Where Country Music Comes From March 7, 2013Posted by keithsawyer in Creative performance.
Tags: allen shamblin, bluebird cafe, bonnie raitt, lady antebellum, leslie satcher, miranda lambert, randy travis, tim mcgraw, tom douglas
Tonight in Nashville, I heard three solo performances by legendary singer songwriters associated with the famous Bluebird Cafe. You might not know their names, but I guarantee you’ve heard one or more of their songs performed by famous stars:
- Tom Douglas: He co-wrote Miranda Lambert’s hit song “The House That Built Me” with Allen Shamblin (also on the stage tonight; Allen was the one who sang this song) and he wrote Lady Antebellum’s #1 hit “I Run To You” (which he performed).
- Leslie Satcher: She’s written hit songs for George Jones, Patty Loveless, George Strait, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, and Bonnie Raitt. My favorite of her songs was “You Remain” which was recorded by Bonnie Raitt.
- Allen Shamblin: He wrote Randy Travis’s #1 hit “He Walked On Water” and co-wrote “I Can’t Make You Love Me” (with Tom Douglas, who closed out the evening with that song). I was really impressed by his version of a song I hadn’t heard before, “Number 37405,” which was recorded by Tim McGraw.
As a creativity researcher, I was particularly interested as the songwriters talked about their creative process. The theme that stood out was collaboration: After all, two of the folks on stage, Tom and Allen, cowrite together often. And all three of the musicians talked about the importance of the songwriting community, of sharing ideas and playing bits of melody for each other. Leslie Satcher talked about the value of sharing ideas with non-musicians: actors, movie directors, visual artists. It’s the kind of creative process I describe in my book Group Genius: the power of collaboration to drive creativity.
All three talked about how long it takes for a song to develop–from the first intriguing lyric, to a first draft that might sit on the shelf for five or six years… until something makes them pick it up again and tweak it a little bit more. That’s the story behind “The House That Built Me”: Tom said no artist was interested in the first draft, but five years later, after many revisions and twists and turns, four different artists wanted the final draft. That’s the kind of story I describe in my new book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity.
From their stories, it become clear that all three songwriters work in a complex industry system that includes song pickers, agents, producers, and the famous performers themselves. They all told us fascinating stories about the zig-zagging chain of events that resulted in one or another song making its way to the artist who eventually recorded it.
No doubt, the famous singers that recorded these songs have better voices (the songwriters would be the first to admit) and superior production. But I loved seeing the creator of a song, with just a guitar or a piano, singing alone. It’s a window onto the creative process.
Creativity and the Superbowl February 2, 2013Posted by keithsawyer in Creative performance, Everyday life.
Tags: football, matthew futterman, nfl, superbowl
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Will we see creativity on the field in tomorrow night’s Superbowl football game, between the San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Ravens?
In one sense, of course there will be creativity–after all, no one knows what the outcome of the game will be. If coaches choose predictable plays, then the other team can anticipate them; you can’t win without being surprising and unpredictable. In every play, each player responds with movements that are highly attuned to the moves of the opposing players. In that sense, each play is a form of collective improvisation–highly constrained, of course, but still it’s improvised and creative.
In Friday’s Wall Street Journal,* Matthew Futterman argues that players have been taking more and more responsibility for game management from the coaches. As a result, we see “a more wide-open, improvisational game” because “the role of an NFL player is shifting at the team level.” And Futterman says:
The NFL is shifting from a league where coaches dictate most of the action, to one of constant improvisation, where even rookies, such as Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III, are taking on an unprecedented level of responsibility for managing games.
NFL football is following the rest of the U.S. economy in moving towards collaboration and improvisation. This is a historic shift, one that I describe in my 2007 book Group Genius. In my book, I argue that basketball is the U.S. sport where improvisation is most important. And it’s great that football is becoming more collaborative and more improvisational; it’s one of the reasons I’m enjoying football so much more in recent years.
When you watch the game Sunday night, look for the small improvisations on the field, the ones that happen in every play, the ones that the announcers never comment on–because they’re just a standard part of the game. Look for the quarterback and the receivers to change their routes in response to the defensive moves. Look for a surprising play call, one that surprises even the announcers. Look for creativity!
