Lessons From The Arts: Providing Direction To Experts

I neglected to note who had posted it on Twitter, but an article in The Economist about what the arts can teach business came across my feed today.

One of the first examples was an exercise used by a professor at the Saïd Business School at Oxford which asked MBA students to try their hand at conducting a choir.

The first to take the challenge was a rather self-confident young man from America. It didn’t take long for him to go wrong. His most obvious mistake was to start conducting without asking the singers how they would like to be directed, though they had the expertise and he was a complete tyro.

…The session, organised by Pegram Harrison, a senior fellow in entrepreneurship, cleverly allowed the students to absorb some important leadership lessons. For example, leaders should listen to their teams, especially when their colleagues have specialist knowledge. All they may need to do, as conductors, is set the pace and then step back and let the group govern itself.

It was noticeable, too, that the choir managed fairly well even if the conductors were just waving their batons in an indeterminate fashion. The lesson there, Mr Harrison said, was that leaders can only do so much damage—provided they do not attempt to control every step of the process. The whole exercise illustrated it is possible for a lesson to be instructive and entertaining at once.

While these lessons seemed to be laid on with a heavy hand, I couldn’t help think back to the video I posted yesterday which showed the first opera rehearsal with the singers and orchestra together.

There, the discussion of the role of the conductor and prompter was all about helping the artists to maintain pacing and remind them where they were in the process. That is pretty much what the passage I cited above discussed, so heavy handed or not, the use of a music ensemble to illustrate groups can be productive if left to govern themselves is valid.

I have come across the idea that performing arts groups can be used as examples of teams joining together to execute complex projects before. However, there was an example of the value of acting lessons I had never come across or considered:

But Mr Walker-Wise says that middle managers are often delivering words that are not their own (because they were devised by head office) or trying to inspire staff to meet an objective that was set by someone else. “The lesson from acting is how do I connect to this message without betraying my own personality,” he argues.

I am not sure that I would want acting to be valued for helping people to become better liars, but there are definitely times when we all need to learn to subsume our personal feelings in order organize others to accomplish a task. The military does this by instilling a sense of discipline and obedience, but their methods are not ones the general public will easily accept. Acting and other skills derived from performance training present an alternative method to get people working together as teams.

Making Singing “Ah” For Six Minutes Sound Interesting

Last week Vox had a backstage video on the Metropolitan Opera production of Philip Glass’ Akhnaten. What I loved about it and wanted to call attention to was the way in which they made elements of the production that would be barriers for both new and existing audiences intriguing, potentially piquing curiosity.

I mean, if I told you the opera was sung in four different languages; featured a six minute period where everyone sang “ah!”; had a minimalist set; a costume festooned with baby heads; a cadre of professional jugglers; and period of full nudity, you might be a little wary about going.

Though that might sound more appealing than the description on the Met site:

Director Phelim McDermott tackles another one of Philip Glass’s masterpieces, following the now-legendary Met staging of Satyagraha. Star countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo is the title pharaoh, the revolutionary ruler who transformed ancient Egypt, with the striking mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges in her Met debut as his wife, Nefertiti. To match the opera’s hypnotic, ritualistic music, McDermott has created an arresting vision that includes a virtuosic company of acrobats and jugglers. Karen Kamensek conducts in her Met debut.

Please be aware that this production contains some full-frontal nudity, which may not be suitable for young audiences.

The video starts out addressing the 6 minutes of “ah” pointing out that it is harder than it sounds, and showing the stars tackling it with grinning gusto and periods of frustration.  Charismatic star Anthony Roth Costanzo references the pharaoh, Akhnaten, the first to embrace monotheism, as a “totally fascinating, weird, complex guy.”

The video makes the whole idea of the trained voice accessible by having light hearted conversations about vocal warm ups disturbing the neighbors, working with Castanzo’s vocal coach in a living room–and then seguing to the importance of the first tone when the singer opens their mouth to deliver.

Then they talk about what sets composer Philip Glass’ minimalist approach apart from other operas.

They aren’t afraid to use unfamiliar terms like “sitzprobe” because after defining it, they talk about why it is important — the singers and musicians come together for the first time after weeks of working apart–and it is an exciting time. They also illustrate how much work it is to bring all these pieces together – how easy it is to fall out of time and how the conductor and the prompter keep the musicians and singers synchronized with each other.

The reason for having 12 jugglers is explained. The viewer gets a sense of how the swiftly moving balls are a counterpoint to the music and slow movement of the rest of the performers and how the balls and massive sun are tied symbolically.

Even the nudity is addressed with Costanzo discussing the experience of descending 12 steps over the course of three minutes staring directly at 4000 people while completely naked.

Actually, at the end of the video Costanzo discusses the whole challenge of the opera:

“If I told you you’re going to come see a minimalist 3.5 hour opera about ancient Egypt, where there is no real story and it is sung in ancient Egyptian, you’d think ‘Man, there is no way I am going to that.’ And yet, I bet you are going to love it.”

I will be the first to tell you, whoever put this 10 minute video together spent a lot of time and money on it.

However, it succeeded in making the show seem interesting and accessible due to the way it framed the information it was presenting, not because of the high production values. You are interested in learning more because you like the people and they talk about what they are doing in a relatable way. There is nothing in the video to refute a claim that the nudity is gratuitous, but there is probably going to be a part of you that is cheering Costanzo on because he is literally manifesting the nightmare about walking into work naked.

I offer this as an example of how to talk about your work and diminish the intimidation/ perception of strangeness newer audiences may experience.


