What Musical Minds Teach Us About Innovation In Education: Reinventing

Author’s note
: This post is based on the ideas from the book Two Beats Ahead by R. Michael Hendrix and Panos A. Panay.

David Bowie and teaching? Really, there’s a connection? Yes, there most certainly is.

This chapter on reinventing starts off with a detailed description of how Bowie used the idea of change throughout his career spanning twenty-six studio albums. This impacted countless musicians most notably Madonna and Lady Gaga who took a similar approach to their artistry.

Gaga is very clear that without the impact of Bowie in her life things would have been very different. Immersing herself in the album Aladdin Sane she describes how that experience changed everything for her. Gaga says, “I started to be more free with my choices. I started to have more fun”.

This idea of being free with our choices and having fun is what I would like my educator peers to walk away with as I come to the end of my exploration of this book. The primary idea that musical minds can teach us a lot about innovation in education is that through self-knowledge, we are capable of radical reinvention. As Bowie’s guitarist Carlos Alomar relates using one of Bowie’s favorite sayings, “Let go, or be dragged.”

In this chapter the authors cycle through a number of examples from the business world about companies reinventing themselves as the times changed. Nintendo went from a playing card company to making game machines. Nokia shifted from wood pulp to phones to 5G networks. Fujifilm went from film photography to skin-care products. You can add Netflix, Slack, and Twitter to that list as well. By knowing their capabilities, strengths, and purpose these companies were able to embrace change and survive where others faltered and failed.

Education as an industry is experiencing similar shifts. This is where the section titled “Making It Personal” applies so well. The story of musician Jen Trynin is a great example of someone navigating change to come out the other side as a more full and authentic individual. So is the story of Dr. Kristen Ellard (formally known as grunge musician Kristen Barry). As the authors say these artists “took time to understand themselves and leveraged what they learned to navigate their careers”.

Approaching life from the outside is a common thread in these examples. Dr. Ellard says, “I think I’m able to do that because of the way I have approached music. I was always on the outside, I’ve never played by the rules, and that gives me an incredible freedom to constantly be questioning”. I’d encourage all educators to do the same.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a situation in which weʻve had to reinvent out of necessity across all industries. The authors address this head-on in this chapter. The phrase “reinventing in the moment” is a great way to describe how we as teachers have had to approach this past year.

The musical example from the book is that of Def Leppard drummer Rick Allen who lost his arm in a car accident. Out of necessity, he was able to work with a friend to design a drumkit that incorporated electronic foot pedals. Reflecting on the experience Allen says: “I suppose it had a lot to do with the strength of those around me. They really didnʻt give me a choice; I had to stick around and deal with it”.

The result was a new invention and a new way of approaching drumming. I have seen myself and my teaching peers do similar things as we have had to navigate the challenge of instructing in this new world. Old systems failed, and new strategies were required. Much like Allen we didnʻt have the choice to not deal with it. We had to persevere and figure out how to solve new problems in the moment. For me my background and experience as a musician was a tremendous help in these situations.

The message of the book comes full circle in final section of this chapter titled “Busting at the Seams”. Iʻd like to print out this entire section and hand it to every educator that I encounter. Here is where I find the secret sauce. I’ll quote the authors, “At some point, you have to let go, trusting your own voice and your unique understanding of the world that is always unfolding around us.”

This is the mindset that is not taught in education degree programs. Music is a gateway to an art-centered outlook on how to approach the creative act of designing learning experiences. As the authors state, “Being open to new possibilities and capable of exploring and adapting to them with a musicianʻs mindset. When you do, you’ll find that not only can it open new doors for you, it becomes a way of life”.

Musician Pharell Williams takes it to another level, “There are a lot of people who focus on one thing singularly and that works for them. But for a lot of us, a lot of people in this generation and lot of people in the audience today, we’re pluralists. We need multiple outlets. We need to be able to express ourselves in different ways”.

And maybe thatʻs what this book was all about for me. As an aspiring musician who was starting to dip his toes into the education space, I wanted to do both. I saw the beauty in each and the creative outlet they offered. I saw them as being perfect compliments to each other and I wasnʻt willing to give either up to pursue the other.

This book is an apt summation of that plurality that I was searching for. But it is a plurality that can work for many of us. The musical mind is a lens we can all use to explore that fundamental question of who we are. And as educators, we cannot guide our students to make that discovery for themselves unless we have taken that journey ourself.

This is the nineth part in a series connecting the ideas from Two Beats Ahead by R. Michael Hendrix and Pano A. Panay to education. To read part 1 on listening go here, part 2 on experimenting go here, part 3 on collaborating go here, part 4 on demoing go here, part 5 on producing go here, part 6 on connecting go here, part 7 on remixing go here, and part 8 on sensing go here.