How Do You Lead Teams For Transformation? Lessons From Improvisational Jazz

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On the open improvisational stage, the musicians participate, moment by moment, to create a constantly morphing and unpredictable musical performance. “When we play music, you are not seeing something preordained unfold in a scripted way before you. You are witnessing something that people are negotiating in real time. You hear people make decisions right in front of you, and act on those decisions. I think that somewhere in that you hear life, a certain active aspect of life.” This is how Vijay Iyer—the physicist who turned to music and who is now a professor at Harvard University—described the group improvisational performance.

Why should organizational leaders look to improvisational musical groups? Teams in the workplace are constantly facing new challenges, and inventive solutions are not always easy to come by. When an individual in the workplace does conceive of a creative idea, they invariably have to follow up and develop the idea with others, in a sequential process that can lose momentum along the way.  One of the ways to ignite and accelerate the advancement of ideas is to bring together a group of people and establish the conditions and expectations for honest, provocative, and developmental conversations. The improvisational performance—where the musicians create together live—epitomizes the creative collaborative process and offers an illuminating paradigm to consider.

How do leaders of improvisational groups prepare for and lead creative group performances? 

Let the Music Fly—Unleash Creative Freedom

These leaders start by presenting aesthetic ideas and compositional material for the musicians to interpret and spontaneously compose with. The compositions can be sparse—a couple of pages, rarely more. “You don’t need more writing,” explained David Binney, acclaimed for leading adventurous bands including the group that subsequently became David Bowie’s Blackstar. “A two-bar composition can go on for forty minutes. Any good improviser will make a whole symphony out of it, they will just take that and go.” 

The compositions can be incomplete: They might intersperse written sections with blank spaces open for the musicians to compose with. Rather than offering complete parts to play, they might simply present themes—a melodic motif, a harmonic or rhythmic range—to frame the creativity on stage. The composition may offer disconnected pieces for the musicians to connect: “You might have a couple of fragments of music written under certain lines, but how to fit them together is something that you can’t see by looking at the music,” said the bass player Thomas Morgan of the avant-garde composer Steve Coleman’s music. (Coleman is a recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship, an award commonly called the “Genius Grant”). 

When the composition is incomplete and/or sparse, the musicians are compelled to compose live.  But, they may have to do so within guardrails: Sometimes the leader wants the musicians to create only within the prescribed parameters for improvisation, and/or stay close to the compositional form and style. In these instances, the creativity is curtailed and does not yield a transformation of the underlying composition. 

On transformational—or what in jazz is called “open”—bandstands, the story is a different one. Here, the leader does not prescribe the potential expressions and conversations and the musicians are free to abandon the compositional improvisational architecture as they spontaneously compose a new musical landscape. In such situations, the musicians use the composition as a basis to leap into the unknown and collectively construct evolving musical environments that move the piece through time, without any obligation to return to the script, although they are free to do so. The music that is created live might reflect the underlying composition, it might even play out—in places—the written parts, but it also might catapult far above the given piece to develop its own unique form. 

To elucidate:

The pianist Jason Moran, considered to be one of the most provocative thinkers in contemporary jazz, gives the musicians in his trio the freedom to collectively compose without any constraints. Jason refrains from providing the musicians any interpretational direction: “Rarely do I say what I want them to do. When I show the music to them, they make up their own ideas about how it should sound.” Jason feels that asking people to play certain things “detracts from what the options are in the music. Once you sort of enclose it in a box, it doesn’t really have the opportunity to break free.” The outcome of his open approach is transformation: “What Taurus and Nasheet (the drummer and bass player in his trio, the Bandwagon) do with my music is always unpredictable. It’s like if you wrote the whole thing backwards, you know, AND is DNA. They are constantly moving it around, and that makes it exciting. It is never boring.” Jason’s willingness to let the musicians follow their own instincts, along with their creative abilities, sets the stage for a generative and imaginative performance. 

The composition does not have to be incomplete or sparse to create space for the musicians to compose. The jazz giant Wayne Shorter presents his quartet with compositions that are substantial and can be played as is. Brian Blade, who plays in Shorter’s quartet, explained: “When I look at his music on paper, it’s perfect, we don’t have to do a thing to it, we can just play that.” But Shorter doesn’t want the musicians to do that. Instead, he wants the musicians to use the compositions simply as language to engage with and lift from as they choose, to birth a new compositional form. Shorter, Brian said, starts each performance without a set list: “We always play from nothing. What Wayne refers to as ‘zero gravity.’ It takes a lot of trust to walk out there with no script and take this journey. He wants us to create something unique together. We may arrive at something familiar, but we may not, you know. There’s such beautiful liberty, but also something very scary about that proposition.”

The compositions that Wayne Shorter, Jason Moran, David Binney, and other leaders of imaginative performances bring to the musicians, matter. The compositional language offers the foundation for creative expressions and conversations, and for unpredictable leaps of imagination. A composition’s eccentricities and challenges push the musicians to find creative (and therefore, unexpected) responses as they explore the piece’s latent possibilities. The composition offers a structure and roadmap for the musicians to come back to, as they need, through their journey of exploration. But what really matters to the music’s possibilities is the freedom that the leader gives the musicians to interpret, and even depart from, the compositional ideas. 

