Finding Your Groove: the Art of Teaching Through Jazz

It’s been a looooong time…. I took a hiatus from blogging, Trading Fours with Drs. Modeste & Wes, and from social media in general, to regroup; to spend some time thinking about what I want to do and how. What I’ve learned, re-affirmed, is — I love “educating.” Facilitating the learning process by encouraging smart conversations really energizes and delights me. I enjoy knowing what people think, how they process information and make sense of the world. Given all the outrageous, heartbreaking, problematic, and frightfully topical news coverage of late — I am more committed to educating than ever.

We need to think deeply, creatively and critically (not for the uninteresting sake of being critical). We need to listen to one another and be smarter. We need to engage thoughtfully. We need to be like jazz musicians in our thinking, interacting, and problem solving.

On Tuesday, June 30th, I’ll be at NYC’s legendary Cornelia Street Cafe with my colleague, Bassist and Principal of Jazz Impact Michael Gold, offering a workshop, “Finding Your Groove: the Art of Teaching Through Jazz.”

Michael Gold 2

JJM by Frrank Stewart

We’ll address three main questions:

  • Why is it hard to “hear” new ideas?
  • How do great teachers teach critical thinking?
  • How do we cultivate curiosity?

This is part of what I’ll be doing to help make a difference. If you’re in NYC, or can be, join us and “BE” in our incredible creative space for learning. Let’s make a difference. Spread the word and Find YOUR Groove….

Tuesday, June 30th — 6-7:30PM

The Cornelia Street Cafe — 29 Cornelia Street, NYC 10014

CALL 212-989-9319

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Jazz and Management in Practice

On Sunday, January 26, 2014, the Jazz Standard Youth Orchestra (JSYO) performed its weekly gig, the jazz brunch at one of New York City’s premier jazz clubs, The Jazz Standard. This week, I was struck by the activity of learning to play a classic jazz tune anew and the leadership lessons contained therein. So, here’s some lessons from the bandstand… aka, “Sunday at the Jazz Standard.”

Guest Artist/New Manager
Guest artists are common at the JSYO. World-class musicians are brought in to diversify the group’s interaction, help generate and realize new ideas; and generally to offer a different creative lens through which to stimulate artistic discovery. In this sense, the sessions are like laboratories where ideas are asserted, tested, refined, and conclusions (however temporary) are reached, generate new lines of inquiry and the cycle of discovery continues. (Will deal with innovation in an upcoming article, stay tuned…)

Talent Identification/Assessment
Like a new manager, a guest artist comes with an understanding of her profession but with incomplete information about the skill set of the team with which she’ll be working and so the approach to realizing her artistic vision in steeped in uncertainty.

The JSYO is an eclectic assortment of students. The kids range in age from roughly 8 – 18; some are in traditional schools, some in performing arts schools; some have played since they were very young, others are in a solidly intermediate stage. I remember Master Drummer Michael Carvin’s words “I don’t teach beginners” when I think of the JSYO bc these kids are decidedly not in the early stages of musical or instrumental discovery. Some students are seasoned performers, the JSYO being but one of several performance groups; others are new to the stage. Some students don’t have regular band in school, others have band class almost daily. Some students know they want to become professional musicians; others have no clear picture of the path their career might take.

Getting Started
So, how and where is a Guest Artist/Manager to start? Here are a few observations from Sunday:

  • Introductions: Let me hear you play (quick assessment of skill, talent, ability). In the non music realm you might inquire about a current, recent, or upcoming project. You might ask about hobbies or what the person finds interesting outside of work because this can help you identify otherwise hidden skills.
  • Call and Response: While the playing/speaking is happening, get into the performers/speaker’s space. Show you are listening by giving feedback, verbal or nonverbal cues to indicate you are engaged. In music you’d snap your fingers, sway to the rhythm, bob your head. In business, you’d offer verbal affirmations, extend the thought and create a brief conversational flow, and/or express appropriate emotion to what’s being described.

Now that you’ve established a rapport with your team, you can move towards getting them to “buy in” to your artistic vision (project, product, strategy, etc.) because the people involved, your stakeholders, feel humanized, validated. Engaged musicians are like engaged employees; and as a recent Bain study indicates, “Engaged employees go the extra mile to deliver. Their enthusiasm rubs off….”

Ted Rubin’s ideas on the Return on Relationship Ted Rubin are valuable here

While in music, this type of interaction is common practice, in business it is not. Residents of the C-Suite know the value of relationships and engagement but according to a recent Bain study, they don’t practice what they preach. Another Bain study found troubling trends as outlined in “The Four Secrets to Employee Engagement.”

In Practice

Olivia Trummer came to work with the kids on Sunday. Hailing from Germany, she’s a pianist and vocalist of note. Known for her original conceptions and use of timing and rhythm, Olivia’s innovative arrangements honor tradition (in both the classical and jazz genres) while being unmistakably modern.

