Learning Jazz (and Lean?): Imitate, Integrate, Innovate
Although I don’t get to play much anymore, I used to be a pretty serious drummer (I almost said “musician,” but that invites jokes that drummers aren’t really musicians). I was more of a percussionist — playing everything from timpani in the orchestra to marching band drums and the drum set in jazz bands.
I always loved playing and came to appreciate different styles of music. In most forms of music, the sheet music (the standardized work) is very highly specified. You play what’s on the page, every single note is given to you. In jazz, however, the sheet music is more of a structure, in which different members of the group are allowed to play solos of their own creation…
The jazz soloist isn’t allowed to just play whatever… there are certain boundaries and frameworks, such as the key and the chord progressions. It’s interesting to read about how jazz musicians learn how to solo. It wasn’t something I thought too much about as I was learning, but the following framework seems to make sense… and I think there are parallels to learning how to practice Lean methods and Lean thinking.
There’s a progression of three words that’s often attributed to different famous jazz musicians… but as described in blogs like this one, the progression in learning how to solo is:
- Integrate (sometimes cited as “assimilation,” but I like alliteration)
From the jazz musician and teacher, Clark Terry, on step 1:
Imitation is an integral first step in learning to improvise, but sadly, it’s often overlooked by beginners because scales and theory are immediately thrown in their faces. While you do need to have a solid understanding of music theory, the truth is that scales and chords, no matter how much you memorize them or run them up and down, aren’t going to magically turn into great stylistic improvisations full of long lines and interesting harmonies. To do that you need a model.
Dr. W. Edwards Deming taught that data without theory are meaningless. I guess you could say the same about jazz improvisation or the use of Lean methods. We need theory, not just tools and methods. But, do you need to first practice methods, following the example of models (like Toyota or ThedaCare) to start your learning rather than expecting that the theory instantly becomes obvious?
I’d agree that just copying a method, like 5S, isn’t alone going to lead you to Lean enlightenment, but maybe it’s a helpful first step? When you copy and practice a method, under the guidance of a teacher, the theory can become more apparent and understandable as you go. The key, again, I think is having a TEACHER, whether it’s jazz or Lean. Many people who are copying Lean tools don’t have a good teacher or mentor to help them eventually understand the theory.
Back to jazz:
By imitating the players you love, you’ll begin to understand the music on a deeper level and begin to see a personal sound develop in your own approach to improvisation. Questions that can’t be answered by music theory or etude books, like how to play longer lines or how to articulate and swing, will reveal themselves as you start to imitate the masters.
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Does this apply to Lean?
In the second step of integration, back to Terry:
Assimilation means ingraining these stylistic nuances, harmonic devices, and lines that you’ve transcribed into your musical conception. Not just mentally understanding them on the surface level, but truly connecting them to your ear and body. This is where the hours of dedication and work come in.
A jazz student can learn from the recordings or live performances of many different musical greats. The process for practicing and working on integrating or assimilating different models somewhat reminds me of the Mike Rother “Toyota Kata” idea of practicing different basic forms as a way of gaining competency.
On to the third step, innovation:
Creating a fresh and personal approach to the music. Many young musicians want to skip to this step as soon as they start learning how to improvise… Innovation is the direct result of hours upon hours of imitation and assimilation. Take a look at the great innovators that this music has already seen. Each one spent countless hours studying harmony, solos, form, tunes, etc. in order to realize their own personal concept.
How many organizations hear about the Toyota Production System and want to leap immediately to having a Business System or Production System of their own? Do you have to first imitate and assimilate the methods and thinking of others before you can create your own unique system that best meets the needs of your industry, organization, and customers?
In teaching that “Lean is more than just tools,” are some of us too hard on those who are just getting started if they are learning by copying the tools of others?
I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this jazz model – whether you are a musician (or former musician) or not. I’m intrigued by this model of Jazz learning… I’m not 100% convinced it applies to other disciplines, so that’s why I’m blogging about it… what do you think?