My CUbroadcast Interview

At the beginning of September I gave a talk about improvisation at the CU Water Cooler Symposium in Austin, TX. It was a real gas, and Mike Lawson was among the many terrific people I met there. He asked to interview me for his show, CUbroadcast, and just posted the video of our chat. We had a great discussion about how improvisation and failure plays out at the office, on teams, and in our head, and how the leadership in our organizations can nurture it to release creativity, or shut it down altogether.

Mike is a thoughtful interviewer, and a gracious host. You should check out more of his work at CUbroadcast.

What CAN you do?

We’ve all seen our share, maybe more, of ASCII art, but I find Paul Smith’s a little more impressive knowing he has severe cerebral palsy. He works on a typewriter changing out different colored ribbons. The video makes me think Paul’s story has made its way around the web a few times already by the time I found it (It was posted on Facebook by someone I don’t know, but liked by someone I do know, and it linked to Meta Picture, a site that appears to be mostly snapchats of cat gifs. The internet is hard, you guys.), but good things are worth seeing twice.

Paul had an interesting response to the usual “Oh, I could never do that,” we hear ourselves saying when we see beautiful things that obviously take a lot of time and skill to produce. “What can you do?”

Well, shoot, Paul. Once I get back off my heals I’ll let you know.

Music as a Language

Learning to speak wasn’t something you were sent somewhere to do only few times a week, and the majority of people you spoke to were not beginners, they were already proficient speakers. Imagine your parents forcing you to only speak to other babies until you were good enough to speak to them. You’d probably be an adult before you could carry on a proper conversation. To use a musical term, as a baby you were allowed to “jam” with professionals.

– Victor Wooten, Music as a Language (video, 5min)

An old friend of mine, and fellow musician, after reading my recent post on improvisation, shared a video with me Victor Wooten did for TED Ed called “Music as a Language,” and it has changed my thinking about how to teach music to my children. And upon reflection, it hit me that his model is already bearing fruit with my kids even though I didn’t realize I was doing it.

My four girls have heard me play the same old blues, folk, and spiritual songs for years. Even our 4MO responds to the three-hymn medley I warm up with because she’s been hearing it since she was a speck.

I will often catch my 8YO daughter scatting along with melody solos, or various blues licks I’m now playing almost unconsciously. She’s got my number, too, because she has even picked up on the little idiosyncratic rhythms I use.

One day she wanted to play drums with me as I played my arrangement (ala Joseph Spence) of Oh, How I Love Jesus. I played it at a slower tempo than usual, but I used the same halting beat she’d heard a few hundred times. She kept up, and even added a couple of fills along the way. I’ve taught her how to do a rim shot (obviously), but other than that, she’s not taking lessons for any instrument. She just lives in a house where she hears them played every day, and has access to any of them she wants to try.

There’s more than one road to fluency, and some are more natural than others. I recommend watching Wooten’s full length talk on the topic as well as the shorter video linked above.

Into the Mist of Improvisation

Improvisation is a topic I’ve been thinking about often lately, partly because it is of perennial interest to me, and partly because I will be giving a talk on the subject a month from now at the CU Water Cooler Symposium. Any time something in the creative realm (it’s all in the creative realm, by the way) get’s mystical attention, I know something’s off. We fawn over Jazz musicians and comedians, some of the more celebrated improvisers, like they are something other. They are not. What they are is fluent.

Think of the last conversation you had with someone at a party. Did you each rehearse it? Were you reading it from a script, or were you each making it up as you went, not knowing what you would say until you had the other’s side of the conversation to inform it? You probably didn’t need ten minutes to prepare your responses. You were improvising.

We do this every day because we are fluent. We have fluency in our native language, and we have contextual fluency in things like the weather, or politics. Linguistic fluency, allowing for the occasional bout of brain flatulence, keeps us from grasping for words, tense and syntax when talking about our favorite detergent. It’s how we know to say, “Dave’s Great Detergent really keeps my shorts white,” rather than, “Gip gap crackers hammer.” Contextual fluency enables us to understand we shouldn’t say “Dave’s Great Detergent really keeps my shorts white,” during our annual performance review (unless, I suppose, you work for Dave).

I’ve studied Blues for roughly a decade and a half now. I know a good bit of the basic language, major and minor pentatonic scales, regional styles, acoustic and electric techniques (though, for a three-chord genre, I feel I’ve just scratched the surface).

If I hear a Blues song playing, I instantly recognize it because I can hear the language. If I want to pick up my guitar and play along, I’m most likely headed for the minor pentatonic scale in whatever key they are playing, and I know where to be in that scale depending on which chord is being played at the time. That’s linguistic fluency.

If I sit down with a group of musicians playing through a few Stevie Ray Vaughan songs, I’m going to reach for a different guitar and play it differently than I would if I was sitting down with some Delta Blues players. While each will likely use the same scales and root chords, their rhythms, use of those scales, and voicing of those chords will be very different. That’s contextual fluency.

So when I improvise a solo with a group of musicians I just met, I’m not performing magic, I’m having a conversation with a group of people with whom I have a shared language. I’m making connections, albeit very quickly and sometimes unexpectedly, based on a strong command of language and context. It’s the same with comedy, drama, business, relationships, you name it.

