You never know when creativity will strike or, more importantly, be called forth.
This weekend I’ve been feeling particularly melancholy, what with, you know, the world.
Thankfully Dan Rather et al over at Steady send a weekly email entitled “Smile for a Saturday”. I needed a smile this morning, so I opened it and watched a video of Brazilian pianist Elaine Rodriguez conducting an impromptu performance in flexibility and good humor, when one of her piano pedals malfunctions. I learned a bit about the literal mechanics of moving pianos; but more importantly, I saw how expertise, humility, and connection can save us in adversity.
While crew rushed to change pianos on stage, Ms. Rodriguez spoke to the audience. She explained what was happening, got help, and continued to play music that did not require the pedal while she and the audience waited. She chose pieces that sounded appropriate for the circumstances. She looked into the audience and made eye contact, engaging them throughout. She gave everybody, including me, the sense that we were all in it together. Nobody knew what would happen next, how long it would take, and how the evening would turn out. But I’d bet money that every person was glued to their seat, happily in it for the duration.
“We get to invent it!” This may be one of my favorite sentences, and I have exclaimed it more often in the past two years than possibly in my whole life. We thought we could not include telehealth in regular medical schedules. We thought teams always had to meet in person, in the office, all the time to function. We thought executives’ work necessarily required them to travel internationally over 50% of the time to lead effectively. Maybe so, and maybe not. COVID forced us all to reassess our default assumptions and practices. Some served us well and proved their value through lockdown and beyond. Some not so much, and now we get to invent how to be and do differently. Faced with adversity, we can play different songs.
My nascent idea and title for this post had just formed when YouTube autoplay began the next video, of Ben Folds composing a new song, on stage at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 2017. Friends, you’ gotta watch this!! He literally invents a song and leads the National Symphony Orchestra through its impromptu performance, beginning to end, in ten minutes. Stop reading now and watch, and let’s debrief below, shall we? I’ll wait. 😉
See if you agree that this improvisation parallels our pandemic experience:
A Minor Key
First, the MC accepts an audience suggestion of A minor as the key for the piece. Minor keys have a somber and ominous feel compared to major keys. They grab my attention, make me slow down, listen more slowly and mindfully. This makes sense because most music we hear is composed in major keys; it’s the default. Okay, now I’m prepared for the Darth Vader theme (in case you’re wondering about the difference between major and minor keys, hear the Imperial March in a major key, and Chariots of Fire in minor). This is the first constraint placed on Folds’s new composition: Invent a song that everybody expects to sound solemn, foreboding, and sad. Stay home. Wear a mask. Curtail your travel. No more team lunches, boondoggles, water cooler chit chat. Stress, stress, stress. A minor sounds like the right key for inventing a song in the Age of COVID.
Next, the MC asks the audience what tempo they want to hear, ballad or upbeat? Immediate and loud spontaneous consensus: “Upbeat!” What a fantastic challenge, how will this work? As leaders, culture and morale start with us. We get to choose how we show up, no matter the circumstances. Maybe this correlates with taking a minor key and making an upbeat song—knowing to start slowly, from a serious, thoughtful place, AND choosing to uplift. Minor key does not necessarily make a song sad, plodding, or a slog. Rather, it makes our upbeat-ness necessarily more intentional. To see and amplify the positive in a negative situation does not mean ignoring, repressing, or dismissing the bad. It means accepting and embracing it, naming it, navigating it, making the most of all that is, and then moving forward with it all, in concert. This is what leaders are called to do.
“These New Spaces Are All Designed to Be Flexible.”
The MC asks for a ‘an interesting sentence’ from the program book, perhaps as the unifying theme for the upbeat song in A minor—the mission, purpose, direction—the cause. I kid you not, this is the sentence that emerged. How cosmically prescient, this video, I have goosebumps.
“We Get to Invent It!” In the wake of Battleship COVID, we now get to design our spaces to be flexible—all spaces! That includes physical work spaces, spaces in our own minds for how and what to be, and spaces between us in relationship, whether at home, in college dorms, at work, at the grocery store, at concerts, or in traffic—everywhere, all the time!
Folds sits at the piano and starts noodling. He smiles. You can imagine his integrated brain gears turning, changing position while staying in contact, engaged and rotating for optimal efficiency and torque. He hits a little rut and resets, still smiling. He knows exactly what he’s doing, understands and embraces the process of creation, the necessary messiness and disorganization of initiating something meaningful. He also has no idea what he’s doing; the product is not yet formed. He is inventing in real time. Isn’t that what we are all doing now? What expertise and skill sets can we ground ourselves in, as individuals and collaborative (or competitive!) teams, that give us the confidence to invent? How do we orient ourselves for maximal power to accomplish our goals?
Think and tinker. Use your knowledge, expound on theory, do the thought experiments. Then take the experiments from thought to piano, to conversation, to teamwork. Try stuff out. Pilot–thoughtfully. Exercise both humility and confidence at once: Go all in, get all out quickly if it doesn’t work, repeat.
Over the next several minutes he tinkers with baseline, progression, melody. He starts sounding out with the cellos, then winds, then violins, violas, and finally basses and drums. At each stage, he invents something, tries it, integrates with the previous section, and assesses. Does it work? “…Just to make sure I don’t suck…sorry, this takes a second to create a whole song.” The song evolves in front of our eyes and ears, passing through organic adjustments of timing, notes, combinations of sounds and participation. “…Let’s hear it all together, make sure it’s not crazy…” The orchestra conductor follows attentively, providing seamless ancillary direction and guidance to the group.
Is this not what any team in transition needs? Leaders recognize material constraints and requirements: A minor key, upbeat tempo, These New Spaces Are All Designed to Be Flexible. They take the first steps, feeling things out, listening. They check in with the team at all levels—how does it sound for this group? What about when we add other groups? How’s the harmony? Is it working for the whole? If not, what do we need to change?
Revel in the Awesomeness
The performance climaxes after all parts have rehearsed, integrated, and repeated. Folks are comfortable in their brand new learned nerve pathways. Now they get to really play together, to have fun, improvise, and enjoy their accomplishment. What would happen if we celebrated our successes, even the smallest ones, more often and loudly (“fivetissimo”)?
It occurs to me here that this performance works because of certain fundamental premises: 1) Everybody agrees to participate, and to follow Ben Folds’s lead. 2) Everybody speaks the same language. Real time communication occurs cleanly and efficiently, with immediate feedback. 3) The leader trusts the team to do what they do best, giving appropriate instruction according to roles. 4) The task is brief, the goal is clear and simple, and the leader takes responsibility for the end product.
This video is neither a perfect nor a complete metaphor for creating optimal post-COVID environments and relationships. Still, it inspires and activates me. It provokes thought and creativity, and spurs me to enroll others in new ideas, experimentation, and shared accountability for our collective outcomes.
Really, if you have not already watched, please take ten minutes. You can even just listen. I bet you won’t regret it, and it may even inspire you.