*Matthew Futterman, “Power shifts to the players.” Wall Street Journal, Friday Feb 1. 2013, p. D4.
Butch Morris and Conducted Improvisation January 30, 2013Posted by keithsawyer in Creative performance.
Tags: a man called hawk, bruce morris, conducted improvisation, conduction, folger shakespeare
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The musician and conductor Butch Morris died Tuesday in Brooklyn at the age of 65. The New York Times obituary* describes him this way:
Butch Morris created a distinctive form of large-ensemble music built on collective improvisation that he single-handedly directed and shaped.
After several decades playing jazz cornet in LA and New York, Morris created his unique style of group improvisation, “conduction,” in 1985. Conduction was short for “conducted improvisation” which Morris defined as “an improvised duet for ensemble and conductor.” For example, he would direct a performance with a baton, often establishing the tempo, while waiting for themes to emerge as the musicians collectively improvised. He used a set of hand gestures to guide the performers; a U shape formed with thumb and forefinger meant to repeat what you just played; a finger touching his forehead meant, remember the melodic phrase you just played because I’m going to ask you to play it again later.
Morris performed conductions with a wide variety of ensembles, including a 10-piece ensemble with saxophones, a turntablist, and a singer; a full classical orchestra; 19 poets (!); 15 trumpets; and many other configurations (including some with music boxes).
Morris had a fascinating professional life. In addition to his conduction performances, he was musical director for a short-lived ABC crime series “A Man Called Hawk,” and he wrote original music for the Folger Shakespeare Theater in Washington, DC.
Butch Morris, improvisational genius, Rest In Peace.
*New York Times editorial by Ben Ratliff, January 30, 2013, page A21.
Great Improv One-Liners January 15, 2013Posted by keithsawyer in Creative performance.
Tags: benjamin recchie, improvisation, off off campus, university of chicago
I’m fascinating by improvisational theater, and I’ve spent my career studying Chicago improv, the world headquarters for innovative improvisation.
While studying for my PhD at the University of Chicago, I played piano for two years for the campus improv group, Off-Off Campus. It sounds like just another campus activity, but improv theater was invented at the University of Chicago in the 1950s, and several of the actors I played with are now successful writers and actors. We sold out three shows every weekend, and by that I mean every show had 100 people in the audience. Compared with all the bands I’ve played in, this group had the biggest audiences.
From the University of Chicago alumni magazine, here are the top ten most funny/striking/odd one-liners that were spoken on stage, by Off-Off Campus actors, during the 2011-2012 season:
1. “I came into a Papa John’s, not Judgment John’s.”
2. “Mission Accomplished 2: Mission Still Accomplished.”
3. “Chattanooga: The Big Apple.”
4. “It is so hard to find someone who appreciates literature in a beach town.”
5. “I have an underdeveloped story arc because I’m an African American character in an early ’90s movie!”
6. “What do you think happened to Chad? Or Other Dave?”
7. “I am relieved that you have declined the cotton candy. For me it only reminds me of a dream I once had of God.”
8. “Where do you sit at a Rosa Parks convention?” (this one is my personal favorite)
9. “I’m sure ZZ Top would understand.”
10. “Trains are a metaphor for trains.”
* Benjamin Recchie, “Laugh Lines”, “The Core” magazine Winter 2013 page 4.
Creative Collaboration in Brisbane, Australia June 24, 2012Posted by keithsawyer in Creative performance.
Tags: brisbane, music education, queensland
This week I’m in Brisbane, Australia, visiting the School of Music at the University of Queensland. I’m giving a series of talks related to music education, performance, and creativity. Here are a couple of links:
Piano Collaboration Workshop: A local piano duo will perform Thursday afternoon, followed by an open discussion about music performance and collaboration.
The Creative Power of Collaboration: An open public lecture Tuesday night.
Brisbane is a beautiful city, the third largest in Australia and farther North than the larger cities of Sydney and Melbourne, which means it’s much warmer, a subtropical climate. Even though it’s July 25, the dead of winter, the daily highs are around 70F (about 21C) and there are tropical flowers in bloom and exotic birds in the parks. The beaches of the Gold Coast are a short drive away, and the Great Barrier Reef is just to the North.
