Creative Problem Solving for Music Entrepreneurs: Defining the Problems of Classical Music

My class at Yale on Creating Value Through Innovative Projects is off to a great start!

The focus of my seminar is how musicians can generate innovative solutions to the most pressing problems facing classical music today and to work in collaborative groups to solve these problems. My goal is to make my students better thinkers so that they can lead the way in addressing the big issues facing our field.  If you are curious about my class, you can access a copy of syllabus here.

Innovation is about coming up with new ways to solve problems.  The good news is that we can apply a creative problem solving process to generate innovative solutions.  The first step is to define the problem is susceptible of an innovative solution.  Here is the process we followed in last week’s class as we zeroed in on the problems we care about solving.

Creative Problem Solving Step One: Tie Your Mission to a Problem Area

  • The Classical Music Ecosystem

In my opening class, I introduced students to the Classical Music Ecosystem.  The chart lays out 8 interdependent areas that make up today’s classical music world.

  • Mission Statements

The next step was for students to create life purpose statements from which they derived their personal mission statements:

  • What do I do?
  • For whom?
  • How do they benefit?

Here are a few examples of a musician mission statement:

My mission is to creatively introduce underexposed audiences to a new lens that classical music and its musicians are viewed through, so that they are introduced to a positive form of expression.

To lead musicians by example to embrace new approaches to music, new technologies, and new repertoire, and to encourage the growth of a market that will support those musicians.

I passionately and positively create musical opportunities for diverse communities in order to bring people together with the beauty of music.

Our students shared their mission statements in class and identified the part of the Ecosystem that they most cared about helping.  It turned out that the majority of students wanted to address “Musicians”, with “Audiences” a close second.

Creative Problem Solving Step 2: Use Divergent Thinking

We then turned our attention to figuring out the most pressing problems to solve on behalf of musicians.  The starting point was to use the  principles of Divergent Thinking:

  1. Defer Judgment:
    The key to effective divergent thinking is to resist the temptation to judge an idea too early in the process. Otherwise, you run the risk of killing off good ideas!
  2. Strive for Quantity:
    Research shows that the best ideas emerge later in the process since we tend to start off with what we already know.
  3. Seek Wild and Unusual Ideas:
    Creativity requires novelty so it is important to go beyond the obvious and seek more novel and even crazy ideas!
  4. Build on the Ideas of Others and Make Connections:
    This encourages people to come forward and generate even more ideas.

Creative Problem Solving Step 3: Brainstorm the Ideal State

Solving the right problem starts with  imagining the Ideal State for the part of the world that you want to help.

In order to imagine the Ideal State for Musicians, we used the phrase:

“Wouldn’t it be great if…….

We then brainstormed using two different techniques for generating ideas:

1. Brainwriting:
Brainwriting involves jotting down a list of ideas before sharing them with the group.  I asked each student to write down 10 ideas of what the IDEAL world looked like for Musicians.

Brainwriting is a good technique to start a conversation because it encourages everyone to think and not be shut down by other, more vocal students. It also avoids “Groupthink”, the phenomenon that occurs when members of the group conform to each other’s thinking and fail to generate new ideas.

2. Group Brainstorming:
We then had a group brainstorming session where each student was asked to share his or her favorite idea and then build on the ideas of the other students.

Here is the list that we generated:

Creative Problem Solving Step 4: Filter Your Ideas with the 3I’s

With all these ideas swirling about, we needed a way to filter our list in order to choose which Ideal State we were most interested in working towards.

We used 3 filters:

  1. Interest: How much do we care about working on this issue?
  2. Influence: How much impact do we have over arriving at a solution to this issue?
  3. Imagination: Which issue needs new thinking and is susceptible to an innovative solution?

This filter eliminated one big category of ideas stemming from the Orchestra World. Ideally, there would be plenty of orchestra jobs for musicians and the audition process would not be as grueling as it currently is, with hundreds of musicians competing for a handful of coveted spots.  Indeed, Janelle Gelfand has written a fascinating inside account of orchestra symphony auditions and quotes Christian Colberg, principal viola of the Cincinnati Symphony, as follows:

“From a statistical chance, it’s probably easier to get into the NBA…. “It’s a very tough process, a process that sends people to therapists, and that truly changes your life. It’s almost barbaric, but it is absolutely fair.”

We concluded that we lacked Influence over the audition process and that this would not be a fruitful avenue to pursue for our class projects.

Similarly, applying for funding for various programs did not entail enough Imagination to warrant a collaborative semester-long project.

Creative Problem Solving Step 5: Group ideas by Categories

Another helpful technique is to group the ideas into categories.

As we looked at the list, I saw 4 big problems that elicited our Interest, required Imagination and could be susceptible to our Influence:

  • Diversity

Classical music lacks diversity in musicians, audiences and programming.

  • Elitism

Classical Music is perceived as elitist in our culture and musicians are not valued the same way as other “stars” in the entertainment world.

  • Cost

It is expensive to put on good Classical Music events.

  • Stress

Musicians experience a lot of stress in order to perform well.

This list got everyone very excited because it focused us on what we really cared about.

Moreover,  while we started with an examination of how to create an ideal world for musicians, the ideas that we generated incorporated other parts of the ecosystem, especially audiences.

I then checked to make sure that we were not neglecting important areas of the Ecosystem.  Many students cared about education and we discussed ways to incorporate education into the 4 large problem areas. Several students also mentioned their interest in having an on-line component to our projects.  We also found that we could incorporate technology and an on-line component since these were tools that could enhance a project group.

Creative Problem Solving Step 6: Brainstorm Project Ideas

Students then formed four groups to discuss and brainstorm about what might be a good project to solve the problem.  This generated 4 ideas:


Have an informal event with diverse genres of music, in collaboration with other artistic media (like visual art)  in a diverse venue (like outdoors or an informal setting) to attract a diverse audience of children and families


Informal concert allowing for conversation during the performance featuring lesser-known instruments (commissioning a new piece) and performed for a new audience in their space and promoting the event on Instagram and other social media


Team up with other disciplines to host a themed interdisciplinary lecture/concert in a new venue featuring a student chamber ensemble


Make music more fun for the musicians and reduce their stress by hosting an informal event that includes both professional and amateur musicians; include a workshop and teaching apps so that there is an educational component.

Creative Problem Solving Step 7: Project Group Interviews

After each group presented their ideas, I had students interview each other to elaborate on these ideas.

For homework, we posted the 4 ideas to a group Discussion board in order to generate more ideas within each area.

Bottom Line:

By following this process, our students are learning how to be better thinkers:

How to generate a lot of ideas with two different brainstorming techniques;

How to filter ideas with the 3 I’s and with grouping into patterns; and

How to push ideas forward and lead to more effective solutions.

Stay tuned to see how our process unfolds!