Lead Lightly – Give Up Control of the Outcome

The first time I saw an improvisational group perform—it was in a small underground performance space in New York City—I could not determine if there was in fact a leader. The leader’s name topped the billing, but once the band started playing, he blended into the group, playing just like the other musicians. They played intricately together, interspersed with pauses for one of them to solo or two to improvise together, while the others supported or chose not to play. The leader became apparent only when, at some point in the set, he spoke into the mic to introduce the other musicians and lastly, himself. As I listened to other improvisational groups perform across the city, I invariably saw the same thing. 

Leaders of “open” creative performances—I learned through my observations of bandstands and conversations with musicians—don’t intervene much in the flow of the music. Brian Blade, the leader and drummer of the Fellowship Band, explained his logic for stepping back on the bandstand: “For the most part the music seems to lead. If I’m thinking, then I’m not in the music, I’m not in the moment, I’m ahead of myself, and I’m in trouble. I mean, you are always having thoughts, that never stops, but in terms of that full-consciousness thinking like ‘What’s next?’ I guess that isn’t needed.” With everyone equally immersed in the collective act of creation, the decision to change the course of the music can be made by any of the musicians, not just by Brian: “Somehow, I find it is never as arbitrary as one person making that choice. It’s everyone’s sense of architecture.” 

Henry Threadgill—a consistent and influential figure on the avant-garde compositional scene for over five decades now, and a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Music—echoed this idea. He described the direction in Zooid, the group he was leading when we met, as “multi-headed,” moving from one person to the next during the performance. Henry, who plays saxophone and flute in the group, intervenes to change the course of the music as much, or as little, as any of the other musicians. “The only time I can sense that I need to step in and lead,” he said, “is when I’m less involved in the action. When I’m involved in the action, in the mix or something, it’s a person standing outside who is in the position to change the course of events.”

These and other leaders of transformational performances seem to believe that when everyone participates in the live construction of the music, it is best for the music as well as for the musicians. When the end game is discovery—transcendence from the notes rather than a predetermined expression, the pathway is one of experimentation and shared decision-making. It would not serve the music to have one focal point of control. This collective submission to the music being created in the moment sets the stage for the potential of transformation. 

These leaders are willing to put the performance at risk. There may be times when the musicians struggle to access imaginative responses to the music borne in the moment. There may be times when the musicians find it difficult to build on musical expressions. It is all okay, because the possibilities from freedom outweigh those that come from control. The bandleader David Binney explained: “There are times when I think I should have cued this, there are times; there are always regrets. You are always trying to make things better, to make it as powerful as it could be. There are other times when you get off the stand and you are like, ‘Wow, that was amazing,’ and I couldn’t have thought that up, because those guys took it in another direction. I rely heavily on the people I play with, I let them have free reign because they can think of things that I can’t think of. It is only to my benefit not to control.”

Experiment—Keep at It, but Don’t Play the Same Thing Twice  

To explore a composition’s possibilities with a group of musicians, these leaders look for opportunities to play the same tune, over and over. The aspiration is that each time around, the musicians will offer unexpected expressions and interactions, and across multiple performances push the limits of their exploration of the compositional material. Some leaders take a structured approach to this experimentation. Henry Threadgill can write multiple arrangements for a composition — “16 or 17” he said—with each arrangement offering a different angle from which to explore the composition’s possibilities. “You have to,” he explained. “It takes time to grasp things about a piece.” It is in the variations that the potential of a composition with a certain group of musicians is revealed.

The Upshot

When we think of a leader, we imagine someone who sets the destination and offers a roadmap of how to get there. Leadership of transformational jazz groups is different. The endgame is unknown and the route open. The leader writes compositions to launch the creative process, and he selects musicians to give expressions to the compositional ideas. He finds performance opportunities and prepares the musicians as he sees fit. But once the performance starts, he leaves it to the musicians—of whom he is one—to collectively design the journey and the outcome. This is the ideal of the improvisational bandstand, and the elixir for the creative musician. Improvisational musicians don’t know how the music is going to unfold, but when there are moments of transformation and transcendence—when their expressions and conversations present depth and intimacy, surprise and provocation—they are grateful and in awe. 

Implications for the Workplace

How can a workplace leader apply such practices to a group tasked with ideation? Invest in a series of collaborative ideation sessions or “performances” structured on the principles of group improvisation. To prepare for these sessions, present the group with a concept or architecture, or even a fully written proposition. Let the participants know whether to use this material to create freely or within certain constraints. (The distinctions would depend on your intent, the nature of the problem to be solved, and your commitments).  Select participants who can offer the unexpected and are able to spontaneously compose with each other—by providing support when they feel it is needed, provocation when they think it is valuable, and by collaboratively developing ideas. Once the performance starts, participate just like another member of the group. Over the course of multiple such performances, the group will offer alternative narratives, pushing the potential of their creativity with a given concept.



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