What Musical Minds Teach Us About Innovation In Education: Listening

The book “Two Beats Ahead” by Panos A. Panay and R. Michael Hendrix examines what musical minds can teach us about innovation. It has been on my radar since I first heard Hendrix mention these ideas in a podcast with IDEO about a year and a half ago. I have been waiting for this book with anticipation and am excited to finally have a settled moment to sit with the first chapter last night.

I intend to capture my thinking from this first chapter and the subsequent chapters as well. I will be doing this through the lens of education and teaching. As a musician and songwriter, I connect deeply with the premise of the book. It has unlocked ideas that have been floating around in my mind for the last few years.

Listening: The Space Between the Notes

The first chapter is titled “Listening: The Space Between the Notes.” The opening quote is by Björk:

“The most powerful thing is often the thing which lies slumbering in the silence.”


As educators, it is important that we develop our awareness of the things that are not there. In teaching, we have a tendency to get too focused on the deliverables. As we know, content is king. But we can’t let standards and content be the sole focus of our teaching.

The emphasis on content comes at the expense of the relationships we need to be building. The focus of designing learning experiences needs to be on creating conditions that allow for full immersion. We can build relationships by listening to the gaps in their experience and develop an awareness of our students’ human experience.

Emotional Due Diligence

A second type of listening that Hendrix and Panay discuss is listening to ourselves. They introduce the term emotional due diligence. How often do we as educators really do emotional due diligence? How can we, as designers of these educational experiences, deliver if we have not found our own voice?

Teaching and learning are very intimate experiences. It involves a lot of trust, compassion, empathy, and communication. To do this effectively we need to know what our own individual style is.

We are not just classically trained musicians playing notes off of a score, or delivering content from a curriculum. We need to take our individual experiences and edit them together into a mosaic that is our own unique voice.

The process of getting to this point is through self-analysis and emotional due diligence. Take the time to look inside and ask yourself, what drives you, why are you doing this, and what is your purpose in dedicating yourself to the craft of teaching and learning?

In the book, the authors use a quote from Pharrell Williams that advises us to have a healthy amount of delusion.

Everybody has some level of doubt, somewhere. But for the most part there’s a healthy portion of delusion that is required to be artists. You have to believe that you are worthy and have to believe you are unique and have something different. You can doubt, but doubting is a nonstarter. You can’t get anything started that way. I was just with an artist the other day who continued to tak himself out of something that was really amazing, and it was blowing my mind. That is what you don’t want. You want a healthy delusion.

Pharell Williams

Much like an artist, you have to be somewhat delusional to get into teaching. To think that you can deliver learning to young people is somewhat of a delusional premise. That’s a good thing. As Pharrell says, don’t talk yourself out of doing something amazing.

Removing the Ego

The last part of this first chapter in listening is to remove the ego. As educators this is essential. While it is healthy to have a certain amount of delusion, don’t allow that thought to prevent you from getting your ego out of the way. When we remove our ego we are open to shifting our practice. We invite change and understand that it is a healthy part of the evolution of our craft.

Panos and Hendrix share that it is easy to recast failures as pivots, as stepping stones on the road to success. The true aim, they share, is to ground these pivots in “listening for opportunities and finding new alignments.”

The way to do this is to “open yourself up, be aware and watchful, be listening.” The “failures” we endure as educators are more than just opportunities for a pivot, they are moments of the ego dissolving. It is a key moment in which you have the opportunity to listen to yourself and trust your thinking to take you on a new path.


As educators, we work in dynamic and shifting spaces. We cannot enter into these spaces with a fixed mindset of how things are and how they should be. We need to listen for the silence. This takes practice. This is a discipline that takes a focused effort.

I believe this is a skill that can be taught and learned. We can look to musicians for these lessons and learn from them. Again as Panos and Hendrix so eloquently share at the conclusion of the chapter: “Listen, notice, feel. Anticipate the possibilities that come from silence.”

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