Impressions

by Cochran

Bach and The Art of Design Thinking

Bach.TheArtofDesignThinking

As a musician, I get this question often: “Who is your favorite composer?”

Without hesitation, my answer, for as long as I can remember, has been and forever will be, the great German Baroque composer, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). For me, there are many reasons why.

Bach’s music moves me like no other. Though challenging to play, his music is filled with pure joy. Understanding the music of Bach is a lifelong pursuit. Never static, each time I hear or play a work by Bach, I hear something new. Bach’s complex layers are constantly revealing themselves to the focused listener or student. My list could go on and on.

In addition to all of these attributes that I attach to Bach, I am convinced that Bach embraced principles of design thinking throughout his musical career. For instance:

Bach combined the analytical with the intuitive. He coupled research (listening and learning from others) with his amazing intuition, moving things forward by imagining new possibilities. Bach was a master at synthesizing past, present and future into nearly everything he wrote. Even his staunchly well-loved B Minor Mass is now believed by many to have been somewhat of an exercise that Bach used to convey his latest musical discoveries.

Bach employed iterative prototyping. Bach would often reuse his own earlier compositions, revising and improving them. He regularly created three or four versions of a single cantata movement. Referred to as parody in the classical music realm, Bach would re-work a movement from a harpsichord concerto into a cantata movement or parody a minuet from a Brandenburg Concerto in a chorale.

Bach took inspiration from a broad range of experiences and cultures. As a young man of only 20, Bach supposedly walked more than 200 miles from Arnstadt to Lübeck to hear the older, well-established organist and composer, Dietrich Buxtehude, play. Surely, ideas generated by this experience worked themselves into his music. Bach incorporated a variety of music styles from throughout Europe into his works. For example, Bach composed each of the four movements in his Partita for Unaccompanied Flute in a popular dance style of the day with German, Italian, French and English styles all represented.

Bach co-created with others. Bach knew he couldn’t go it alone. He regularly looked to others for inspiration and new ideas. One of his most frequent collaborators was the librettist, Picander. Together, they created a large volume of cantatas and other works including, most notably, the St. Matthew Passion.

Bach regularly embraced constraint as a source of creativity. Probably the most famous example of this is The Musical Offering, inarguably one of Bach’s most striking works. In 1747, upon a visit to the palace of King Frederick the Great of Prussia, the aging Bach was challenged to improvise on a difficult theme given to him by the king, himself a formidable composer. On the spot, Bach improvised a complex fugue at the keyboard. Within two months following his visit, Bach completed The Musical Offering, based entirely on Frederick’s theme. The piece was immediately printed and presented with a dedication to the king.

Bach wrote music for the people. He composed music for the enjoyment of the listener. In Bach’s words, music was “for the recreation of the mind…” Bach’s music can sound simple and elegant, yet beneath the surface exists a highly detailed system of counterpoint and fugue. In addition to his responsibilities as church organist and Kapellmeister (chapel master), Bach directed a Collegium Musicum off and on during his tenure in Leipzig. Actually founded by Telemann, this group of amateur and semi-professional musicians met for informal music making at the coffee-house of Gottfried Zimmermann. Through these performances, Bach was able to hone his skills in writing for a secular audience while giving the people of Leipzig exposure to music outside of the typical church setting. Read A Rollicking Bach Time Is Had By All in today’s New York Times for a modern-day reference to these coffee-house performances.

When we think of early examples of design thinkers, the first person often cited is inventor, Thomas Edison. Yet more than a century before Edison was born, Bach composed a set of 15 keyboard pieces in two contrapuntal parts and termed them inventions. I’m convinced that we can all learn more about design thinking by studying Bach and  listening to anything from his large output of work, be it his cantatas, oratorios, solo partitas, concertos and yes, his inventions.

Let me know what names you’d add to a list of early design thinkers.

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December 4, 2012 Posted by | Bach, creativity, design, design thinking, empathy, Innovation, music, prototyping | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Design Thinking: Methodology, Mindset or What?

Chamber musicians perform trio sonata

Image via Wikipedia

During the past several years, I’ve spent a fair amount of time exploring design thinking. I’ve read inspiring and insightful books and blogs on the subject, heard in-person keynotes by design thinking experts including Claudia Kotchka and Roger Martin, attended a design thinking conference, engaged in numerous online discussions around the topic and have had many face-to-face conversations with others on this often elusive topic.

My still looming question: Is design thinking a methodology, a mindset or something else?

David Kelley, a founder of IDEO and co-founder of the d.school program at Stanford, in a video interview with Reena Jana of Business Week, stated that design thinking can be learned. Design thinking is not a new methodology, according to Kelley, “it used be to be called design.” Companies are finally recognizing the value of design and many are working to make design thinking part of their corporate DNA.

I tend to agree with Kelley in that design thinking can be learned. But, at the same time, I feel that design thinking is a mindset. According to the World English Dictionary, mindset is defined as “the ideas and attitudes with which a person approaches a situation, especially when these are seen as being difficult to alter.” If this is an accurate definition, then I’m convinced that design thinking also falls into mindset mode.

