Pivoting in a Pandemic: “Yes, And” style


What is missing in music industry’s board meetings, orchestra meetings, faculty meetings, marketing meetings, artistic planning meetings, etc.? Missing is the ability or desire to listen and add to an idea. Basically, a “Yes, And” philosophy where teamwork, embracing failures or upsets, and a genuine support of everyone on the team allows a group of people to reach a better conclusion or solution. It’s an artform that is allows the best kind of flexibility and nimbleness.

I wish these skills were taught in college! So when Texas State University orchestra director, Jacob Harrison, asked me to participate in a residency week (usually this involves performing a recital, lecturing about my career, and master classes), I asked if we could center the whole week around improv skills instead. And no, this is not music improv, this is theater improv with a heavy dose of “Yes, And!” Happily, Jacob said yes! More on that later.

When one thinks about people in the music world, one might assume they are great listeners. This is not necessarily true. There have been times where many of us in the music field witness conversations where there is a lot of:

  • Assuming what the conversation is and where it is going
  • Thinking about how to respond or react more than listening to understand
  • Tuning out completely

It was after taking several improv classes that it became clear to me that musicians are typically not good listeners, and this included me! The various improv games we played made me aware of just how deaf I was to listening and what superpowers the experts in the improv world had that I wanted…and needed.

I started to think this is a skill desperately needed in the orchestra world I work in. From orchestra meetings to board meetings, everyone has experienced a point where it is clear they are not being heard, they are being dismissed, or they are trying to respond while a person is still speaking. In other words, nothing gets done, and if anything does get done, it is not really a genuine team effort. It’s more like one person giving orders while expecting others to follow. This does not build pride in the brand or organization. It cements it as a job.

With the pandemic in full swing, all my residencies with colleges and universities have been canceled. All but one! Jacob Harrison decided to shift all in-person university symphony orchestra classes to distanced and online classes. He had asked if I would join for a few classes for recitals and lectures, but instead, “Yes, Anded” my idea of introducing improv to the students.

My idea was not to just play a recital over Zoom, but to share the philosophy of “Yes, And.” The other part of my idea was to share some interactive improv games including “First Word, Last Word” and “One Word Story.” And then tie both of those concepts into actual performance projects I had recently done with composer Stacy Garrop.

We started the first class with the improv games. At first the students were tentative, but they quickly got into the rhythm of the games, and it appeared they didn’t want to stop! For the second class, we invited Stacy, and both Stacy and I spoke about how we “Yes, Anded” a project together. Her new violin solo, Phoenix Rising, was the centerpiece of this class, and we spoke of how we included several outreach projects and marketing ideas for the work. Then I performed the work!

For the last class, the assignment was purposely vague. I asked students to gather over Zoom in groups of 4-5 people each for the mini group projects using the new improv and “Yes, And” skills. The objective was to create an informative, educating, entertaining, and enjoyable project/presentation that was to be under three minutes. This was a big request since we are all dealing with limited attention spans and Zoom fatigue during this pandemic.

The students did not disappoint! Some groups created skits and some groups created mini performances. There were no wrong answers! The point was to let students exercise their new skills of “Yes, And” and listening, all while building a cohesive ensemble. Those skills are the ones I believe are sorely missing in today’s music field. Whether it is faculty meetings, collective bargaining meetings, or artistic planning meetings, the skills these students gained during these classes will only make them stronger and eventually help our entire field!

Since we felt this series of classes had impact and success, Jacob (a natural “Yes, Ander”) and I decided to offer this method in an upcoming Texas Music Educator’s Conference. Even though this conference is remote, it will further prove why this skill is so vital in creating better collaborative work and better listeners!

About Holly Mulcahy

After hearing Scheherazade at an early age, Holly Mulcahy fell in love with the violin and knew it would be her future. She currently serves as concertmaster of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra. She spends her summers at the celebrated Grand Teton Music Festival. Believing in music as a healing and coping source, Holly founded Arts Capacity, a charitable 501(c)3 which focuses on bringing live chamber music, art, artists, and composers to prisons. Arts Capacity addresses many emotional and character-building issues people face as they prepare for release into society. Holly performs on a 1917 Giovanni Cavani violin, previously owned by the late renowned soloist Eugene Fodor, and a bespoke bow made by award winning master bow maker, Douglas Raguse.

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