4 Things I’ve Learned from Ella Fitzgerald

Ivy HestSkills and Principles, Theory

(About 3:30 minutes to Read, plus some awesome music)

I’m a jazz singer.  Ok, maybe I just sing jazz.  I don’t know at what point I can actually reverse the order of the words.  But after years of singing other kinds of genres (and specializing mostly in all things 90’s pop), I’ve landed on Jazz, and I’m pretty happy about it.  I like to think that I specialize in Vocalese (see the video below for one of my favorites- the real vocalese starts at 1:44, but the whole thing gives me chills)  and Improv singing.

Improvising terrifies me.  It makes me want to pee my pants.  And I love it.

The similarities between improv singing and the skills we want leaders to have are striking to me.   Plus it gives me an excuse to add a lot of music to this post.  And while I cringe a bit to imply that leadership development is improvisational (no, the metaphor isn’t perfect), the skills and mindset required to be a strategic leader ring true.

  1. No one knows what’s going to happen.  Not the notes, not the words, not the sounds that come out.  That’s why sometimes you’ll find improv singers laughing during songs- they didn’t know what they were going to do either.   The same is true with organizing.  One friend of mine had a big event that they planned for months.  They put together a strong program, a very reasonable ask backed up with stories and statistics, and huge turnout.  They had every reason to think (based on past interactions with the city’s Superintendent) that their proposal would get an easy “yes”, but instead, the Superintendent said “No.”  And that was it.  But instead of letting it throw them off, members and this organizer switched tactics immediately, found a way for the Superintendent to say “Yes” to further conversations. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wL2W4UPGUBo
  2. Mistakes happen, and you just have to roll with it.  My (unfortunate) instinct when I make a mistake is to retreat, as if I’ve touched a hot stove.  But to be a great improviser, I need to put my hand on that stove, leave it there a bit, and convince myself and you that it’s exactly what I meant to do.  Even Jazz goddess Ella Fitzgerald forgot the lyrics one time in a big performance that was being recorded.  She just kept going, and even won a Grammy for that album, despite basically saying whatever came to her head from 1:44 onward.  One of my shyest members (only publicly- she definitely never held back when she was passionate about something!) decided that she wanted to testify at City Council about an issue we were working on.  We worked on her remarks and prepared her statement.  She started mumbling, and speaking quietly.  She stopped, and started apologizing.  She looked at me and mouthed, “I can’t do this.”  I mouthed back “Too bad.”  She put down the paper and delivered the most passionate, thoughtful, and effective testimony I’ve ever heard.
  3. Everyone has to work together to accomplish our goal.  In the Jazz world, there are times when you meet all members of the band for the first time just a few minutes before you perform.  You don’t really know much about them and you haven’t had time to practice the way you want it, but you have to trust them and be agile enough to pick up cues from each other so that the song and its transitions are seamless.  If you enter in the wrong part of the song, you don’t just stop the song and ask them to start over— the rest of the band covers for you.  With a quick nod by one person, everyone knows that the drummer is going to take a solo, and for how long.  My body language and the way I sing notes tells the band when I’m ready to end the song.  I find it a miracle when my songs don’t end in a train wreck, but really, it’s because of the rest of the band that we finish in one piece.  And then we do it all again for the next song.  Tenants in a public housing development called a meeting with the head of the housing authority to discuss their concerns.  The small group decided that there would be 3 priorities to discuss, followed by written accounts of all the other issues in the building.  They planned one person to tell their story of how the issue is impacting them, we rehearsed it, and we were ready.  During the meeting, attendees starting shouting out their issues, which was not part of the plan.  It was a little chaotic.  At one point, the social worker asked, “Where’s Ivy, why isn’t she stepping in?” (I was sitting in the back, taking notes and pictures, staying out of the way) The moderator stood up a bit taller and took charge.  He said “This meeting is for and by the tenants of this building.  What we’re going to do now is an open forum, where anyone who wishes to speak will have 1 minute to share their concerns.  I ask that you stick to the time allotted to you.”  Brilliant.  We had plans, and they weren’t going the way they were supposed to.  Instead of stopping in the face of chaos, this leader silently communicated with the others in the room and had a very successful meeting.  One of the other planners went to the front of the room to keep time, and someone else wrote each additional problem on some flip chart paper.  They judged each other’s needs, and with a head nod, everything fell into place.
  4. If you don’t take risks, you’ll bore everyone.  You know those covers, where all you can think is “why?”

      Yeah.  Don’t be that guy.  Take risks, and be awesome.

Improvisational singing is a balance of chaos and order, but mostly it’s a lesson in communication and taking risks to create something beautiful together.  And that’s what we do in organizing.  Mix a bit of chaos in with a side of order to create something beautiful together- a movement that empowers and fights back.

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Some of My Best Friends are Black Organizers!