Like many of you, the JSYO kids know “Miles Davis’s” famous “So What” from his classic album, Kind of Blue. Olivia challenged the students to play the familiar song in an unfamiliar time signature (¾). In other words, “do something different, with impact” — innovate.

Oh, it was a rough start replete with fits and starts and lots of giggles and side commentary from the musicians! The sounds were awkward, the attempts to play the tune were alternately frustrating and comedic as the kids struggled — creatively, intellectually — to carry out the assignment. Like marathon runners training for the big race, the kids never played the whole song in the new meter during rehearsal. Instead, they played short sections, reviewed the trickiest parts, and tried out solos individually when the group took breaks. They moved on from the song and rehearsed other tune in the day’s set list.

What just happened?
Olivia trusted the students’ talent. Students “bought in” to Olivia’s vision bc they trusted her to lead them through the song’s complexities. The working relationship congealed around a newly formed bond of trust and students worked to deliver their best efforts to help Olivia realize her vision of the song, a revision of a standard.

Show time
Olivia stood before the band in front of a capacity crowd at the Jazz Standard’s brunch and directed the band for its first ever full performance of her arrangement of “So What.” Miles’ version runs 9 minutes, 22 seconds; Olivia’s version is a full 15 minutes. A trusted leader with full band support; Olivia communicated with the band verbally and nonverbally during the performance — she remained engaged — transmitting cues to guide the band. Micromanaging? Not at all, this was the band’s first time performing the tune in Olivia’s arrangement, her involvement was necessary to offer real-time assessment and tweak accordingly. This way, she can be assured the band is on track and remains focused on the vision.

Through extended solos, Olivia gave the band room to explore its own musical ideas and fine tune its efforts to realize the song in the new time signature. Playing extended solos on “So What” was not only a new challenge for band members but was do-able bc Olivia had assessed individual skills in advance, she knew the band could deliver even in front of a live audience. Soloing allowed band members to integrate the tune into their own voicings, testing the song, and making it their own. Ownership improves outcomes.

Outcome

When the song ended, the audience was delighted — the performance was a success. How do we know? A real-time assessment via soft metrics: audience attention during the performance; applause, head bopping, body movement; follow-up commentary between audience members and musicians; and the interaction between musicians and audience members during and immediately after the performance. Such soft metrics remind us to trust our own judgement of human interaction.

Olivia’s vision was delivered and affirmed. The students demonstrated not only their obvious musical talent but also the creative and intellectual agility necessary to meet the demands of uncertainty. Significantly, they didn’t run from the challenge. (How do we measure “grit, determination, courage?) “One reason for this superior performance is that” musicians like “engaged employees, direct their energy toward the right tasks and outcomes.” The students were focused on the demands of the time signature, playing and creating. (How do we measure focus?)

Teaching workers and students to adapt to uncertainty means moving them away from the familiar even as we rely on it to guide change. The kids, like so many of us, already knew “So What.” In asking the students to play the song differently, Olivia challenged them to be engaged at every moment. They could not rely on autopilot or muscle memory to play the song; the new meter required self-conscious thinking with each note. Being self-conscious and focused for long periods of time requires mental and intellectual stamina . (How do we measure intellectual stamina?) The extended solos required careful articulation, real-time processing of information and consistent self-conscious co-creation, individually, with band members, and Olivia.

Metrics is no easy thing. For far too long, we have been trained to privilege systems of efficiency and have developed metrics for assessing the disparity between the 100% (mechanically impossible) efficiency of work and our efforts. This compounds feelings of inadequacy and undermines our confidence in using human judgement and common sense when assessing situations. Fortunately, our kids are learning to trust in their hard work, face challenges, and manage uncertainty with confidence and courage. Lucky for you, you don’t need to be a kid to swing; you, too, can use jazz as a management tool.

The Blues… honestly

Brainstorm is a blog on Ideas and Culture that I find really thought provoking. In his February 12, 2012, entry, Todd Gitlin asks, “Is it Possible for Americans to have an Honest Discussion About Government?” My cynicism has not yet eclipsed my hopefulness and so my answer is, “Yes, it is possible. Si, se puede!” But how and what do we gain/lose by engaging in honest debate?

Gitlin’s entry is a contemplation on a New York Times article on critics of government safety nets who also depend on these daily.  So, various commentators have been “brainstorming” (great blog name BTW) about this. As indicated in the NYT article, people who firmly believe the government is too involved in the lives of the people are also loathe to admit their own dependence on government subsidies. When the hard truth is brought to light and an admission seems unavoidable, said recipients lament the fact and indicate they’d  rather do without the assistance. Good, good but not productive.

I was fascinated in reading this because the emotional and psychological work required to recast reality seems substantial. I am reminded of Toni Morrison’s must read essay, “Unspeakable Things Unspoken” which deals with omissions of race in literature but these things are transferable, so bear with me… So, what work goes into denying the reality of receiving subsidies and what trickery is involved in simultaneously rejecting the notion of subsidies being necessary to conduct normal daily affairs (the NYT article sites allowing after school sports activities for children and paying for necessary medical operations). The article gave no answers but shed light on the issue… good, good.

