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  • Writer's pictureTim Catlin

AiS Team Intro: Performance Informed my Entrepreneurship (Tim Catlin)

Updated: Aug 2, 2023

We all have things we are called to do, that we cannot avoid doing. For me that calling has always been music, whether making music, listening to music, or better yet listening to music with others.

My love of music began, according to family lore, when I was two years old. My father was recovering from back surgery and a friend had lent him a high end stereo system, some classical music recordings, and headphones to help him through the recuperation. Being curious, I wanted to know why my dad had these things over his ears. So he put the headphones on me and started playing a piece of classical music, Bruckner’s Symphony No. 2. I bet he thought I would get bored and he would get his headphones back shortly. Apparently, I sat there and listened, engrossed for the whole piece (almost an hour long)!

Two year old Tim listening to Bruckner
2yr old Tim listening to Bruckner

Since then my musical path has had many twists and turns. Starting with piano and the obligatory recorder in primary/elementary school, I dabbled with classical guitar, and organ, to land on bassoon. Bassoon is a relatively rare instrument which led to opportunities to play with college groups while I was still in middle school and early high school.

However, there was a downside to playing bassoon so much.

I got what is colloquially known as bassoon thumb at around age 14. The doctors said I needed surgery and so ended my run as a bassoonist. Knowing that I still wanted to play music while recovering with a cast on my left hand, I made my first pivot. I learned to play some of my favorite piano pieces with one hand and also decided to try the trombone, the only instrument in the same register as the bassoon that I could easily play wearing a cast. This led to a bet with my father. He said he would buy me a trombone if I could learn to play “Seventy-six Trombones” at tempo with dynamics in two months. I never practiced at home, only at school using a school instrument, so he had no idea how I was progressing. At the end of two months, I won the bet, and he bought me my own trombone – my first successful pivot.

During high school, I had my first introduction to theater. While singing as a chorus member in “My Fair Lady,” I also accompanied rehearsals on the piano for the second act, which mostly featured the lead actors. Unfortunately, one of the leads had a serious car accident the weekend before the show was to open. I was asked to step in, as one of the few people that knew the entire second act, with a British accent to boot. It was a busy week learning lines and blocking, but we pulled it off, with some great saves by the rest of the cast when I would miss a cue. This one experience gave me the acting bug and I continued performing in high school as much as they would let me.

After a few area of study pivots, I graduated from Brown University with a Computer Science degree and lots of experience performing in and directing music groups, from a cappella (The Jabberwocks) to marching band to jazz ensemble, and many others. Fast forward to my professional career, where I started off as a software engineer in an applied research institute. I moved through individual engineering roles and management through 10 startups, 6 mergers/acquisitions, 3 public companies and 2 IPOs.

hJabberwocks album Streetnights with a solo by Tim
ThJabberwocks album Streetnights with a solo by Tim

Over the years I’ve developed tenets to guide my leadership that were influenced by my performance background. Here are three:

Try things that are difficult or uncomfortable

Just like in physical training (no pain, no gain), it is important to keep trying things that are difficult or uncomfortable in performance and business. In acting, if you only do roles that you are comfortable with, then you quickly become type cast into that kind of role. You may never find other kinds of roles that are equally good at or even better. In engineering teams, many engineers are on the introverted end of the spectrum which makes presentations and public speaking very scary. I encourage them to do demonstrations/presentations to their peers just a few times. This usually gets them over their fears and they often find that they have a knack of engaging their audiences with their storytelling and passion.

Lean into dissonance and conflict

In most art forms that elaborate on the human condition, there are times when we lean into conflict or tension between characters, themes, or harmonies and times when we resolve them. Without the dissonance, there is less joy in the resolution. The same is true in business. I cannot tell you the number of times I have been asked to broker a disagreement, with the participants expecting me to take a side. In reality, it is often better to guide them to a “third right answer” that takes the best of both points of view and nobody has to “win” or “lose.” At other times, if the disagreement is costing too much time or money, it is best to step in and resolve the conflict quickly and deal with the hurt feelings separately when you have more time.

Constraints lead to greater creativity

This lesson applies to many fields from music, to theatrical improvisation, to graphic design, to business planning and more. I have seen graphic designers asked to draw a picture with no further direction. Each time it takes longer and yields poorer results than if the problem is more constrained – draw a 4 colored image of a teapot that can be rendered at full size of 3’x4’ on canvas and as a digital thumbnail no larger than 32 x 48 pixels. In music, I struggled with class assignments that were vague, compose a piece of music with no constraints, versus – compose a piece of pop music in the style of Sting about a rainy day. On reflection, these kinds of prompts are exactly what people are learning to do with generative AI chat bots. The vague prompt rarely leads to good results over the more specific prompt.

There is a strong connection in my life between my performance background and entrepreneurialism.

By sharing these three tenets with you, I hope they are useful for you and you can see why I was drawn to Adventures in Syncopation. There is a strong connection in my life between my performance background and entrepreneurialism.

One last thing. While not a professional musician, I cannot be me if I don't make music. To that end, I still sing in an adult choir, play the piano for personal enjoyment and a few gigs, and enjoy listening and going to live events. More recently, I have gone back into transcribing and arranging music, and am learning audio production. So, I still have my calling.

Tim playing the piano at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, San Mateo, CA
Tim playing the piano at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, San Mateo

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