Arts Leaders in Savannah November 7, 2011Posted by keithsawyer in Creative performance.
Tags: arts administrators, dennis keeley, mk haley, natalie jeremijenko, push/pull, sally gaskill, scad, snaap
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I’ve just returned from delivering a keynote address at the annual meeting of the National Council of Arts Administrators, hosted by SCAD in Savannah. Actually, I did my first collaborative keynote address…tag teaming interesting stories with Mk Haley, the associate executive producer of the Entertainment Technology Center at CMU and also with a leadership role at Disney’s Imagineering team. The topic of the conference was “PUSH/PULL: The Artistic Engine of Innovation” and Mk and I talked about the arts as a driver of cultural and societal innovation. Our message was that collaboration is the key to effective arts departments and programs.
Also on the program were some fascinating people, including Natalie Jeremijenko, an artist working in New York and on the faculty at NYU; Dennis Keeley, chair of photography at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, and Sally Gaskill, associate director of SNAAP at Indiana University.
As always, it was a joy to return to beautiful Savannah!
Do You Need a Coach? (Yes) October 10, 2011Posted by keithsawyer in Creative performance.
Tags: Atul gawande, coaching, robert osteen, teacher education
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I love this recent New Yorker article by surgeon Atul Gawande. It’s called “Personal Best: Top athletes and singers have coaches. Should you?” He tells his own personal story about how, at the peak of a long career as a successful surgeon, he decided to invite Robert Osteen, one of his old medical school professors (long since retired from practice) to watch him perform surgery and offer suggestions, basically to be his surgery coach. The first time Osteen sat in on a surgery, Gawande thought it had gone exceptionally well. And because it was a procedure that Osteen wasn’t familiar with, he was pretty sure Osteen wouldn’t have much to say. But when they sat down to talk afterwards, Gawande saw that Osteen’s notepad was dense with observations, and he had a lot of small things Gawande could have been doing better.
If a top surgeon can benefit, then why not the rest of us? A lot of Gawande’s article is about improving teacher quality. Gawande reports that when a new teaching technique is introduced by a coach–a colleage who watched them try the new technique, and then offered suggestions afterwards–90 percent of teachers adopted the new technique. Without a coach, the adoption rate never passed 20 percent!
Many districts are beginning to offer coaches to their teachers. For the most part, only the very new teachers ask for it; the experienced teachers think they are already pretty good. (But note that even Gawande, who was pretty good, learned a lot from his coach.) And some teachers get really nervous about being watched; they worry that the coach is really working for the school administration, and that the coach report will go in their personnel file. (Coaching doesn’t work unless the coach works for the professional, not for the boss.)
Good coaches know how to break down performance into its critical individual components….Elite performers…must engage in “deliberate practice”–sustained, mindful efforts to develop the full range of abilities that success requires. You have to work at what you’re not good at. In theory, people can do this themselves. But most people do not know where to start or how to proceed. Expertise, as the formula goes, requires going from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence and finally to unconscious competence. The coach provides the outside eyes and ears, and makes you aware of where you’re falling short. (p. 49)
The New Yorker, October 3, 2011.
Architecture Matters May 3, 2011Posted by keithsawyer in Creative performance, New research.
Tags: architectural psychology, jonah lehrer, learning environments, schools for the future
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Architecture matters. A well-designed space can foster more effective learning, and can enhance creativity and collaboration. Two recent data points:
1. I just finished teaching my Spring 2011 classes. In one of them, the senior seminar for our graduating majors in educational studies, one of our books was 21st Century Learning Environments (2006). It was filled with examples of recently built schools that draw on the latest learning sciences research to build spaces that foster positive emotion, safety and security, adaptability, and collaboration. And I’ve just learned of a new book (2009) called Schools for the Future: Design Proposals from Architectural Psychology. It makes similar points: that learning environments should be learner centered, age appropriate, safe, comfortable, flexible, and equitable.
2. I’m intrigued by this idea of “architectural psychology,” and by coincidence, in last weekend’s Wall Street Journal, Jonah Lehrer* summarizes recent research on how spaces influence mental states. Just a few recent studies:
- Sixty white-collar workers were followed at a government facility. They were randomly assigned to work in either an old building, with low ceilings and loud air conditioners, or in a new space with skylights (more natural lighting) and open cubicles (more conversation and collaboration). After 17 months of tracking these two groups, they found that the people working in the old building were more stressed.
