Courage and vulnerability

March 2nd, 2013

Artists perform. They live for their art, whatever that may be.

I’m learning more and more about my art – connecting people and ideas aka facilitating – from other artists.

This week I offered a workshop on Creative Facilitation. There were people in the room who had known me a long time, others who I met for the first time that morning. I introduced the workshop by saying I felt like a performer, with some old material and some new stuff.

I also explained why I still regard myself as a beginner, learning as I am to incorporate music into my workshops. The beginner mind is open and curious; the expert mind is closed and certain. I first learnt to do my craft, as many artists do – processes and techniques that I honed – and then started exploring being an artist. The difference between doing and being is courage and vulnerability. Courage to break away from the mould of what people expect facilitation and facilitators to be. Vulnerability to know that not everything I do will work, or be liked, and understanding that my art is not for everyone.

And if you watch this TED Talk by Amanda Palmer, you will understand why people like her are my inspiration. She nails the impact of courage, risk-taking, vulnerability and ultimately the connections and love that shows up.


February 3rd, 2013

I’d like to include more music in my workshops, and after learning from Rich Allen, I probably will. In fact, the very next day after attending his workshop, I was presenting a workshop and managed to use music throughout – maybe not as effectively as I would have liked, but hey, I’m just learning.

Here’s the practical stuff. Rich uses a Bose Sound Dock with an iPod. The battery lasts all day and can be used outside, the sound is good – can be VERY LOUD, or quite soft. This website is a gem of a resource providing music for any subject or theme. Rich also used a remote control throughout his workshop, and used the loudness button a lot!

Here’s some of the tips I picked up:

  • Use a piece of music to indicate a particular, regular activity. For example, in a classroom, the same piece of music can be played every time you want the kids to clean up their stuff (this raises all sorts of evil thinking on my part!)
  • Play music during a debrief process. Turn it off when the time’s up and people will stop talking.
  • Play music as people enter a space to create the type of mood you want.
  • Play music in the background when people are doing tasks to create an ambiance that supports the work they are doing.
  • People will only talk as loud as the music.
  • If you’re going to use music, pick a theme and stick to it – don’t mix up musical styles.

And the best tip of all…

  • The best music to play for ANY situation, because it is recognisable by everyone, is 60s rock music.

Yeah. Rock on!

Pick up your ordinary

July 12th, 2011

“Put down your clever, and pick up your ordinary” is how David Robinson describes the improv principle, Be Obvious. Keith Johnstone describes it like this  in his book Impro.

“The improviser has to realize that the more obvious he is, the more original he appears. I constantly point out how much the audience like someone who is direct, and how they always laugh with pleasure at a really ‘obvious’ idea. Ordinary people asked to improvise will search for some ‘original’ idea because they want to be thought clever…

‘What’s for supper?’ a bad improviser will desperately try to think up something original…he’ll finally drag up some idea like ‘fried mermaid.’ If he’d just said ‘fish’ the audience would have been delighted. No two people are exactly alike, and the more obvious an improviser is, the more himself he appears.”

It’s sometimes also described as Be Average. I’ve written about this here and there’s a podcast here that Johnnie Moore and I did with David about this very topic.

This seems to be one of the hardest improv principles to live by, especially if you are entrapped by the Tyranny of Excellence, or the fear of not being (insert your own word here eg clever, smart, good…) enough.

I must be one of the last people on the planet to see Chooka in action (if the YouTube views are any indication). In this audition clip for Australia’s Got Talent, Chooka epitomises this principle: put down your clever, and pick up your ordinary. If this principle still doesn’t make sense to you, watch Chooka in action. What is ordinary to Chooka is extraordinary to others. And how could I resist writing about someone who improvises to boot!

The road to improvisation

December 23rd, 2010

I really liked this article about the improvisational brain, based on research of musical improvisation.

A couple of things stood out: we learn words, then phrases and then grammar that eventually enables us to recombine them all to communicate our thoughts. That’s language. And we can learn notes, cords, and progressions that eventually enables us to recombine them all to express musical ideas. That’s music. This is how we learn different forms of literacy.

So far, so good.

Then there’s the Road to Improvisation. Part of the journey is learning new skills with a combination of exposure, a toolbox and practice. If improvisation is part of the journey, then an improvisor’s MINDSET is needed for the next phase. However, the budding improvisor is prone to rely on a safety net, just in case spontaneity lets them down at a crucial moment. At some point (and here’s where it gets fuzzy for me) there’s a decision to CHOOSE improvisation – a conscious choice? – and the necessity to LET GO (I’m reminded here of a trapeze artist letting go of the bar or a skier letting go of fear and leaning down the mountain) which culminates in what Aaron Berkowitz calls the ‘creator/witness phenomenon’.

“At this level of musical cognition, the improviser often achieves a seamless trade-off between his conscious and subconscious knowledge. He knows he’s creating the music and feels very much in control, yet he also feels as if he’s watching himself play, a paradox that Berkowitz calls the creator/witness phenomenon. “They’ll be playing and something happens that they didn’t quite expect,” Berkowitz said. “Then they react to that and it kind of starts this dialogue where the improviser is steering the ship, but is also being steered by the ship.”

