ room, so I hesitated. But I decided to get in line and immediately started to discuss the performance with the woman in front of me.  She was excited to discuss the dancer’s moves, surmise how young they must have started training, guessing at their nationality and before we could conclude our guesswork, we were done with waiting!

Express gratitude – tell the artist how much their performance meant to you. If that is not possible after they exit stage right, be sure to thank the friend who invited you or if you were the host, express gratitude to your guests for sharing the experience with you.

And in turn, I thank you for being a part of my performance journey, for reading along and watching too! I am grateful for each and every one of you.

About Grace Ueng

Grace is a strategy consultant,  leadership coach and human performance expert with Savvy Growth. Her company offers workshops to move teams forward: Savvy’s Seven: What You Will Learn. Transformative companies hire Grace to deliver her HappinessWorks™ program to boost performance. Join her Happiness & Leadership community and learn to be a happier and better leader: click here