How to get back on track when the power is off
The sound of resilience
“The change is not in the score. The change is in the gig.”
~ Rik Spann
In my experience, some artists welcome the unexpected as a positive force towards changing direction and even transforming identity. Sometimes they learned this “the hard way.” One of my many hard learnings occurred years ago when, travelling to a solo gig—amplified acoustic guitar and vocals—I discovered too late that I forgot my power adapter. My first impulse was to solve the problem the usual way. Repair the paradigm. Find an adapter. Generate different scenario questions: Is there someone living close by to check if there would be one available, for instance connected to a desktop computer? Is there time to travel back home? Can I buy one in a shop that’s still open? All possible scenarios emerged against a soundtrack fired up from the playlist States of Deeper Panic.
Then, knowing that reframing might be an option—I already had an interest in creative leadership and design thinking—I redirected myself: this is not a situation of panic but of experimental theatre. From my experiences from experimental theatre, art performance and music, in training sessions and on stage, I had learned that often a disruption is created on purpose to force you to get into the ‘groove zone’. This zone is the place between burnout and bore-out and it creates just that amount of tension that is helpful to come up with creative ideas that might not come into play without such calibrated challenge, disruption or pressure.
So, welcome the pressure and design a solution that doesn’t need the adapter at all. Embrace the consequences. Turn up the dissonance. Just imagine what kind of performance you would deliver if you would have designed one that would not consider amplification in the first place. Leap into the unplugged void, jump acoustic evolution.
To make this leap, I had to reframe myself. Random self-reframing thoughts multiplied chaotically: not being an artist anymore that would be heard and welcomed perfectly miked in every corner; the Sound of Imposter Syndrome; metaphorically skip Please Please Me and try if No More Mr Nice Guy would ease the transformative pain. Then I scanned fields: deliberately play and sing louder—because then they might listen—or softer—because then they might listen; maybe this? maybe that? Let’s try.
Just imagine instantly composing a scoreless new performance style in the unpredictable midst of everyday life. Bypassing the seemingly helpful risk-free option of sticking to “lab safety”. Having to move into rapid prototyping without a safety net or a predictable outcome. Riffing on reality.
After the show I got many compliments. What an original idea to sing and play acoustically. People even said: you had the guts to really play unplugged, as the unplugged shows on MTV are still ‘plugged’, amplifying acoustic guitar and vocals.
Was it a perfect show? No way. I don’t do those anyway. Would it have been perfect if I had played with amplification, according to plan? No way. A lack of imperfection doesn’t compensate for a lack of talent.
The ‘A’ in ‘Art’ is more about Authenticity than about Automatic pilot. And the audience didn’t know about the original plan, so they could not compare it to what it ‘should’, ‘would’ or ‘could’ have been. Sometimes you work hard on what is supposed to be THE hit of the performance. For some reason you can’t play it. You think you mess up the show. They really must be disappointed! They’re not. You are the only one that missed it. They get what you give and enjoy the gift. That’s why I don’t like to provide a printed program. It’s about the music that emerges, not about the paperwork that sums it up before it sounds.
Did I learn something? Yes, a lot. I discovered a guitar playing style that was different from what I normally played, which led to a different type of performances and recordings. I discovered a different quality in my voice that turned out to be helpful later on in my career. And I experienced that when something goes wrong, reframing the situation not only leads to saving my face but to real time innovation.
The many times after this experience, when things were not going according to plan, I developed an ever more immediate semi-conscious switch to moving into an almost real time acceptation of the new situation. I see it as the art of bricolage: working with whatever is at hand, in the here and now. Dismiss the map, plant your feet firmly on the territory, and be happy that the road less travelled presents itself as the only one available. Panic transformed into excitement. And in the end, for starters, nothing goes wrong. On the contrary.
Like that other time when, before the last set of my show, the neck of my guitar broke. Okay, so this was not a panic, just a new situation. The strings were pulling the neck towards the body and I could only play when, with a lot of force, I pulled the neck back into place and that was only possible by playing all chords in first position, at the beginning of the neck. Right, so let’s rearrange all the chord voicings on the spot. And guess what happened.
The audience didn’t notice anything. I really enjoyed the set. I came up with voicings that were sometimes better than the ones in fifth position that I had been using for years. And halfway the set I discovered the coolest way of ‘fake diving’ my sounds by slightly releasing my grip while sounding the chords—something that normally is simply impossible without an electric guitar with a ‘Whammy bar’. I think no one ever has played or heard Johnny B. Goode like I did that night.
For me, this was real time innovation, where I embraced bad luck as a treat from the muses, generously orchestrating an opportunity to create new stuff on the spot. I remembered the gig instantly when I woke up the next day, inspired by the felt sense of embodied learning in these suddenly present, well-trained muscles of my left hand that had been asleep at the wheel of a non-driving car before my guitar broke its neck to break the mold.
Years and years later, suddenly we had a virus. I had to stay in my apartment for more than nine months, because of my heart condition. Yeah! Finally, I could focus on my book. Re-Sounding: an alternative framework for organization change, with Simon Martin, will be published not too long from now. Did I miss a lot that year? Yes, I did. Did I miss what would have happened? Now we’re talking science fiction, without the science. And, in music as in life, when things go right, according to plan, they tend to not happen perfectly anyway. Scored protocols as roadmaps to Route 66? Real life meanderings afford more dimensions than are available for professional artists. They know that. That’s why they try.
You’re not in the score. You can’t compare an emerging, alternative situation to the one that would have happened, as it did not happen and you were not there when it didn’t evolve. You’re always in the gig. A score can be helpful. But in the end, the gig is not implemented but played into existence. It’s the play that counts. And wasn’t it “playing music” in the first place?
I wish you a year that will go according to your true wishes and desires— which might not be the same as “according to plan”. Have fun playing music, playing life, in 2021.