The (Maybe) Final Recordings of the 2019 NEA Musical Theater Songwriting Challenge

This week the National Endowment for the Arts posted the final recordings of works created for the NEA Musical Theater Songwriting Challenge. Last Spring, six works by seven high school students were chosen as winners of the competition.

The subjects of their works were: mermaid kingdoms threatened by pirates; The American Civil War; Australia’s Great Emu War of 1932; choosing whether to attend college; Greco-Persian wars; and time travel.

The thing I really appreciated about the release of the final recordings is that the NEA also posted the original songs each person submitted alongside the final song they developed in conjunction with a mentor. This helps reinforce the reality of the process in creative process. Many of the songs have different lyrics and music by the time it came to do the professional recording.

Having the initial and final pieces side by side helps people understand the adage about genius being 98% perspiration and 2% inspiration is very much real. If the creators continue to work on these projects, in all likelihood these final recordings will turn out to actually be an intermediate step in the development process.

No Creativity Here, We Are Serious About Education

I recently saw an article on Arts Professional UK reporting that the governments of England and Wales would be opting out of the new creative thinking assessment section of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), an international standardized test administered to 15 year olds. (The United States also participates, but I haven’t been able to discover their stand on the new test module.)

I had some mixed feelings about this news. Students will continue to take the test in math, science and reading,  so it raises my hackles a little that they will still be testing those subjects and eschewing creativity. According to one commenters, there is a fear that measuring creativity would indicate you aren’t serious about education.

Professor Bill Lucas, Co-chair of the PISA 2021 Test of Creative Thinking….some people fear opting into the creative thinking assessment would give “a signal that you don’t value standards in English, maths and science as much, because you are somehow potentially aligning yourself with a view of the purpose of education that is beyond the basics of the core subjects.

Thinking the purpose of education is beyond that of reading, math and science?! The horror! Satisfying a voracious curiosity is so outdated.

The creativity test has been designed to (my emphasis),

…measure and reflect “the nature of real world and everyday creative thinking”. …

…will provide policymakers with valid, reliable and actionable measurement tools that will help them to make evidence-based decisions. The results will also encourage a wider societal debate on both the importance and methods of supporting this crucial competence through education,” the assessor says.

“Creative thinking is thus more than simply coming up with random ideas. It is a tangible competence, grounded in knowledge and practice, that supports individuals in achieving better outcomes, oftentimes in constrained and challenging environments.”

If you have read this blog for any length of time, you know I am a proponent of anything that emphasizes the concept creativity is a process requiring effort, reflection, and trial and error rather than a magical ability granted or retracted at the caprice of the gods.

On the other hand, if you have read this blog for any length of time, you also know that I discuss the fact that just because you can measure it, doesn’t mean the result you get is meaningful.

One of the things countries do with this test is compare themselves with other countries. As I am reading about the test design, there is discussion of how cultural norms and expectations affect creative thinking. Even assuming the test prompts are appropriate to the culture of the country in which the test is administered, I would expect the way different cultures view creative expression would impact the results in ways that couldn’t be compared like math and science competencies could.

For that matter, there may not be a firm basis of comparison in the same country between the 15 year olds that took the test one year and those that took the test when it was administered three years prior.

Is there really an objective, comparative measure for creativity when students are given one hour to:

…engage in open and imaginative writing (with constraints limiting the length of written text that human raters will need to evaluate); generate ideas for various written formats by considering different stimuli, such as cartoons without captions or fantasy illustrations; and make an original improvement to someone else’s written work (as provided in the task stimuli).


…engage in open problem-solving tasks with a social focus, either individually or in simulated collaborative scenarios; generate ideas for solutions to social problems, based on a given scenario; and suggest original improvements to problem solutions (as provided in the task stimuli).

There is also a visual expression section with tasks similar to the written expression section described above and a scientific problem solving section with tasks similar to the social problem solving described.

As a way to give the individual something to reflect upon in regard to their own skills and providing a bit of an imprimatur to creative expression, these tests could be useful.

As a thing schools and countries should fret over as something with real relevance and providing indications of future success, it doesn’t really have any real meaning. (Though if they fear appearing too frivolous about education, there might even be a few countries who will be ashamed if their students attain too high a result.)

These tests just reflect what a cohort of 15 year olds can do in an hour on a certain day.  Whatever that means in terms of math, science and reading, it means even less when it comes to subjective judgments about how creative someone was in generating captions for cartoons or how original their suggested solution to a problem might be.

I didn’t realize until I started searching for links to other PISA related stories that the result of the last test were actually released today (The Arts Professional UK article came out last week).

The headline on a New York Times piece is “It Just Isn’t Working: PISA Test Scores Cast Doubt on U.S. Education Efforts. – An international exam shows that American 15-year-olds are stagnant in reading and math even though the country has spent billions to close gaps with the rest of the world.”

Part of you might be thinking the test scores wouldn’t be as bad if schools would actually introduce the role of creative thinking and problem solving into the education process.  That is likely true. But should creative capacity be measured by tests? Do you want fretful headlines about American kids doing worse in creative measures than 65% of the world?  It would be a clear indicator that people were paying attention and invested in creativity, but there are lot more constructive indicators of those things available.


NB: As a perfect illustration of how you can’t be creative within a strict time period: The moment I hit publish on this post, I immediately realized I should have titled it “No Creativity, We’re British,” as a take off on the play, No Sex Please, We’re British — something that would have qualified as an original improvement on someone else’s written work noted as a measure in the creativity test. (Granted, you might be hard pressed to judge it an improvement)

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