Monday, July 27, 2020

Balancing individual creativity with group collaboration

During lockdown many of us have had to fall back on our own devices. We’ve been cast ashore on a virtual desert island and asked to fend for ourselves.

It’s tough when you have to do everything by yourself, but it can also be liberating as you have nobody to account to. There are pros and cons to both ways of working: by yourself or in collaboration.

The performing arts rely on collaboration. Choirs need singers to work with a musical director.  Theatre productions need actors to bounce off each other. Even solo shows involve a team of collaborators: director, writer, designer, stage manager, choreographer, etc.

Some artistic endeavours can be solitary though. For example, composing music, writing a novel, illustrating a book. Even if the artist is working from a brief, it still comes down to one person creating alone.

The main benefit of being a sole creator is that you have nobody to account to whilst creating. There is nobody to criticise your choices or to steer you in a different direction or to interrupt your flow every five minutes.

However, coming up with creative ideas entirely by yourself can be very hard. Even solitary artists turn to other resources for inspiration, something to spark the ideas.

Choir leaders are essentially solitary artists. Even if your choir has a committee to choose repertoire or buy specific arrangements, it’s down to the choir leader to structure the rehearsal, plan the warm ups, figure out the best way to teach/rehearse a piece, find the most effective way to conduct the tricky parts, and so on.

But not everything can be planned down to the last detail (see Best laid plans – dealing with the unexpected in singing sessions and Planning ahead: leave space for the unexpected).

When you finally stand in front of your choir, things won’t always go to plan. There is constant feedback between singers and choir leader. Some of your ideas might not work, but others will take their place in the moment. The whole rehearsal becomes a collaboration with singers and leader constantly responding to each other.

Some years ago when I was teaching at drama school a colleague, who was renting a room in my house, woke me up to say they were sick. They asked if I could take their class for them. I jumped out of bed and realised I had 10 minutes to get into college. I arrived in time in the right room to face a sea of expectant faces. I had no idea what I was supposed to be teaching. “What’s the name of this class?” I asked. They told me, and then we went on to have a great session together.

I had come with no ideas, the students had come with a particular expectation, but together we collaborated to build something new an unexpected.

I often sit in front of this computer screen trying to come up with an idea for my next blog post, but nothing comes. Then I have a chat with someone, telling them that I’ve run out of ideas and within a few minutes, a post manifests itself.

Sharing with others, even if it’s not strict collaboration, is a great way to release your creative juices.

Even apparently solitary creativity benefits from interaction with others. That newly composed or arranged song comes to life and reveals its strengths (and weaknesses) the first time it is sung by a choir. The new novel manuscript reveals its structure and imaginative world when encountered by its first reader. An illustration can come to life when first seen and an obvious ambiguity is pointed out.

All creativity is a flow back and forth between individual creativity and collaboration (see Singing in a choir – balancing individual freedom with the demands of the team). It’s important to allow space and time for both modes of creation.

Next time you’re on your own and get stuck for ideas, reach out to someone. If you spend all your time collaborating as part of a team, ensure that you make space for time alone with your own thoughts. You need both in order to create.



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Chris Rowbury




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