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in praise of improvising…

March 7, 2015

lisa hammershaimb

Last night, in an act of total reckless academic abandon (because Assignment 2 is due in less than a week) I did not stay home and work like an academic maniac rather, I went to see Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble in their fifteenth anniversary tour. To the uninitiated, The Silk Road Ensemble was founded by Ma as a way to “forge connections across cultures, disciplines, and generations.” It’s since moved into a global movement where musicians from all over the world come together to not only play music but also build cultural awareness, educate, and generally delight in the power of the arts to cross all boundaries. Their manifesto (taken from their website) captures it beautifully:

  • SILKROAD IS THE WORLD WHERE EXPLORING OUR DIFFERENCES ENRICHES OUR HUMANITY
  • SILKROAD IS THE EDGE WHERE EDUCATION, BUSINESS, AND THE ARTS COME TOGETHER TO TRANSFORM THE WORLD
  • SILKROAD IS THE COLLECTIVE OF ROOTED EXPLORERS, INCLUSIVE INDEPENDENTS, STORYTELLING MUSICIANS, PASSIONATE LEARNERS, CONNECTED NOMADS, AND CULTURAL ENTREPRENEURS
  • SILKROAD IS THE MOVEMENT TO CREATE UNEXPECTED CONNECTIONS, COLLABORATIONS AND COMMUNITIES IN PURSUIT OF MEANINGFUL CHANGE

Points three and four are especially resonant to me because if you sub the words “distance education” or more specifically “graphic design distance education communities” that’s pretty much my own ethos too. Connected nomads, inclusive independents, rooted explorers….sign me up! And even more…how can I be part of the proactive solution to make that happen?

I first encountered Silk Road fifteen years ago when they passed through Chicago. I remember being captivated by all the diversity amongst the musicians and just how amazing it would be to be part of something that was that culturally rich and turned the world into a community where each voice brought something new and unique. At the time I was 18, working at Starbucks, going to community college, and unsure about what the future would hold but also dead certain I was going to be the first in female in three generations in my family to not become a teacher. I had my sights set on massage therapy to feed my body and being an artist to feed my soul. I was going to have a life of adventure and exploration—discovery and freedom. Fifteen years does indeed feel like a lifetime of change and it kind of makes me smile to think about 18-year-old-Lisa and the crazy twisting journey that turned her into 33-year-old-Lisa. I could never have imagined my life now back then as mine is a job that didn’t even exist fifteen years ago. And the “I will never be a teacher” utterance….further proof that you should never say never!


Seeing Silk Road again and sort of reliving their stability amidst so many changes in my life brought a good note of reflection to the evening. One thing that hasn’t changed at all is that I’m still captivated by all the diversity amongst the musicians and seeing them perform makes me want to be part of something that is so culturally rich and turns the whole world into a community where each voice brings something new and unique.

When you watch Silk Road (and you really do watch them almost as much as you listen to what is going on) you see fluidity and connection amongst the players and it’s as if they are conversing through the music rather than playing from a pre-written score. They do in fact do a fair amount of improvisation when playing live because their music is experiential and builds on the tradition of caravans and campfires rather than the tradition of the academy. As I was watching tonight I couldn’t help see the improvisation and trust amongst the musicians and this sense of dynamic, emergent synergy and begin scheming how some of that spirit could maybe come into education in general and into my own educational domain in particular.

For Assignment 2 I’m looking closely at complexity leadership theory (CLT). One of the hallmarks of CLT is the idea of emergence where the leader does not prescribe a specific outcome but instead assembles an environment, seeds it with a agents (human and non-human) and then steps back and sort of watches what happens. In CLT, networks and network interaction help open up new patterns of behavior and new ways of operating.

Environment + actors + a sort of sit back and watch what happens ethos….Sub in the words “musical improvisation” for “complexity leadership theory” and I’d say it’s a pretty good fit.

Though I’m fairly certain one of the only reasons this resonated with me so strongly is that I’m living in the place with Assignment 2 where everything in life somehow ends up connecting with everything in Assignment 2 (and we’ve made up….relationship is back on so once again these connections are dazzling, not annoying.) That said, I think there is much to be said for the connection between the two and a good way to get my head around the ways complexity leadership theory can be leveraged for good in educational spheres is to view it more through the lens of musical improvisation.

In this framework the questions become: how is an environment (including all the wayfinding/sensemaking structures) where actors feel safe and confident contributing their own voice created? How are confident actors empowered in the first place? How does leadership model the respect needed for each voice to emerge? How is the tension between chaos and creativity both nurtured and balanced?

I don’t know the answers to any of these things (and would guess that there probably aren’t even “answers” anyways) but, I love the questions and even more I love the way the experience of the music and the evening was able to move me out of the narrow confines of my own head and remind me that the world is massive yet connected—the voices are different and unique and mine too has a place. May I not be shy about sharing my network and sharing my voice as a passionate learner and a connected nomad.

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