One o’clock in the morning. The crowd thinned out from the bar. I was putting my sax back in its box, after a few hours of jamming with the band, and it suddenly struck my mind how similar my musician and my consulting life can be (although with jazz, you get to bed later!).
As a management consultant, I work with teams of various sizes, from quintets to big bands; I ensure people are on the same wavelength; that they cooperate harmoniously, deliver on time and on tempo, tell stories through the projects they manage and, at the end of the day, fine tune their violins. Sometimes, someone stands up and does a solo.
I don’t do anything different as a jazz band musician!
Well, let me talk about jazz and my band a bit.
First of all, we practice and rehearse. Before we start, the band leader carefully explains the different parts of the tune, alerting the band to a difficult bridge or other trap we might fall into and making sure that everyone understands his or her part (we have two women in the band). Of course the tempo has to be right for the music to sound right.
Once the direction is clear we start rehearsing. In other words we never start before we share an understanding of how the tune should sound. I forgot to say that even though we can all read music and develop new arrangements on the spot during the rehearsal, we work hard and practice at home in order to be ready on stage. Preparation is the one domain where we do not improvise! When a musician does not practice his/her instrument or has not prepared the concert it’ll be just clear to everybody.
Then we try it out and play together. This may seem obvious but it needs quite a bit of training. It starts with listening. I listen to the chord changes played by the rhythm section, by the voices played by my colleagues and to my own sound, making sure that I am in tune and that I don’t cover the others. Cooperation begins with listening and a strong commitment to building something together even if it only lasts for the time of a concert.
Listening continues with the support we bring each other when we play the tune. The rhythm section liberates the energy that helps us play great solos. “You can tell that you all have been playing together for a long time” someone in the audience once told me during intermission, “The band is so ‘well oiled’”. I did not tell her that that particular evening we had two new musicians who had had to step in as replacements on the spot. Rapid integration!
What I really like more than anything else in jazz is improvisation and the feeling of freedom it gives me. What is a solo if not an initiative? Improvising means playing whatever you want, provided it respects two key principles: your musical production has to match the musical framework and it has to swing. When I improvise, I take a risk by trying new musical ideas and patterns and by exposing myself to the appreciation of my peers, colleagues and audience. But this is easy if a climate of trust and good will prevails in the band.
Now I want to talk about the critical role of the band leader. S/he must encourage this risk taking, allowing for mistakes and driving creativity within the constraints I mentioned.
As a matter of fact, in a jazz band, each musician is in turn a sideperson and a soloist. In other words each team member is part of the project and leads his/her part of the project. The band leader delegates part of the show to the musicians who play their solos.
Leadership within the band is shared among all the band members because each part is of equal importance. This also contributes to individual recognition. When I introduce my musicians to the audience after their performance, they feel recognized both by the applause, by their peers and by the leader.
What about your team? What will it take to hear your team jamming?