Jazzing up the workplace

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May 7, 2002 // UPDATED 1:19 pm - April 30, 2007
By: Ellen Nigon
Ellen Nigon

A seminar with a groovy soundtrack? Jazzman/businessman Michael Gold teaches workers how to be happier and more productive through music.

A trombone cuts the air with thick notes; the piano tinkles in, then drums, bass and saxophone. The music is reminiscent of a black- and-white movie. Hearing this smooth jazz, you feel you should be sitting at a corner table in a candle-lit lounge shrouded in glamorous smoke.

Instead, you're seated auditorium-style in the bright and antiseptic Minneapolis Convention Center. The romantic music seems out of place in the Downtown business-like setting -- but you're not there for romance, you're there for business.

Michael Gold created "Jazz Impact" to teach people business concepts -- improvisation, flexibility, creativity and adaptation -- through the metaphor of jazz.

Gold holds a doctorate in jazz studies and taught at and ran the jazz department at Vassar College in Massachusetts; he's also been a construction company president. He evolved his unique workshop after "spending three decades trying to play jazz and run a business at the same time."

After moving back to Minneapolis to become a financial services operations manager, he received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to teach improvisation to classical musicians.

The grant ignited his long-simmering idea of linking improvisation to business. "Jazz got into me. It was the deepest resource that our culture had to offer musically," Gold said.

Through a friend, Gold learned that Lucent Technologies in New Jersey was having a problem with American employees in China not integrating well into that culture.

Gold convinced Lucent management that "jazz is an international language. It goes across cultural boundaries."

How it works So how does Gold make the business connection?

A few weeks ago, row upon row of Fairview Health Systems employees sat in rapt attention, clearly enjoying one seminar in a two-day annual retreat that actually featured a soundtrack. "I just love integrating the arts into learning," said Fairview employee Mary Stultz.

Gold begins by telling his audience that jazz and business are based on similar concepts. "For both jazz and business you need to be able to multi-task and respond to change. Both require cross-functional awareness. Both require courage and tenacity," he said.

Gold goes into a short lesson on improvisation. With the voice of a hypnotist, he asks his audience to consider that they are improvisers. Then, with Gold on bass and an ensemble of freelance musicians on drums, saxophone, trombone and piano, the band embarks on Duke Ellington's "Prelude to a Kiss."

Although most of the employees are not jazz scholars, they pick out the ensemble's improvisation.

When the song is finished, Professor Gold transitions into his next lesson. "Another reason jazz is important is because it happens in the moment," he explains.

Gold asks his audience to find their pulses. As different audience members call out their pulse's beat, the drummer taps out these individual rhythms.

Gold teaches that, in jazz, a musician can be in front of the pulse (or beat), behind it or on top of it. "The way we relate to the pulse defines our musical identity," he says.

Gold asks for workday examples when an employee would need to be in front, in the middle of or in back of the pulse. For a middle-of-the-pulse example, one Fairview medical worker replied, "Cardiac arrest."

Practice, practice, practice As Gold introduces the next song, he asks the audience to think about how often they have to shift their relationship to the pulse. The band goes into a schizophrenic tune in which the pace seems to be constantly shifting in relation to the beat.

The lessons are not simply theoretical; Gold truly practices what he preaches. Toward the end of the Fairview seminar, Gold reveals that no one in his current ensemble had ever played together. Although each musician is a master at his or her particular instrument and each knows the songs, they are all improvising to play with each other. "We come together and we spontaneously compose," Gold said.

So Gold asks audience members to "spontaneously compose."

Two five-person teams come before the ensemble. Each team member receives a sign: on one side is a band instrument; on the other side is the instrument with a slash through it. By turning the sign around, the audience member can decide which instruments play and when.

The band plays a particular tune, but as the audience members flip their signs different instruments come in and out erratically. The tune sounds funny; after it finishes, Gold points out that no one holding a sign looked at his or her teammates to see how they were composing.

The group forms a semi-circle and tries composing again, this time mindful of how they work as a team. And the tune actually sounds better, even harmonious.

Then, almost as though this seminar is a religious revival and Jazz is a god, Gold ends the morning with some passionate clapping. He directs one side of the room to clap a certain beat while the other side claps another beat.

The technique is called a polyrhythm ,and the audience gets excited, laughing as they clap the last song. And ending the seminar, Gold explains, "What holds jazz together is passion," making it clear that applies to business as well.