updated 5/13/2004 12:25:25 PM ET 2004-05-13T16:25:25

Music was the passion of a young Alan Greenspan, who toured the country for several years with a dance band in hopes of becoming another Benny Goodman.

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But doubts about his musical abilities put him on a wildly different career path that over the years led him to his current job as chairman of the Federal Reserve, which wields enormous power over the $11 trillion U.S. economy.

Greenspan, who is often called the second-most powerful man in Washington, talked about his journey in a speech delivered via video link to high school students gathered at a conference at the Federal Reserve Bank in Chicago on Thursday.

"I suspect most of you have not as yet figured out what career you would like to pursue," said Greenspan, who is 78.

"As with all the generations of teenagers that have gone before you, something will grab your interest and engage you," he said. "With me, it was music. I was entranced with sound and visualized myself playing with the likes of the Glenn Miller orchestra or becoming another Benny Goodman."

Greenspan said he practiced clarinet and saxophone three to five hours a day and after graduation from high school, toured the country for a couple of years with a dance band.

"I was a good amateur but only an average professional," Greenspan confessed. "I soon realized that there was a limit to how far I could rise in the music business, so I left the band and enrolled at New York University."

There, he first majored in finance, then in economics and then in mathematical statistics, he said. He graduated in 1948 with an undergraduate degree in economics, joined a research firm and continued with his education, earning a masters degree in 1950. New York University awarded Greenspan a doctorate in 1977.

Greenspan stressed that in today's workplace it is important to keep refreshing and adding skills and that education can be a lifetime pursuit.

"Because the complexity of our economic system continues to increase, the skill level that you reach in your twenties will surely be inadequate for the need of our economy when you reach 40," Greenspan said. "So education must be ongoing."

Greenspan, in his speech, did not discuss the future course of interest rate policy or the state of the U.S. economy.

Fed policy-makers decided last week to hold a key short-term interest rate at a 46-year low of 1 percent, where it has been since last June. But they hinted that rates could be moving up now that the economy is gaining steam.

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