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"A Composer Talks Business," Christian Science Monitor

by Michael Colgrass

I was talking with a businessman recently who told me that goal setting was becoming a major topic in industry. Corporations are paying out huge sums to teach young executives such skills as: How do you set a goal? How do you know when you've achieved it?

I was surprised to hear about this, because most of my friends in the arts have been setting goals for themselves since they were children. They knew at an early age what they wanted to do, and with a clear goal in mind they pursued their training and artistic development to get as far as their talent would carry them. "You were lucky," said the businessinan; "most of us don't know what we want to do until much later in life."

After that conversation I wondered if the lessons learned through training in the arts could be transferred to other fields.

Take, for example, goal setting. The basis of goal setting is the "modeling" of human excellence. We choose a model and then measure our progress by comparison. How do you teach that principle? For musicians, the principles of goal setting and modeling are built into the very process of learning to sing or play an instrument. You hear a great performer and try to emulate him or her. I can even remember trying to look like the jazz musicians I idolized when I was 14 years old. I would put on one of my father's suits (the larger size made it look like a "zoot suit") and wear dark glasses so that I could feel the way I thought my idols felt when they played. Laughable as these memories are, I realize now that I was unconsciously learning the process of "modeling," which I later applied to many other things in my life.

Take another important ability in business: leadership. We all need to be leaders at some point in our lives, as parents, professionals or otherwise. In my view a good leader is someone who can utilize the skills of other people.

I once watched a great theater director give a class for budding young directors. Two actors were involved in a difficult action scene of the sort directors are often called upon to handle: one was to portray a character asleep on a bed and the other a character trying to assassinate him with a knife. The directing students were asked to help the actors give a convincingly dramatic performance. It seemed an easy task, but in fact the scene turned out to be rather comical, with the actors over-acting and grunting while trying to follow the many complicated and confusing suggestions.

Then the master director jumped on stage and whispered one sentence to each of the actors, and they did the scene again. This time the drama was hair-raising, and everyone in the class wanted to know what the director had told the actors to make it succeed. His directions had been simple. To the actor on the bed he had said: "When he attacks you, get up and off the bed." To the other: "When you attack him, hold him down on the bed." Instead of telling them how to do the scene, he gave them a very simple instruction that would make the dramatic outcome of the scene inevitable. That the actors would later be able to repeat the scene effectively without the presence of the director showed the quality of his leadership.

Training in the arts can also teach us to be assertive. One of the best examples I have seen of "assertiveness training" was in a modern-dance class. The teacher was giving an improvisation workshop, and people were dancing around the room to baroque music. In one area of the room I noticed two men and a woman dancing together. One of the men dominated and completely won the woman's attention, with the result that the other man receded, dancing off to a corner by himself. The instructor went over to the man and said, "What are you going to do about that?," with the result that he rejoined the pas de trois and, by maneuvering in an imaginative way, regained a position of status.

Weeks later the man reported that this incident in the workshop had been very important to him. It made him realize that he had been living his life in a passive manner, generally letting others decide for him what his next action should be. He then decided he wasn't going to live that way anymore. The lesson he learned was, I think, particularly effective because he experienced it in an atmosphere of creativity and play.

Achieving goals, taking initiative, accomplishing a task by a deadline, performing under pressure - these challenges are built into the very process of acting, dancing, directing, etc., and can be a natural basic training for any profession.

I had a memorable experience recently auditioning children for a musical play. Each of the 12- to 14-year-olds was required to sing, dance, and act to pass the audition. One girl gave a good reading and sang well, but when I asked her to dance she said, "I can't." Looking at her, I thought she would be a natural dancer, so I pointed to my hand and said, "See that feather?" The other kids waiting to audition thought I was crazy, of course, because there was no feather in my hand. I walked over to her very slowly, took her hand, and placed "the feather" in her palm. "Now, whatever you do don't drop it," I said and put on the music.

Slowly, she began to move across the stage, testing the lightness of the feather. As she got the feel of it she began to dip her body this way and that and, gaining confidence, raised her hand high in the air - palm up, of course - and turned in circles. (At one point, one of the kids whispered, "She dropped it!") She finished with a flourish and then walked backward off stage, crouching as she disappeared into the darkness. The scene was so magical the other children applauded her. Then she walked over to me and said, "May I keep the feather?"

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