Friday, May 29, 2009

What Jazz Taught Me About Project Management

I might just be the only former jazz vocalist turned PMP (#126709!), but it makes me different, and I am thankful that I learned how through jazz.

When I started out in jazz, I never expected to be there for 7 years – but it got me hooked somehow. I’m not sure if it was the music, or that I loved managing each project – every performance was a project with its own business need, and it was not always the same team on the job. I loved the differentness of it, every time – constantly changing, musicians, venues even the songs as part of customized packages. The tunes would always be played fresh - based on our mood, whether it be tempo, or just really cool chord substitutions – we got the job done – on time, on budget, and without that pesky scope creep.

Just like PMs need to constantly educate themselves, as a professional, I always strived to be at the top of my game. A natural born “learner,” I brushed up on skills I needed… for music and the business of it – I could be the best musician, but if no one hears me, what’s the point?

“How do you know when there’s a chick singer at the door?”
She can’t find the key and she doesn’t know when to come in.

A musician joke I heard all too often. Speak the language and talk the talk by enhancing skills and learning new ones:

So I brushed up on music theory – I needed to be able to speak the same technical language as the musicians I was working with, and could talk to each other in and know how to jam together on a song they had never played before. All behind me at the mike, they had their own little thing going on, and I wanted to very much be a part of that. So, I learned technical skills to be part of the game.

I took up violin again (but my fingers didn’t work the same as they did in junior high, so THAT was quickly out), piano and jazz improvisation, percussion, and I soon found that I was jumping through hoops to make the customer happy, when I didn’t really have to – I’d never be good enough to go solo on a gig and accompany myself, what would my ROI be? I found that I was losing precious time when my talents could better serve as a resource for something else on the work breakdown structure.

So I was building the musician chops, but needed to fill my business tool bag, too. I tossed around the idea of going back to school for a full-fledged MBA, or a more specialized degree in Arts Management. I chose the second Masters Degree option, with a specialization in Marketing. For the next two years, I would commit myself full-time to learning the skills I needed to better manage my projects – focusing on the arts, where I was. My MBA classes were PACKED, while the arts classes were sometimes 6 to a class. I thought I was on the right track after all, when I just GOT it.

And my Master’s Degree was a project in itself, because the arts classes were on the critical path, often only offered once a year. I had to coordinate all my classes over 2 years or I would miss a grad requirement!

So if you think that there are never any conflicts among a group of emotionally charged, right-brained, creative people, good luck with that – hope it works out. For the most part, my guys were good buddies, but when it came to coming together on the same page over what chords should be substituted, or what tempo the song should be in, I had to step in to help resolve the issue. I pretty much could force the choice, but instead I let my musicians make the choice, by reminding them that the audience was not that discerning – often times, it was not a true “jazz head” audience, so they were delaying the process for no good reason – often they wanted to show off to themselves, not to the audience anyway. Always let your team make the choice, without forcing them make yours happen.

Jam sessions really strengthened my skills in working with different teams, who had never worked together before, and listening to them. That’s when I had the opportunity to see what should *not* be done - a really great jazz bassoonist…(I mean who had ever heard of that? ) would play – chops and all…chorus after chorus (or head after head in jazz terms), never opening his eyes, lost in the moment. And the other players were get agitated, and look at each other, like “when is this guy ever gonna quit and give us our turn.” This is a great example that jazz teaches us in project management, that you have to listen, and with both eyes open, to be an effective player that people want to work with.

One thing I had on my side was a background in marketing, and skills as an executive assistant for many years – I knew how to put together a great one sheet, with a call to action and make good use of white space to get my point across with eye catching visuals, but I also knew how to use Microsoft Office to make it look like it was professionally produced (like my cds, also self-produced). Always make eye-catching, easy to understand communication materials for your stakeholders, in this case, the venues who would commission my projects.

I also needed to communicate with my musicians, up on stage with me, and give them easy to understand charts, that were of course, in synch with each other (the same chords from the same song needed to be on all the parts, right?) – so I learned how to use Finale, and charted the scores myself digitally. Boy, did I learn about what made music tick getting down to every dotted quarter note. I even transcribed Ellington’s Cottontail.

And last but not least…the audience!!! The packages I put together (and customized each project!) had to speak to the audience – whether it be an audience in a performing arts center, acute care nursing facility, or a college audience…The same music had to be part of a message I was communicating. The story was always different – I think the most amazing performances I had were in the Veterans Memorial Home in Edison, on a patriotic holiday, and having residents stand up from their wheelchairs, take their caps off and put them over their hearts, and sing along with me – God Bless America, or Star Spangled Banner – the need was to provide entertainment for seniors – and is a young whippersnapper going to come in and educate this audience? I think not – they already lived it – maybe some trivia thrown in to get them to think back a bit. It didn’t matter, that experience meant something to them that it could never mean to a college audience…

A lot of times my shows were booked because there was some kind of educational component included in the mix, so it would justify the budget. That was the need. However, I was often times entertaining on a lunch break. I remember one particular gig at Seton Hall University, where I found out that the students all get laptops as part of their undergraduate enrollment. How did I find that out? When students were just involved in their own conversations and not really listening, still singing with my wireless mike, I left my band on stage and went to investigate. If you want to be heard, you needed to have a message that was worth listening to. So, I had to kick it up a notch and uptempo it – A few rounds of “It Don’t Mean a Thing, if it Ain’t Got That Swing,” did the trick. But, I would still manage to fill the business need and throw in a few interesting facts, and the patter I crafted wove a story, but next time, I would know it would have to be pretty uptempo for a college audience. (At my Stockton College gig for a high school audience they brought in, my drummer broke out in a rock pattern – and why? ‘Cause he knew that’s what he needed to pull out of his tool kit to communicate with his audience. That’s a team member.)

One thing integral to jazz is the freedom to improvise, but to stay within the lines. That’s what I loved most – I could pretty much sing something the way I wanted to (as opposed to the classical training I had as a foundation), and I knew it would make sense. The creative freedom, but staying within the framework, with something new to look forward to with each new project, was something that kept me going. When I took music theory and really understood how a melodic framework is built underneath the melody line, it raised me above the level of a “chick singer,” and really taught me about jazz.

So jazz really tied it all together for me as a band leader/business owner - running the show, getting the gigs, making sure everyone was on the same page with good consistent communication, really set the framework for me as a project manager (oh yeah, and a master’s degree with MBA classes didn’t hurt either).

So jazz and project management really go hand in hand.

I highly recommend checking out Wynton Marsalis’ interview in USA Today, “Hot Corporations Know How to Swing,” for more on leadership in business & jazz.

And this great research paper Playing the Live Jazz of Project Management written for a University in Finland.

Now it’s time for my next gig! Wanna jam?


Posted via email from vickie_smith's posterous

1 comment:

  1. Hi Vickie,
    Jazz Music & Project Management....Great Analogy!!!! Coming from an Event Managemet background, Mathew would agree with you 100% that each Jazz show (event) is a Project in itself. The logistics, stage, show sequences, etc. etc. creates a great opportunity for the application of Project Management.

    Since you're a fan of analogy, hope you will find it worth your while to go through Mathew's post called SECRET RECIPE TO SUCCESSFUL PROJECT MANAGEMENT @

    Feel free to go through the other posts on the blog as well.