- In 2009, psychologists at the University of British Columbia (UBC) gave people tests in rooms with different colors: red, blue, or neutral. Test-takers in red environments were better at accuracy and attention to detail. Test-takers in blue environments were better on tasks that required imagination and creativity.
- In 2006, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s school of management found that when people are in a room with a high ceiling, rather than a lower one, they perform better on tasks that require them to make distant associations.
I’ve spent some time studying architecture degree programs in various universities, but I haven’t yet seen a course in “architectural psychology.” I think it would be exciting to teach this research to the architects of tomorrow: particularly those who will be designing the learning environments of the future.
*Jonah Lehrer, “Building a Thinking Room.” WSJ April 30-May 1, 2011, p. C12
The Old Brand New September 17, 2009Posted by keithsawyer in Creative performance.
Tags: dick hebdige, stadsschouwberg amsterdam, the old brand new
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What is art? And what is “new”?
I was asked to address these questions in an evening lecture in Amsterdam Tuesday night (15 September 2009), as the final evening in a series of seven monthly events that were called The Old Brand New. The lecture series was curated by a collaborative group of organizations in Amsterdam, led by de Appel arts center. And the theater was without doubt the most beautiful venue I’ve ever spoken in (see the image of the Stadsschouwberg at right).
The tension between the new and the old. This tension has been central to art theory and practice for almost 100 years, so how much “new” could I add? The core of my message was based in my own research on improvisational performance, both jazz and improv theater. I played audio and video clips for the audience that demonstrated how improv performers are always walking the line between the old (stabilities and structures) and the new.
Ultimately, the same question is central to all social theory–how to explain the tension between the structures that guide and support us in social life (cultural practices, ways of speaking, social roles, institutions, workplaces) and the new and improvised things that we do every day? Sociologists call this “the structure-agency dialectic” and I talked a little about that, too, in Amsterdam.
My talk was preceded by a lecture by the famous scholar Dick Hebdige (known for the book Subcultures), and followed by Q&A with Dick and I. A video of the event should be available on their web site before too long: http://www.theoldbrandnew.nl
Professional improvisers May 23, 2008Posted by keithsawyer in Creative performance, New research.
Tags: andy hamilton, frank barrett, improvisation, jazz, professional expertise, tord gustavsen, university of padua
I’ve just returned from presenting a keynote address at a conference at the University of Padua, in Padua, Italy: the title of the conference was “Improvisation: Between Technique and Spontaneity.” The core idea of the conference was that the tension between technique and spontaneity is found in just about all expert and professional activity. Professionals are “experts” because they’ve mastered a large set of routines and “cookbook” solutions to problems. But that, alone, isn’t enough. To be a master, you have to be able to improvisationally respond to the unexpected, to weave new cloth out of known solutions and routines.
Jazz musicians know this better than just about everyone. To play jazz at a high level requires years of hard work and practice. It’s a myth that jazz improvisation means “anything goes”–the technique, the routines, the shared cultural norms and communication practices are what allow the genius of the group to exceed the brilliance of any one individual. That’s why the Padua conference had a strong jazz emphasis. And, unusual for an academic conference, it was collaboratively organized by three different departments: education, philosophy, and linguistic, communication, and performing arts (I know, that last department name is a mouthful!)
In my talk, I described how experienced teachers also blend technique and spontaneity in the classroom. I cited research that has discovered that experienced teachers improvise more than novice teachers; but, paradoxically, they also have mastered more standard routines than novice teachers. Professional expertise, like jazz improvisation, requires both mastery of standard solutions and routines as well as improvisational ability.
Other highlights of the conference included talks by Andy Hamilton (a philosopher at Durham University), Tord Gustavsen (an internationally known jazz pianist and now a doctoral student at Oslo University), and Frank Barrett (at the business school at the Naval Postgraduate University). And later that night, the Tord Gustavsen trio performed to a sold-out crowd of 600 people in the beautiful Auditorium Pollini.
Thanks to Marina Santi, the lead organizer, for this wonderful event!