The tension of strings and outliers...

A professional musicians take on pressure and finding the right fit.

The tension of strings and outliers...
Violin strings

Some of you may know in a former life I was a professional violinist. No, you won't find me listed with the greats like Jascha Heifetz or Hilary Hahn, but they certainly inspired me. I was blessed to see Joshua Bell play when I was 8 years old, a time when I was still struggling to draw a clean sound that didn't raise hairs on the back of your neck. But I never the less played professionally, meaning I got paid to play. My first major gig was playing in a college chamber orchestra while I was still in high school. Once I was in college I played in symphony, at a handful of weddings, and even in a couple of alternative rock bands. It was during one of these band performances I learned about the tension of being an outlier.

We were by the stage getting ready for our slot in a fun 'battle of the bands' style concert. I opened my violin case and heard the sickening thwang! of a snapping string. A violin has only four strings, tuned to G, D, A, and E, E being the highest and thinnest string. It was my A string that snapped. You can't very well play with three strings because of the awkward strain put on the bridge of the violin, which is held up only by the tension of the strings.

Like any violinist I had spare strings in my bag, but I didn't have an A string because it had broken a few months before and I hadn't yet gotten a replacement. I started to sweat. Grabbing my phone, I texted a couple of people from the symphony to see if any of them had a spare, but I didn't really anticipate a response. See, I wasn't exactly one of them; a music student. Like many other areas of my life, I was an outlier. I spent most of my time either on a computer, in a gym, or in a garage. However I had wanted to maintain my violin skills and was good enough to pass auditions into the university symphony orchestra. So there I outlier...waiting on a callback that would never come.

Back to the problem at hand. I needed four strings on the violin to play. Technically the broken A string could be replaced with one of my other spares, then tuned to its proper range. I strung in my spare D string and began slowly tuning it up to the range of an A. Violin strings are an interesting thing. The E is a bit of an odd ball. It's usually composed of solid metal wire that is plated to reduce tarnishing and oxidation. The lower strings by contrast, A, D, and G, are usually a composite made up of a synthetic core with metal windings around it, not unlike the inside of a STP cable. The G is the thickest, followed by the D, then A. The tuning obviously follows suit with the thicker G having the lowest tension and the thinner E having the highest tension. I was hoping a slightly thicker D string would be able to take the pressure of a A tuning range. After all, in the field of electronics, you wouldn't usually replace a lower, thicker, gauge connector with a thinner, higher, gauge connector because the current could overload it and cause it to short. But this wasn't a circuit board. It was a violin. As anxious band mates looked on, I slowly applied more and more tension on the thicker D string until I heard it pop. The thicker string simply couldn't stretch as far as the A string because of it's heavier resistance and snapped under the strain.

The band before us started to play their set. If I didn't get my violin restrung and tuned before they finished, our set would be down an instrument. My band mates could have carried it and been awesome without me, but I hated to let them down after all the work we'd put in. Our cover of Skillet's "Awake and Alive" needed a violin intro anyway, so I quickly grabbed my spare E string and tuned it down to an A. It felt a little different, but worked like a charm. The thinner string designed for higher frequencies easily carried the lower frequencies of an A.

About the time I was happy with the tuning and had adjusted to the feel of two E strings,  it was time for us to jump on stage and play our bit. It wasn't my best performance, but it meant the world to me to be up there after such a rough start. Most importantly I learned several valuable lessons from the experience I'd like to share.

Lesson 1:

The rules in one world (computers) don't always apply in another (music). In est, a violin string doesn't exactly behave like a jumper wire. I wasted valuable time, not to mention another violin string, working under the erroneous assumption that tension placed on a violin string was analogous to the ristence of a wire.

Lesson 2:

Lesson 1 has a critical caveat that is often overlooked. It's found in the 'don't ALWAYS'. Like any logic bug, we see 'don't always' and draw the conclusion the thing never (or rarely ever) does the thing. This falicy is a big one. It causes hiring managers to overlook good candidates. Worse yet, it causes those good candidates to overlook themselves. They miss all the ways their worlds DO overlap by focusing on the few ways they don't. In turn potential employers miss the opportunity to tap into your unique perspective and out-of-the-box solutioning ideas. If you remember nothing else from this post, remember this:

Never underestimate an outlier...especially when that outlier is you.

If you think you're normal or are following the flow, remember the strings of the violin. Each is under intense pressure to produce their sound, but serve different purposes. If you're an A string in an A slot, then be the best A string you can be. Don't regret who you are or where you are. But also don't forget about the outliers. An E string can replace an A in a pinch because of it's composition.

If you are the outlier of this story, remember that your 'normal' is, by nature, anything but normal. You're use to fighting against the current, making things work that shouldn't because it's in your nature to do so. You see things differently than others, opportunities in every difficulty. Your experiences, both good and bad, build the person you are. Embrace it. Be the outlier. The tension you're under, when properly tuned, could be exactly what this world needs.

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