Choral Music Never Had It So GoodThe Official Blog of Octarium

0 Humming Together … in the Same Key

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I attended the Americans for the Arts convention in San Diego last week mostly to listen to the conversation and get my finger on the pulse of the state of the arts in the United States.  I came away from the conference with many thoughts, lots of ideas, some angst, some anger, some inspiration, some astonishment and somewhat overwhelmed.

I promised I’d blog about it but I don’t think it would behoove me, or you, to try to encapsulate the whole experience into one blog;  you’d need caffeine and I’d get writers cramp.  So I’ll break it down and start at the end;  the closing keynote.

The word “keynote” comes from unaccompanied singing; because singers don’t have buttons to push, someone has to give pitch to determine the key in which the group will sing,  hence the “key note” played before the performance.  The use of the term “keynote” for conventions and conferences implies that the opening speech will set the stage, so to speak;  it will summarize the ideals of the convention and lay the framework for the core message of the gathering.  So a closing keynote?  Does that imply that we need to check back with ourselves and make sure we didn’t wander too far away from the original key?  That we didn’t get so excited that we started to sing sharp?  Or so disgruntled and discouraged that we began to sing flat? Or that the piece was such a mess that no one could save it and we stopped singing all-together and had to start over?

Perhaps all of the above, particularly in this case.  The closing speaker, the guy tasked to blow pitch for us to see how far away from our entry-ideals we had wandered and to charge us to go home humming in the right key, was Ben Cameron.  Mr. Cameron is the Program Director at the  Doris Duke Charitable Foundation in New York, where he supervises a $13 million grants program aimed at the theatre, contemporary dance, jazz and presenting fields.  He wore jazzy shoes and infused his speech with an energy that other speakers could not muster.

His speech, his closing keynote, was so sound-bite worthy that it could be broken down into multiple blog entries but I’ll start with a quickly-told anecdote Mr. Cameron imparted, at top speed, during the question-and-answer session.

Mr. Cameron used to work for Target and tells the story of one of their training sessions;  each person is asked to find a partner and stare at him for sixty seconds.  Then each person turns his back on his partner and changes three things about his appearance.  When people turn to face their partners again, the task is to determine what has changed about your partner.  Then each person is told to repeat the exercise and change 5 more things.  Then 10 more things.  Then 20 more things.  Then, when it’s over, they sit back down to discuss.

The lessons in this exercise are manifest;  people resist change (invariably, when asked to change the ten more things, someone says, “DO YOU WANT ME TO STRIP?”) When the exercise is over, everyone works hard to return to normal; put the watch back on, the tie, the high heels, the bracelets.

But the most important lesson was that change inspires people to become competitive.  The first thing each person did when they turned their backs on their partners was try to stump them;  what can I change that she won’t notice?  How can I stick it to her?   The participants, not knowing the end purpose of the exercise, tried to win.

And they didn’t work together.  When it got to the “change 20 things” people mostly stood there, stumped.  Often no one thought to cross the room and borrow someone else’s tie or shoes or watch and, likewise, give his tie, shoes or watch to someone else. Usually people didn’t think to put their shoes on their head or their socks on their hands.

So change becomes competitive;  not collaborative.  And the threat of overwhelming change causes creativity to disappear.

I find it interesting that artists, ostensibly creative persons, react similarly to change;  even at this convention, new ideas were often met with bristling, fuddy-duddy reactions (the word “no” or the phrase “it will never work, don’t even try”) so much so that a person who described himself as an “emerging leader” got up during the closing forum and told the already “emerged” leaders to get out of the way.  Certainly, change for change’s sake only is never good and emerging leaders sometimes shake things up just to have something to do.  But, on the other hand, change can be wonderful and inspiring and give new life to old ideas.  But change needs many things to succeed; not only a sense of energy but also a logical purpose and quantifiable goal, as well as a thoughtful and responsible plan of action (yes, I may be a fuddy-duddy but don’t tell).

However, change can make us insular, competitive and territorial.  It can highlight our failures, make us defensive and throw us into preventative mode rather than collaborative mode.

Imagine a small vocal ensemble wandering collaboratively a half-step flat; change, right? An artistically undesirable change, granted, but change nonetheless.  Now imagine one person in the ensemble fighting that change actively;  stubbornly staying in the original key while the rest of the group goes abroad.  The result?  Cacophony.  Yes, that person was right in the end but what did fighting do?  It ruined the performance. Had that person given his talent to the change rather than fighting against the change, the performance would have been saved.  It would not have been perfect but it would have still delighted most of the audience, for whom a half-step is entirely unnoticeable.

Then there’s the person, we all know her, that lady in the alto section, who starts stomping her foot on the risers when the tempo is too slow.  This is not collaborative.  This is dictatorial.  And extremely annoying.

Now I’m sure some of you are thinking “she wants us to just lay down and go along with change; be thoughtless automatons who are so collaborative that we don’t assert our own identities.”  No.  That’s not what I’m saying.   Sometimes we are confronted with change that we cannot immediately control and being collaborative, rather than preventative, is the better choice.   Like in that performance when your fellow singers are wandering out of key;  you may fight it for a while but there comes a point that fighting will only make it worse and winning becomes not singing the right notes with pitch-accuracy but working to create a performance that resonates despite its flaws.  After all, there’s more to music than being in the right key and singing accurate pitches;  some of Octarium’s best, most heart-felt performances, have been in the wrong key with wrong notes.  But don’t tell.

Out of all the arts, unaccompanied vocal singing without a conductor may be the most collaborative; it doesn’t work unless the singers cooperate with one another.  The individual singers don’t try to win; they work for the greater good of the ensemble.  There are lessons to be learned here that are applicable not only in the arts but in politics and business as well.  Don’t try to win; collaborate so that we all can win.  Hum together.  In the same key.

posted by Krista Lang Blackwood, artistic director

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