The Piano Man Music

Can design thinking work for music?

During my conversations with practitioners and pedagogues of ‘design thinking’, I have had many reactions. Some are outright enthusiasts and see its innate collaborative approach as a sinecure for problems of all kinds. But the sceptics look at the term as yet another new-age invention, something that wily consultants use to fleece unsuspecting corporates or institutions.

I find in almost all these conversations parallels to the worlds that creatives occupy — the same proportion of those who absorb any new idea or discovery quickly compared to the larger proportion who view anything new as a fad or something to be discouraged.

Feedback techniques

What I posit through this essay though is the startling parallels that the performing arts and design thinking have. To start with, design thinking is a way to describe a human-centric approach to solving problems — product decisions, policy-making ideas, even world peace. Using a feedback-oriented approach to mine stakeholders’ opinions at every stage of addressing a problem, design thinking uses an interesting set of concepts. Problem identification is followed by ideation of possible solutions (with a cross-disciplinary and collaborative team), prototyping these and testing them before implementing. Each step involves a series of micro-steps, addressing feedback and talking to differing perspectives, and achieving the almost impossible — finding something that will fit all. Design thinking is now used world over to engineer products, ideas, corporate processes and even leadership styles.

Historically, from Beethoven to Gershwin, there are examples of composers who tried ‘prototypes’ on their prospective clientele before taking in feedback and refining the final output. Contrary to what we may believe Beethoven, for instance, was adept in maintaining a balance between what he composed to order versus what he composed purely as artistic expression for his own joy. India’s court composers would do several revisions before a composition became a court staple. In many of these examples, cross-disciplinary opinion-makers played a part — scholars, ministers, courtiers and, of course, consorts and companions.

Interacting with today’s younger crop of music directors in the cinema industry, I find design thinking in real time. Multiple rounds of feedback are guaranteed, and any harried music composer will tell you of the number of people who expressed their opinion on even the minutest part of their process. The feedback is kept in an almost reverentially circular loop, with constant revisions and corrections.

And yet, as a collective, the creative community often finds itself at odds with the idea of ‘composing to order’. In colloquial parlance, it is equated with ‘commercial’ work as opposed to ‘pure art’. Feedback or criticism is often viewed negatively, especially when it comes from a non-creative entity or person. Are we as a community in danger of forgetting what we are setting out to do — especially in the performing arts, which does seek an audience and a response? Would it be wrong to follow, say, a design thinking template to review our work and follow a cross-disciplinary feedback mechanism to refine it? Won’t it allow us to create works that truly reach whoever we intend it to?

The author is a well-known pianist

and music educator.

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Printable version | Aug 3, 2022 3:13:41 pm |