Ideas into Action: How Music Entrepreneurs Create and Innovate

One of my favorite aspects of teaching my Innovation and Collaboration class at Yale is the project whereby the students take on a critical problem in the classical music field and work in collaborative groups to create and implement new solutions to these problems.  It was fascinating to see how we were able to take the spark of an idea and turn it into a live project. Here is the process by which our music entrepreneurs were able to put their ideas into action and generate 3 novel events.

Ideas into Action Step 1: Mission-Driven Project Groups

To put our ideas into action, we first, we created 3 project groups united by a common mission:

Our process involved:

  • Envisioning the ideal world for classical music and figuring out the critical problems in the classical music field;
  • Articulating a personal life purpose and mission statement;
  • Generating project ideas that solve a problem in the field of classical music and align with a personal mission;
  • Engaging in “speed dating” where students with common missions explored various project ideas;
  • Incubating the ideas; and
  • Selecting project groups whereby each member of the group was committed to the common mission and inspired to carry out that mission through the project.

Using this process, the students divided up into 3 groups:

  • Dreams of Home

Mission: to help immigrants and refugees find a home in New Haven through music.

Project: create a shared musical experience to benefit the refugee and immigrant population in New Haven.

  • East Rock Music Box

Mission: to expand the audience for classical music by creating a reinvigorated concert experience for our peers.

Project:  create an intimate environment where people will meet, mingle and bond through the classical music musical experience.

  • Story Tellers

Mission: to inspire audiences with the story of triumph over adversity.

Project:  create a concert that integrates storytelling with music to create an immersive, interactive musical and educational experience.

Ideas into Action Step 2: Innovating with Creativity Problem Solving and Design Thinking

In order to put the project ideas into action, we learned two different processes:  Creativity Problem Solving and Design Thinking. Both of these processes involve taking risks, being open to making mistakes and learning from those mistakes in order to strengthen the project solution.

  1. Creativity Problem Solving

First, we explored the creativity problem solving processwhich involves 4 distinct steps:

  • Clarify 
    where you zero in on the right problem to solve.
  • Ideate
    where you generate lots of wild, crazy, imaginative ideas that help stretch your thinking and lead you to come up with a new approach to your problem.
  • Develop
    where you refine the tentative solution in order to strengthen it and make it more likely that you can actually implement a breakthrough solution.
  • Implement
    Where you create an action plan and put your ideas into action.

Our students met weekly, using this 4-step process to take their ideas and refine and develop them into innovative and realistic projects.

  1. Design Thinking

The other process we used was design thinking, the human-centered design process whereby designers interview target audience members to understand their emotional needs, create quick and inexpensive prototypes to gauge the audience reaction and test ideas with your audience until they get the best version.

Using these principles, the students identified their target audiences and then conducted interviews with their ideal audience members to learn what they thought about music and how receptive they were to the project ideas. In addition, the students created prototypes of their events to assess the response of their target audience members.

Armed with these findings, the students met to share and synthesize their collective research and refine their project solutions.

Ideas into Action Step 3: Final Projects

At the end of the semester, all 3 groups produced an event and then made a final presentation about their projects in class.  Here is the culmination of their hard work of putting their ideas into action:

  • Dreams of Home

This group started off with the idea of using music to help immigrants and refugees feel welcome in New Haven by hosting an event that would feature music from different countries. They did not want a simple world music concert. Instead, using the creativity problem solving process, they created an event that blended a concert, a jam session and a community gathering.

One of the group’s concerns was that immigrants and refugees had more pressing needs than music, like food, shelter and schools. However, through their audience interviews, they learned that immigrants and refugees resonated powerfully with the importance of music to feeling welcome in a community.

The group did an excellent job reaching out to and coordinating with various organizations around Yale and New Haven which increased the potential audience and the basis of support for future events.  They also decided to hold a raffle with prizes that would be attractive to the immigrant population and they solicited donations from local vendors.

The event took place on a snowy, December evening in the Yale Band Room and featured foreign student performers and composers.  (Originally, one immigrant agreed to perform but in the last minute, he had to cancel.) All of the performers spoke to the audiences about the music and there were 3 call and response songs through which the audience actively participated. The raffle added another special touch. Following the performances, the audience mingled with the performers and organizers and sampled the delicious food that was prepared by an immigrant chef who came to the attention of the group through their outreach to a local organization, Sanctuary Kitchen.

All in all, the format of the event made the audience feel comfortable and relaxed as they listened to the high-quality musical performances.

Finally, in the spirit of design thinking the group examined how they could improve their event and zeroed in on the following:

  • Arrange free transportation to the event,
  • Hold the event at a venue off the Yale campus at a venue that was easily accessible to the immigrant population
  • Present the event at a time of year when they weather would not be an obstacle.

The possibilities for an event like this are huge.  As one of the project group members mused, “an event like this could garner attention on a national scale if it utilized big/famous American, international, immigrant, and refugee musicians.”

