I.4.3 Swinging in Flow – Synchronizing Like a Jazz Musician
Orchestras are great exemplars of entangled groups. When the Boston Symphony orchestra plays Beethoven, it demonstrates the perfection of a fully entangled team. The main means of communication of a classical orchestra is synchronization by the conductor, with the musicians picking up and interpreting the body language of the conductor. However, entanglement among professional classical musicians playing together over decades is far more than the musicians reading the body language of the conductor in real time. For instance, at New York’s world-famous Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, active since 1972, musicians practice a collaborative leadership style, without a conductor, where the musicians lead themselves democratically. Members of Orpheus are all musicians of the highest caliber, frequently holding teaching positions at the most prominent conservatories and universities in the New York area such as Juilliard or the New England Conservatory. This means that they speak the “musical language” on the highest level, capable of instantaneous communication in rehearsals and concerts without using words.
Jazz musicians take entanglement a step further, by communicating without furtive glances and coordinating with words. They do not have to look at each other, they communicate through their ears, as they have internalized the rules of Jazz, and thus each of the members of a jamming jazz band knows by listening to the music what their part is, when they have to step back, and when to step up and take the lead. Studying videos of Jazz musicians improvising together, we identified seven principles of how they communicate while jamming together. Comparing two YouTube videos where two ragtime pianists, Tom Brier and Adam Swanson are improvising together nicely illustrates the seven principles. Tom Brier and Adam Swanson are well known in the field, having won different prizes, and having performed at many festivals. Both of them also started as child prodigies, discovering their calling as professional ragtime pianists early on in their lives. Over the years both had been performing and competing at different festivals across the US. Two YouTube videos recorded in 2008 and 2010 where Tom and Adam out of the blue began playing the “chopsticks” rag together illustrate how groupflow between the two musicians emerges. The first time this happened at the 10th Sutter Creek Ragtime Festival, the second time was at the West Coast Ragtime Festival. The first time, in 2008, Adam had been playing the first few bars of “Chop-sticks” as a joke, not knowing how Tom would respond to it. Also, at that time, Adam did not know the full “chopsticks” rag after the first few bars. Tom took up the challenge and started playing, Adam had to pick up the tune and learn it on the fly. The second time, in 2010, Adam was well prepared, and Tom and Adam started grooving for 9 minutes, as recorded in the video. In the 2008 event, Adam turned “chopsticks” first into the “Tim Baileys” rag, and then, both in 2008 and 2010, into the “Tiger Rag”. Along the way, Tom and Adam switched keys on each other, thus creating brief periods of dissonance, before getting back into synch. In their mutual interplay, Tom and Adam wonderfully illustrate the key principles of rotating leadership:
- They are seamlessly passing control from one to the other
- Whoever has a creative idea, takes the lead, and the other follows
- They are masters of their profession
- The one who knows less learns from the master
- They play and synchronize by ear
- Competitive collaboration leads to the perfect product
- They do it for the fun of it!
1. They are seamlessly passing control from one to the other
In improvisation sessions, the musicians are switching the lead at least half a dozen times. Thanks to this rotation in leadership, creativity is flourishing, with unpredictable, but highly enjoyable and stimulating results. Initially Adam plays a few bars of “chopsticks”, which Tom then picks up and continues by making up a trio section on the spot. Leaders easily take turns in the leadership role, leading to an unpredictable, but high-quality end product.
2. Whoever has a creative idea, takes the lead, and the other follows
Initially Adam challenges Tom to play with him a more complex tune “Car-Barlick Acid”. Tom accepts but when Adam starts playing “chopsticks” as a joke, Tom takes up this joke, and keeps on playing “chopsticks”, improvising and adding new sections along the way, until Adam changes their melody to “Bill Bailey”, flexibly picked up by Tom. Adam finally leads over into “Tiger Rag”. Leaders are in perfect synch, with the one who knows the tune best taking the lead, and the rest of the team following along, until another team member has a better idea, which is then adapted by the rest of the team.
3. They are masters of their profession
Adam and Tom were both child prodigies who started at a young age playing rag-time. Playing rag is rarely profession, but always passion. In these two videos the two artists are participating at a festival, but they still use the opportunity of having a break to play together even more. These two sessions are completely unplanned and unrehearsed, nevertheless they lead to a stunning performance, because the two masters speak the same (musical) language, and are able to communicate through their music. They both have huge amounts of talent and passion for their art, which allows them to coordinate effortlessly and to easily switch roles. The one who is best qualified for a task becomes the leader until somebody else comes along who is better qualified.
4. The one who knows less learns on the fly from the master
In their jamming session, the lead goes from Adam, who challenges Tom with a few bars of “chopsticks” to their musical competition, to Tom, who knows the tune and takes the lead, training Adam on the fly. Adam quickly masters it so well that he now can take the lead to successfully introduce “Bill Bailey”, bringing Adam along, who then steps up leading the way, until Adam again jumps ahead by switching over to the “tiger rag”. This means that entangled teams are also learning networks, where more junior members are constantly trained by the master.
5. They play and synchronize by ear
In their communication and interplay, the “media is the message”. Adam and Tom speak the same musical language, even more, they breathe it and their brains are wired in the same way. Both had been infected by the “ragtime virus” when they were five years old, and since then each has played for hours every day. They have the basic rhythms and melodies in their DNA, and can play the “maple leaf rag” in their sleep. Cooperation and playing together comes as natural as breathing to them, they do not need conscious effort to collaborate, rather this happens in their subconsciousness.
6. Competitive collaboration leads to a perfect product
If each of the players had jammed and improvised alone, never would an end product of this quality have come out. This session lives from the musical tension and creativity of these two top musicians, who nurture each other’s creativity in playful competition, thriving in creativity and trying to beat each other in new ideas, leading to perfect collaboration. This is competitive collaboration at its best!
7. They do it for the fun of it!
Adam and Tom enjoy playing together so much that they utilize the break in their concert to play even more. Grooving and jamming for them is not work, but sheer pleasure that energizes them. Entangled team members join their group not for money, but because they are intrinsically motivated to work together towards their shared goal, and develop a superior product.
In our research we have studied jazz musicians playing in a concert wearing sociometric badges and smartwatches, and through facial emotion recognition, as described in different subsequent sections, and we found them to be the perfect exemplars of entangled teams, mirroring each other’s expressions and emotions interacting in flow.
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