Better Music Through Chess

It’s 3:30 in the morning and I’ve just gotten back from a club (at the age of 55). I’m in the studio mixing 20 tracks of music for a band that has twenty plus musicians in it. I’ve scored the material which means writing all the musical parts down via sheet music. The song is a tribute to Lalo Schifrin, who did the sound tracks and scores for the Dirty Harry films and a host of other classics. I get a message on Facebook about doing an interview regarding my music. The interviewer asks me to answer one question before the interview the following morning. The Question: “What made you become good enough, as a musician, to be able to do the fully orchestrated projects you now do? It took me a full twenty four hours to answer this question because unlike the fast, glib and snotty answers I gave in my youth, I take my time and think about what I’m saying in middle age. Here’s the gist of what I said:

My music, composing skills, arrangement skills, engineering and producing are all where they are today because of chess. I can only imagine the horror on the other end of this question because the interviewer probably expected the old “I practiced until my fingers bled” party line. What you do in one area of your life often dictates the results in other areas of your life.

Chess really taught me how to look at both the big picture and the little picture at the same time. To win a game of chess, you have to have an overall plan. However, with each move of a pawn or piece, your immediate plan changes. You might have come up with a plan that is three moves long. Yet, your opponent suddenly makes a move you didn’t expect them to make. This forces you to adjust you original plan to accommodate this unforeseen opposition move. This situation occurs in music as well. You write a song. You’ve created the words and music for that song which means you have a plan that dictates just how that song will sound. You then bring the song to your band. They interpret the song differently so it may not sound as it did when your originally wrote it. It may sound better or it may sound differently than your original version. You work with your fellow musicians, making changes here and there until you get what your want out of the composition. The big picture is the original song your wrote, the little picture is the changes that are made during the evolution of that song. Prior to the influence of chess, I held firm in my song writing. It was my way or the highway, as some people like to say. Now, I embrace the changes other musicians bring to the table when it comes to my songs.

Chess also gave me the gift of patience, something I sorely lacked in my youth. When I first started playing, I wanted everything to happen immediately and when it didn’t, I started to lose interest. In fact, a musician I had auditioned for me when I was young called me out on this, on a social media site, which inspired this very article. Today, I am not only used to, for example, having six to seven hour rehearsals, but embrace them because creativity takes time. Patience is a skill that has positive ramifications far beyond the chessboard. Having some patience can be the difference between creating a musical composition of real substance and simply writing yet another passable song. Patience is a skill that will keep your blood pressure down (except in my case, according to my doctor).

Chess and music both share the concept of pattern recognition. In music, there are a seemingly endless combination of notes that can be combined to create a song. However, only a fraction of those notes can be combined to create a catchy tune. There are specific patterns that, when combined, create wonderful music. Proof of this can be found in the majority of rock and roll songs based on three chords, E, A and B. Chuck Berry became a legend based on this simple pattern. In chess, players that recognize patterns on the chessboard win games. Musicians that recognize patterns write great songs.

Where chess has really proven itself as a valuable tool, musically speaking, is in my work doing composition, arranging and recording of orchestrated bands, those that include horn and string sections. My latest band project, The Troubadours of Misery, is a miniature orchestra. Being the the chief writer and arranger, I’m facing technical challenges I’ve never faced. Often, my back is to the wall and I find myself in a tough spot, be it arranging or trying to get just the right tones in the recording studio. Prior to seriously studying chess, I probably would have settled for a technical solution that I wasn’t quite happy with. Now, I look at the problem, then try and relate it to a tough chess position I’ve found myself in or have studied. I keep a laptop with my game database in the studio and will review that tough position and play through the solution. I try to relate each move to the situation I’m in and more often than not, find a solution to my musical problem on the chessboard.

Chess provides many lessons that can be applied to our lives. I’d say that learning lessons from this great game will probably get you a lot father than hiring one of those life coaches (that person you pay a lot of money to so they can tell you what you already know, common sense). One thing that people have trouble with is losing in life. They take a chance, fail and then never try again. If you talk to anyone who is successful (and honest), they’ll tell you it took a number of failures to become successful (not just one). While I’ve had my share of minor musical successes, I’ve had my share of failed bands (and some real stinkers when it comes to songs). Chess can teach you how to deal with loss and embrace it as a learning tool. What can I say, you really cannot go wrong playing chess and learning off the board life lessons within the sixty-four squares. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).