On Saturday, I got to see one of my favorite musicians, Ben Folds, play with the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra. Although he didn’t play “Kate” — a personal favorite for obvious reasons — he did deliver on the one thing every audience member expected and waited patiently for: his improvised song of the night that always has the same title but never sounds the same twice.
“Rock This Bitch” started during his 2002 Chicago concert, when a fan screamed the command and the singer-songwriter ran with it, creating a song on the spot as well as a tradition that would continue even as he expanded his performances to include full orchestras.
Of course, once a symphony orchestra gets involved, “Rock This Bitch” becomes harder to do. He has to create chords and progressions for upwards of 100 people to play.
But if anyone can do it, Folds can.
“Rock This Bitch” is very much like what learning leaders do on a daily basis — strategize how every employee’s skills, be it playing the viola or developing a marketing campaign, can contribute to a single, fluid function like a song or a company.
Seeing it un(Folds) in person is even more stunning than it is in the countless YouTube videos I’ve seen. Not only did it wow me as a writer and former pianist, but also it shows the power of improv in learning.
After all, Folds wasn’t just showing off a party trick. He was teaching the CYSO a song and, ultimately, that the improv “Yes, and” attitude works. The kids, mostly in their teens, weren’t without talent to begin with — Folds remarked multiple times during the show that they sounded twice as good as some of the professional orchestras he’s played with — but they became even more impressive when they showed they could follow directions and sound great even without preparation.
Now apply that to a learning leader’s job. Most employees have skills, no matter how raw, before a CLO comes in contact with them. By getting them to open up to improvisation, those skills can be maximized.
Here’s the psychology part. At Johns Hopkins University, scientists put jazz improvisers into MRI machines and had them play both memorized and improvised pieces on a mini keyboard. The brain scans showed the jazz musicians’ brains were affected differently when improvising than when playing a memorized score. The dorsolateral pre-frontal cortex, responsible for self-editing and inhibition, decreased in activity during improvisation while the medial pre-frontal cortex, responsible for creativity and intuition, increased.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t stick Folds into an MRI machine during the concert, but I was able to interview Bob Kulhan, co-founder, CEO and president of Business Improv, a group that teaches improvisational skills to business students, executives and members of the military. He said decreasing inhibitions not only opens people up to new learning experiences but also changes the way they approach their jobs with a “Yes, and” attitude.
“(Folds) has set a routine of doing some improv every live performance and developed a skill set around it so much that he can conduct an orchestra in this way,” Kulhan said. “He’s showing it’s OK to experiment and fail.”
Once Folds writes the music and gets the orchestra playing in harmony, he also adds lyrics. In Saturday’s CYSO performance, he had spent the evening battling the mic stand and incorporated it into the song, “It’s a sagging mic stand / They’ve got pills for that” — failure turned into fun.
And fun turned into rockin’ learning.