Get the people right before the ideas

Do you start projects with people or ideas?  Can the right combination of personalities do anything? Should you look for the right collaboration first? Or is it more important to let a group be led by an idea?

Last week I was working in Hollywall Primary school with my Swiss friend and master musician, Bernhard Wagner.

Bernhard aka ‘Loopology’ is a genius at rhythm, guitar and programming and we were working on a Creative Partnerships project to collect sounds from school children.  The idea was to help children aged 4-7 sing, talk and make some noise, record their sounds and create a choral soundscape that represented a day in the life of the school.

I first mentioned this project to Bernhard when we met at Steve Jarand’s mask workshop in Denmark.  We didn’t intend to work together.  Bernhard was asking about what I did, and I started talking about our forthcoming project and opportunity to work with a musician.  We had many long, interesting chats about music and creativity.  The money available wasn’t great, but Bernhard was very keen and when I heard his music I realised his composition skills and ambient sounds were ideal for our project.

We continued to chat and Skype after the mask course, and Bernhard kindly agreed to send over references and his Swiss police record for the school.  Normally our artists would complete a CRB check, which checks lists of offenders and police records to prove individuals are suitable to work with children. The school were very flexible here, provided Bernhard could evidence his suitability from Swiss sources.

Working with someone from another country prompted us to record children using greetings in many languages, from ‘bonjour’ to ‘buenos dias’ to more local greetings like ‘hiya flower!’ and ‘hey up duck!’.  Bernhard had many fantastic ideas, including playing rhythm games, asking children to act out a Swiss story, making up a story from Patrick Lenz’s wordless picture book  ‘Tom Und Der Vogel’ and interviewing children about what the word ‘school’ meant.

Our week was creative, professional and fun.  We recorded many more sounds than we needed and had lots and lots of exciting discussions about how the musical piece could develop.  When we needed to change our approach, we did.  We used each other as springboards for our creative ideas and developed plans together.

Incidentally, Bernhard has fantastic balls.  He got them out very soon after I met him.  He really is talented at manipulating them.  

Before you get the wrong idea, I should explain.  Bernhard’s balls are a pair of thelevi; two round, rhythmic shakers joined by string.  One ball is held in the hand while the other is swung to create a rhythm based around a three or five count.  

Bernhard demonstrated thelevi to the children, and we played several rhythm games with them where they had to count and clap.  The 4-5 year olds enjoyed being trains which slowed down and speeded up according to the tempo Bernhard played.

I had a great week with Bernhard.  Although I worked over 70 hours and drove over 1,000 miles in that week, it didn’t feel stressful.  I had a lot of fun and plenty of creative playtime.

This was the total opposite of a creative meeting I had had two weeks ago.  A while ago I had met a theatre practitioner who had had a great idea for a play, and had developed it once before with amateur actors.  Our theatre company wanted to revisit that idea and stage it in the UK.  We and this practitioner were brought together primarily by an idea, not by a relationship.  As our meeting continued it became clearer and clearer that we couldn’t work together.  The chemistry wasn’t right.  The feeling wasn’t right.  The communication was spiky and difficult.

The idea is still a great idea.  But we just couldn’t work together.

These two episodes were a great lesson.  Ideas, it seems, are only as good as the relationships that support them.

Choosing Bernhard was easy because we had a great creative relationship right from the start.  He didn’t mind travelling from Switzerland to do the work, and I didn’t mind putting Bernhard up at our flat.  I would much rather work with the right person than the most local.

Now you can start a new project with people, or you can start with ideas.  But if the relationships between the people aren’t right, watch out.  Your idea might just come crashing down.  If, however, you can find a great, organic working relationship, then the real magic can happen.  Ideas can cross-fertilise, mature and grow, and like a well-tended community garden, you can grow together.

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