Hats off to this group for addressing an important social issue and using music as the vehicle!

  • East Rock Music Box

This group rallied around the mission of finding ways to bring their peers to a classical music event.  Their hypothesis was that their peers liked the music but not the trappings of a traditional classical music concert including the formality and elitism, the separation between the performers and the audience and the length of the pieces.  They also felt that their peers were looking for an intimate and enriching community experience. Accordingly, they used creative problem solving and design thinking to come up with a concert format and program featuring high-quality music in a relaxed setting that would appeal to and engage the 20-something audience.

The group interviewed with members of the Yale community outside the School of Music, as well as friends and acquaintances who were not concert attenders. They used a variety of prototypes, including floor plans of a house concert and pictures of intimate and in some cases edgy, concert experiences.  One group member even took his non-music graduate school friends to several new music concerts to see how they enjoyed the music. The interviews confirmed that their peers were open to attending live events featuring classical music in intimate and informal settings where the audience could participate and engage with the performers.

For the format, the group held the event at the home of one of the group’s members.  They charged a nominal fee to cover food and alcohol in order to reimburse their expenses and pay the musicians.  The event began as a social hour during which the audience and the performers mingled over food and drink. The group also played the music of one of the two composer members of the group to set the tone for the evening. To transition to the performance, the group used separate lighting to highlight the performance area.

For seating, the audience members surrounded the performers, in some cases so close that one audience member said that she could have turned pages for the violinist!  The program included a variety of shorter works, including a Debussy chamber work arranged by one of the members of the group (who also performed with the ensemble), art songs performed by another group member and a solo cello work composed and performed by the other composer-member of the group in which the audience participated by singing a drone. There were plenty of opportunities for relaxed mingled before and after the music and between pieces during the set changes. In fact, as on group member was observed “the musicians walked around the party as quasi celebrities, drinking for free and being sought out for casual discussion.”

Not only was the event a lot of fun but the audience members were deeply engaged in the music and listened very attentively.  In the words of one of the group members, the event was

“ a testament to the intimacy of atmosphere we achieved, and speaks to the delicate balance that I think we achieved between the relaxed feel of an apartment versus the spotlight on performers and awareness of what is happening in the space that such close quarters lend.”

The members of the group were affirmed in their belief that the right atmosphere is critical to the success of  the overall concert experience.

To improve on the event, the group members decided that they needed to advertise and market more effectively in order to attract a wider audience. They also decided that they needed to charge more money and do some fundraising so that they could pay the musicians a fair fee.

The future possibilities of this type of an event are enormous.  One idea is to scale these events and host them in college campuses around the US.  Let’s see how fare East Rock Music Box can take this idea!

  • Story Tellers

This group rallied around the idea of using music to tell the story of an individual in a particular community in an immersive, intimate and novel concert setting.

Initially, the group wanted to confront racial tension as exemplified by the renaming of Yale’s Calhoun College as Grace Hopper College to remove the sting of racism in naming a college for a supporter of the institution of slavery.   The group was inspired by the story of Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper, who earned her Ph.D in mathematics at Yale, in 1934 was the first female admiral in the US Navy and was a pioneer in computer programming.

Using the creativity problem solving process, the group decided to create an inspiring event by focusing on the positive aspects of Grace Hopper’s story. In their audience interviews, they used a terrific prototype , a clip of the Grace Hopper interview on the David Letterman showwhich showcased Dr. Hopper as a brilliant, inspiring and very funny person. (Check out minute 4 of the video where Grace Hopper explains the nanosecond!).  Their target audience members responded very positively to the idea and were receptive to attending an event that celebrated Grace Hopper’s life through music and text.

It took a while for the concept to gel and to generate a compelling musical program but ultimately, through a lot of brainstorming combined with the input from the audience interviews, the group came up with a very innovative concert platform consisting of 4 separate segments each of which had a separate text, a video component and musical performance.  In addition, the group selected movements from different chamber works that dovetailed with the texts to celebrate Grace Hopper’s life

The group presented their event at the Yale School of Music for a diverse audience that included music faculty and students, alumni from Calhoun/Grace Hopper College, adults and children from the greater New Haven community.  They handed out props to explain the concept of the nanosecond that contributed to creating a relaxed, informal and intimate setting.

The audience feedback was very positive and the group plans to give a larger concert this spring.  Ultimately, the goal is to create events that tell the story of someone in a particular community through their novel format.

To improve on the event, the group members learned how to structure their brainstorming sessions more effectively in order to come up with ideas early on, to select the program with more lead time and to make better use of social media to engage more community members.

As always, I am humbled by the amazing ideas that my students come up with and their dedication and hard work to make all of this possible in the course of one short semester.  It fills me with great hope that these music entrepreneurs have the experience of taking ideas into action in order to make the world a better place.