In order to have an honest discussion about government we’d need to deal with the uncomfortable truths of our reality forthrightly. We’d need to, as a nation, look at hardship head on, meet it in the eye, and call it what it is in order to deal with it meaningfully. We’d have to own up to the blues, honestly. So, instead of repeating favorite feel-good political soundbites and calls for “smaller government, lower taxes” and requests to “privatize healthcare, social security, education” etc., we’d have to ask, “Why is it that I can work full-time and still not be able to pay for after school sports for my children?” or “How is it that I have worked 30+ years and can’t afford to have the operation my wife needs” or “Why can’t I afford for my child to go to a ‘good’ school?” — All variations on the theme, “My baby done left me, oh what am I going to do?”In The Omni Americans Albert Murray reminds his readers that the blues ballad, “almost always [relates] a story of frustration [but] could hardly be described as a device for avoiding the unpleasant facts… on the contrary, it is a very specific and highly effective vehicle… [for] acknowledg[ing] the essentially tenuous nature of all human existence.” (Murray, 57) Honest answers to hard questions are necessary in order to move political conversations from soundbite to real life. In this case, we need to illuminate the relationship between the private sector and government.

Gitlin notes, “We can legitimately debate which taxes are fairer, and which expenditures most necessary and just, but as long as up-by-the-bootstraps ideology runs rampant, realistic debate is crippled by dishonesty. Unacknowledged dependency on the whole social network—not just on government—makes for delusions about how easy it would be to dispense with the safety net.” Significantly, these delusions keep progress at bay.

One way to begin having an honest discussion about government is to move thoughtful conversation from the classroom into the living room via the airwaves. Why? Because educators are trained to dig beneath the surface of ideas and excavate the hidden treasures and because so many people get their “news” and political ideas from TV and radio. Discussion imageThose trained in subject-specific research are experts who have committed their professional lives to knowing a subject deeply. When we engage them in conversations and allow their voices to integrate the mainstream media and infiltrate households, we pollinate the populace with ideas, the seeds of critical thinking — this is a bold new move.

I am excited about Melissa Harris-Perry’s new show which airs on Saturdays and Sundays beginning February 18, 2012, but not just because she’s smart as all get-out, poised and balanced in her approach but because she represents a move to elevate political discussion. Harris-Perry will not avoid the hard truths of our reality, she will delve in with a brain trained to think critically and to engage. She will extract the nuggets of gold that will enrich us all.  She says, “Part of the way I end up here is, I think the ivory tower has a ton of brilliant information that doesn’t show up for ordinary people.” Chris Hayes, who also has a show on MSNBC talks about time. He says, “Sometimes it has taken five minutes… to get past the talking points that are familiar to any cable news viewer. But we have the luxury of time.” Yes, thinking takes time and delivers the opposite of soundbites and 30 second news clips.  Harris-Perry’s show airs a full two hours for two days in a row. Cynical me says this must be tied to some profit margin but intellectual me thinks this is the right thing to do. Thoughtful conversation takes time. Harris-Perry and Hayes are part of a movement to reinvest in the power of intellect and an acknowledgment — by the market no less — that thinking takes time and has long-term benefits.

The NYT article on Harris-Perry poses the question, “Is this a sign of the rise of the academic on TV? Professor imageThough cable news is still stereotyped by some as a 24-7 screaming match, there are now pockets of intellectual stimulation that did not exist a decade ago.” — the rise of academics on TV will cause a rise in the level of political discourse. Phil Griffin, president of MSNBC notes, “Today, our audience thrives on being smart.” Finally, the market has demanded more intelligent TV.

This leads me to the idea of job creation. Why? Because the market seems to finally be acknowledging what educators have always known — thinking is valuable. Harris-Perry and the like are not trained in math or science and according to the soundbite scenarios, “we need more math and science” in order to be competitive — perhaps. However, it seems to me that a better educated and more thoughtful public trained to think critically in all areas, increases national competitiveness long-term. Imagine the US nimble and flexible enough to change with changing global demands because its entire population was prepared to contribute thoughtful, informed options or responses to whatever obstacle we faced. Perhaps the US can become a nation of thought leaders who collaborate with thought leaders in every region of the world to coordinate efforts to combat any number of global ills, including: climate change, poverty, healthcare, etc. Imagine the industries associated with this growth in thought leadership.Critical thinking image

By engaging honest debate we stand to lose the comforts of delusion and these are many. We would have to take responsibility for our contributions to the fracturing our systems of governance, healthcare, education, etc., painfully engage the unknown and have the courage to create something new. We would gain integrity and be offended that the current negative political campaigns and mudslinging avoid engaging hard questions and supply only soundbite answers instead.  We would gain an engaged and better informed populace invested in creating new systems rather than simply and unimaginatively destroying what we have. We would move towards solutions and not run from the hardship of our many problems. We need the blues, honestly.