Which brings me back to the question of improvisational facilitation. I think one of the greatest skills a facilitator can develop is to be spontaneous – to notice what’s happening and respond in the moment. In other words, to improvise. This is not the same as being unprepared. There’s a solid background of exposure to various forms of facilitation, a toolbox full of methods and techniques, and practice. Lots of practice.

I think just about anyone can learn to be a competent facilitator. My interest is in what does it take to develop an improvisor’s mindset as a facilitator, how to ditch the safety net (the plan, for example) and be always in choice when facilitating to become truly improvisational.

Due to a solid grounding in traditional facilitation plus exposure to improvisation, I’ve developed my own capacity as an improvisational facilitator. The hardest part has been learning to let go. It doesn’t always work, but when it does – wow! My challenge is to unpack how that happens so as I can help others learn how to improvise when facilitating. This is edgy, exciting work that I have a real passion for.

What’s possible?

September 19th, 2010

At a workshop recently, Andrew Campbell said that ‘the only barriers are in your mind’.

Yesterday I watched Chris Anderson of TED fame talking about the future of TED talks – of taking the one to many format, which has provided so many of us with access to amazing people and great talks, into a more interactive model. The future, apparently, is in video. I’m guessing for some, the future is already here.

Here’s an example of what’s possible (hat tip to Nancy White). I found this video moving on many levels – great music and great skill in putting it together. But more than that was the idea, the capacity to take individual voices from around the world and put them together into something like this. This is creativity, innovation, collaboration and inspiration all rolled into one.

Yes indeed. The only barriers are in our minds.

Being prepared

March 14th, 2010

My friend Geoff Brown is a talented facilitator, father of three energetic boys and a sometimes musician. In his spare (!) time he helps organise the excellent Airey’s Inlet Open Mic Music Festival. This year the festival in the small coastal community of Airey’s Inlet was held over three days, with seven stages and more than 120 acts.

I caught up with Geoff this afternoon as the festival drew to a close with a special mystery act – Colin Hay and his band who made a flying trip from Melbourne to play on the lawns of the pub with one of the best views on the surf coast.

Geoff played yesterday afternoon with his mate Clayton Derrick. He told me about their rehearsal schedule – this time 12 months ago at last year’s festival!

I love that.

Instead of having a plan, they were prepared to get up on stage and do what they do (and they do what they do very well), willing to improvise, have fun, make each other look good and entertain the punters to boot.

Touring with the band

March 8th, 2010

While watching this excellent trio of talented Quebecois musicians known as Genticorum I was musing the nature of collaboration. Each of these musicians is no doubt talented in his own right, yet together they can do so much more. I saw this time and again over the last few days watching various bands perform. I saw them looking out for each other, building on each other’s strengths, creating something together that they couldn’t do alone. It reminded me of the challenge of working alone – of looking for others to collaborate with and the fun, energy and creativity that can emerge; the difficulty of explaining that to clients; and the expectations that, of course, musicians collaborate, but facilitators don’t need to. This facilitator prefers to be a band member rather than a solo performer.

Just ask. The answer might be ‘yes!’

January 22nd, 2009

Check out this photo.  




It announces some tour dates for Eric Bibb in Australia. Nothing strange about that. Now take a closer look. There’s a gig in Melbourne, capital of Victoria. Population 3.8 million. And another one in Hobart, capital of Tasmania. Population 205,000. And Meeniyan. Population 1006. Meeniyan. Where the hell is Meeniyan and why is it hosting Eric Bibb, arguably one of the world’s greatest acoustic blues performers? Don’t get me wrong, there’s no reason why Meeniyan shouldn’t host world-class performers, but doesn’t it strike you as strange? Doesn’t it make you wonder how this has come about? And I can disclose, this is not Eric Bibb’s first visit to Meeniyan.

I share something with Eric Bibb. I too have had a gig at Meeniyan Hall, albeit a facilitation gig. This is what it looks like.

It’s a typical Australian country hall. Wooden floor, stage with steps at one end, fading picture of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, lists of Hall Committee Presidents and Secretaries, a supper room out the back where, well, supper is prepared. In fairness, it’s quite some time since I’ve visited Meeniyan Hall so this description may not be absolutely accurate, but I bet it’s pretty close.

I remember Jeanette, a participant in one of my workshops. She attended one of Eric Bibb’s gigs at the Hall, queued up along the street with all the other locals, carrying supper and a bottle of wine. She said it was ‘the best night of my life’. She met Eric afterwards, he signed her CD. The Hall was packed to capacity. In a town with a population a little over 1000, in east Gippsland, about two hours’ drive from Melbourne.

This story epitomises community. A small country town is not daunted by its size or isolation. I bet someone once said: ‘why don’t we just ask?’ When I was organising a conference way back in the 90s called Live and Earthy (great name, don’t you think?) we wanted Campbell McComas – a consummate performer, public speaker, comedian and all round good bloke. He was way out of our price range, but I called him anyway. To my great surprise he answered his own phone, listened to my request and said ‘yes!’. Similarly the Coodabeen Champions also agreed to a whacky request to make a Landcare tape. I asked and they too said ‘yes!’.

So the lesson for me is that anything’s possible. And if you want someone’s help, just ask. The answer might be ‘yes!’.