The stronger the command of language and context, the farther the boundaries can be stretched. That’s a recipe for the extraordinary.

Abiding good improvisers as some kind of higher beings is deceptive because it feels like you’re being complimentary of someone, when you are really subtly saying, “I’m not magic, so I don’t have to try.” It lets you off the hook for making anything interesting because you don’t know where they keep the fairy dust Miles Davis was eating, or, worse yet, you think it was because of the fairy dust he was actually eating. These celebrated improvisers showed up every day and put in the sweat it took to learn their language and context throughly.

In terms of raw materials, there is no appreciable difference between you, a musician, a comedian, or, for that matter, any Marine who has ever lived. If you can speak your native language fluently, you’ve been improvising for years. So, instead of sad-sacking around about not being better at your thing, you may be well served by an evaluation of your fluency in that thing. And I hope you will be encouraged to know that fluency in any language or context can be learned, and 95% of the world’s knowledge is available for free.

Nobody’s magical, and you’re still on the hook.

Impromptu Jam

I found this fun video on the Do blog this week of a busker being joined spontaneously by two random strangers, neither of whom knew each other. Improvisation has been on my mind a lot lately, so this caught my eye.

You’ve seen videos like this before, and you are right to be moved by them, but I hope in time to remove some of the mythos surrounding improvisation, if for no one else but myself. While there is wonder and delight in it, it’s not magic. My current hypothesis is it’s more about language fluency than some mysterious thing possessed by a spritely, celebrated few.

These three strangers were able to stop and have a conversation because they spoke the same language, in this case a triad of music genres, R&B, Pop, and Rap. They all seemed to know the short hand for when to change it up and how to respond. Though I consider myself a capable musician, I’d have been hanging way back in this situation because I’m not fluent in those genres. Drop me into a blues jam and I’ll know just where to go when the drummer wants to slow it down because I’m much more fluent in that language.

My sense is this fractals out in all kinds of directions in any given situation, and we are all doing it every day. For now, enjoy the video, especially the part at the end when the last participant to join thanked the other two, saying, “I needed that.”

Art gifs, Elton John & MS Paint

Fine Art Gifs

The borders of what is considered art are moving outward with every generation, and ours is going digital. The Verge recently covered the story of Paddles On, an art auction at New York auction house, Paddle 8. The pieces range from surreal screenshots of Google Earth, to an 8-hour long video of a lady reading her Tumblr inbox. Some of the patrons received a gif file on a laser engraved USB stick, others simply agreed to continue to renew a URL for the duration of their ownership and leave the art website public. Tools and deliverables are as varied and readily available as they have ever been, proving again, your real products are your ideas.


Long-distance Collaboration

That is when we are the most creatively dynamic — that’s when we lock it in,

— Bernie Taupin in the New York Times article, Still Making Music Together, Far Apart

For 40 years it went like this: Bernie Taupin sat alone on his ranch and wrote lyrics which he then sent to Elton John without explanation or direction. Elton John took those lyrics into the studio, having previously only given them a glance, and wrote music to them. After these stages (sometimes immediately) they invited and offered critique, and, though the lion’s share of their work was done in isolation, they really got cooking when they opened it back up to collaboration.

That is how some of the biggest hits of their generation were made. That takes a lot of trust and respect.


Reinvention in Your 90s

Do you know I do a lot of my painting with my eyes shut?

— Hal Lasko

Speaking of digital art, Hal Lasko, currently 98 years old, spent his career years as a pre-computer typographer. That’s what designers my age call “hand lettering.” In those days you didn’t download fonts and kern them, you drew them by hand, and you fussed over the radii of the serifs with a magnifying glass. As he got older, his eyesight began to fail, and his children gave him a computer and showed him MS Paint. He had also been a painter, a pursuit from which his failing eyes kept him. With MS Paint he was able to zoom in and work on individual pixels in a way he could not with a canvas. Not only did he learn a completely new technology in his 90s (and one that is often the object of scorn in my world, of which I am sadly guilty), he embraced, and thrived in the limitations of it. So we again we bang the drum: There are no excuses for not making something beautiful with what you have at hand.

You can, and should, buy prints of some of Hal’s beautiful work.

Now, go make something.

Landfill Harmonic

Cateura, Paraguay is a town built on garbage. Located on top of a landfill, its residents make their living recycling and selling items that have been thrown away. Illiteracy rates in the area are high and many turn to drugs and gangs. When local teacher Favio Chavez decided to teach the town’s children to play music using his own instruments, he soon had more students than instruments. The solution? He started teaching the students on instruments upcycled from trash and the Recycled Orchestra was born.

– via Shareable; found on The Kid Should See This


I can’t think of a better thesis for this blog than Landfill Harmonic. These kids were staring down the barrel of defeat and, surrounded with trash, they made music.

Life from death.

History tells this story over and over. The chord this strikes rings true in my work, my life and my faith. Here’s something I’m sure is true: You can’t stop people from making things by depriving them of resources, but nothing rusts their wheels like despair. They learned way more than how to do the math of a violin’s neck, they learned how to overcome discouragement. And that’s a tall mountain.