OK, so design thinking is both methodology and mindset. But, which comes first? How does one acquire the design thinking mindset?

In my case, design thinking has been a way of life for as long as I can remember. At the age of 10, I (luckily) embarked on a path towards becoming a serious classical musician. That meant years and years of developing both sides of my brain and, just naturally, blending analytical thinking with intuitive thinking.

Of all the arts, music is the one which best grooms the mind in that hybrid way. During tens of thousands of hours in the practice room, a musician taps into a blended skill set of analysis and intuition. In learning a new piece or re-learning a piece from our past repertoire, we prototype hundreds of times. That prototyping is done alone, with a teacher, in rehearsal and then again during each actual performance of the work. Whether in a chamber music ensemble or in an orchestra, the nimble musician combines what he has analyzed with what he has prototyped and then adds the layer of intuitive thinking so necessary when interacting with other musicians onstage.

So, for some, design thinking seems to come naturally. Design thinking is a blend of years of learning, prototyping and doing.

What are your thoughts? Are there other fields of study that naturally train us in design thinking? I’d like to hear from you.

March 6, 2011 Posted by | business, creativity, design, design thinking, Innovation, music, prototyping | , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Coco and Igor as Innovators

Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel

Image via Wikipedia

I just returned from a private* screening of “Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky,” the Jan Kounen film which closed the 2009 Cannes Film Festival and is now showing in U.S. theaters. Beautifully filmed and acted, the film spoke to me on multiple levels. As a serious classical musician, lover of Stravinsky’s music and passionate devotee of French culture, Kounen had me from the downbeat.

And, what a downbeat it was! The opening scene depicts the tension leading up to the 1913 world premiere of Diaghilev’s ballet, The Rite of Spring, set to music by Stravinsky, at Le Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris. The unsuspecting audience, so accustomed to ballets like Swan Lake and others from the late-Romantic Russian repertoire, riots. The dancers and orchestra musicians are barely able to continue performing. The entire scene is wildly disruptive.

Interestingly, Coco Chanel is in the audience and she seems to be one of the few listeners who understands Stravinsky’s music. The complicated love story (and aren’t all French love stories complicated?) picks up again in 1920, once she and Stravinsky have each made names for themselves in Paris.

I was struck by the fact that Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky were immediately simpatico, perhaps because they were both innovators. He, a Russian composer then living in Paris, was writing music with uneasy, syncopated rhythms and disruptive harmonies new to the world’s ears. Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel turned the women’s fashion world upside down, designing clothing that was not only chic, but thankfully, comfortably corset-less.

Mark Bernstein, CEO of the Palo Alto Research Center, defines innovation as “a valuable change, unconstrained by the way things are.” If his definition is accurate, then Igor Stravinsky and Coco Chanel should take their places at the top of a list of early 20th century innovators. Although we usually see the term “innovation” attributed to late 20th century corporations such as Procter & Gamble and Apple, let’s not forget some of the world’s earlier innovators who helped to change the way we think.

Which other early 20th century innovators would you add to this list?

* My screening was private only by accident. Pity no one else showed up to enjoy this incredibly insightful film with me.

August 8, 2010 Posted by | creativity, design thinking, Innovation, music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Life Lessons: The Music of Business

One year ago, one of my articles was published in an educational magazine of interest to high school and college-aged flute students and their teachers. (My former career was as a classical musician.) I had written the article not long after the passing of the well-known and highly-respected French flutist, Louis Moyse, my teacher and musical mentor of 30 years.

I came across the article again a few days ago and was taken by the fact that the musical “Life Lessons” I had shared with other flutists can easily apply to those of us in today’s business world.

What follows are 10 of the many memorable quotes I remember from Louis Moyse, followed by my translations. To apply the lessons to business life, I have added just a few words to my original writing and have shown them in parentheses.

  1. “This is your territory — mark it!” Find your place in the (business) world and make the most of it!
  2. “Start from nothing. Then, allow yourself to grow.” — Make knowledge and self-improvement your lifelong quest.
  3. “Don’t be a flutist; it’s much more important to be a musician.” — Look at the details, certainly, but don’t forget to focus on the broader (business) picture. Think strategically.
  4. “It may be marked ‘Grave’ but it’s not necessarily about death!” Don’t make things out to be worse than they really are.
  5. “You must learn to be your own teacher.” — You are responsible for your own destiny. Learn from your mistakes and move on.
  6. “You need to suffer!” With (business) experience comes understanding.
  7. “Be more free, like a sheep. Sometimes it helps not to have too much brains (sic),” — Trust your (business) instincts.”
  8. “There is no such thing as ‘instant flute’. You have to work at it!” — Success (in music or business) is not supposed to come easily.
  9. “Sometimes, the most difficult thing is to do nothing, —  Some things (in business) are best left alone.
  10. “Make it simple.” Clear straightforward (business) communication has a power all its own.

If you’re interested in reading the original article in its entirety, please email me: rebecca@cochrancreativegroup.com

January 12, 2010 Posted by | business, music | , , , , , | Leave a comment