First of all, many thanks to Jelenko for sharing this space for conversations and perspectives on collaboration. Collaboration has been central to many aspects of my life – it’s useful to be able to reflect on processes that work well and those that are more challenging
My recent collaboration experiences have led me to appreciate my early training in music. I feel like the collaborative process of playing music provides some good lessons for collaboration in general. Right now, I play bass guitar in a band. The band started just as a group of friends playing music together for fun, and has progressed from there. We’ve played a couple of backyard parties, and it’s motivated us to play together even more. Coming together for fun gave us the chance to build trust, scope out each other’s strengths and weaknesses and test out roles. It also gave us the opportunity to opt out if we wanted to or to consider other people who might make a contribution. We worked out our style – some of us like folk, some of us like rockabilly, some of us are into reggae. Jamming gave us a platform to test out a few songs, see what worked and what didn’t. We learnt what part we could each play, and how we might sound playing together.
We were asked to play at a party and that goal helped us get a bit more serious! We chose a set of songs, we divvyed up roles and we came together regularly for a set period of time to rehearse before the show. Playing together means we have to listen to each other and work out how we fit in. We try to understand each other’s limits, and we like to give space for people to shine doing their own thing, while others keep the beat ticking along. Sometimes we have a structured approach and other times there’s room to improvise but we usually negotiate those spaces in advance so no one is taken by surprise on stage. We work hard to give the appearance of being cohesive even while we are all doing something different. Band members all have a unique contribution, and even though they influence the group individually, the overall expression is collective.
As individual musicians, playing as a group generates an outcome that none of us could achieve on our own. We can perform as solo artists but the expression will be very different to playing together as a band. I think good collaboration uses many of these same techniques. Listening is key, and not just hearing but really, truly listening. If you don’t listen, you don’t know where to come in. Or even worse, you might be playing along at a different rate to everyone else, or in a completely different key. Valuing the different skills or perspectives of each person and letting the whole be greater than its parts. Often collaboration means leaving your ego at the door. Personal visions can be brought to the table but you have to be prepared for the vision to get changed up a bit. If you can’t do this, perhaps that’s something best left for a solo project.
Sharing a common goal gives the collaboration a context. For us, working towards playing a gig at a friend’s birthday party was something we all wanted to do. It meant we had to really nut out the role of each player and agree on the structure of each song. We had to carve out our roles a little more clearly than when we were just jamming, so we all felt supported in a performance setting. Also, I think other posts here have talked about the importance of knowing yourself to be effective in collaboration as well. I think that idea applies in this analogy also. To get to the point of being able to play with others, I had to learn and practise my art first, and reach a certain level of attainment. At that stage, I could start playing with others and it actually made me a better player. It is also important to keep up my solo practice so I don’t lose sight of my own personal goals.
The analogy has also led me to muse a little on leadership in collaboration as well as the difference between working together and collaborating. In my school days, I played violin/viola in a youth orchestra. I’d suggest that traditional orchestras are a good example of ‘working together’. The approach is very structured, there is no room to diverge, the roles are clearly set out and there is clearly defined leadership/governance. When I finally started playing violin in rock/punk bands, it was of course, very different. Although there were people in the group who were more driven, the leadership was more flexible and often depended on what we were aiming at. For example, in one group, our drummer took the main responsibility for booking gigs, our lead guitarist organized rehearsals, our bass player smoothed out any niggly group dynamics – each person took a leadership role dependent on their talent. To me, collaboration allows this kind of distributed leadership to happen more naturally. Some people may even take on the role of facilitating the collaboration itself, another phenomenon I’m very interested in exploring further.
Leonie Sanderson is a policy analyst, a mother to Cuyler, a social media junkie, ideas DJ and crowdfunding addict. Most recently, I have worked on developing a collective of/for people who share the common goal of making the world a better place www.binkycollective.org. My goal is for Binky to be a platform for everyday people to put their good ideas into action and get the world jumping for joy. I have purposely tried to use a model that has collaboration at its centre since even the idea for Binky came out of chatting with a friend about how we could collaborate on a project together but show that we were more than just individuals when it came to pitching the idea to supporters. Our first collaborative effort, the Grateful Project, has just been successful with crowdfunding from Pozible. I hope it is the first of many more successful collaborative projects.
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