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8 Lessons on Collaboration from Music Improvisation


Thin Air

Thin Air

I play in a band called THIN AIR. This 5-piece ensemble draws from an extensive vocal and instrumental repertoire to create improvised music out of “thin air.” On the surface, this might sound like chaotic fun, but in fact, it’s a practice of intense collaboration that holds many lessons for life beyond music.

Here’s how it works in the band:

  1. We sit together in silence briefly. This gives each individual time to scan the instruments they brought as well as their own mood and energy levels.
  2. An inspired individual steps into the silence confidently to offer a melody or a rhythm. No one judges it or rejects it; it is a gift.
  3. The other players listen and contribute what’s needed according to their own strengths—a strong bass line, a rhythm, a long-tone. Someone might choose to contribute silence.
  4. When a solo is offered, everyone makes space to let it shine. Not everyone gets a solo in every song.
  5. We practice micro-listening … imitating a phrase here, inverting another phrase there. Split-second shifts in tonality and tempo occur as we listen and anticipate one another.
  6. We also practice macro-listening … incorporating a ringing cell phone or swishing wind sounds into the music, recapitulating ideas, and being mindful of how the song is leading us to a natural conclusion.
  7. The results are sometimes magical, sometimes messy, and sometimes both. We keep practicing, trusting that experience will gradually increase the ratio of magic to messy.
  8. We all take a bow and enjoy the applause … even the person who contributed silence!

Here’s the take-away for successful collaborations of any type:

  1. Know what resources and energies you bring to the table.
  2. Value all contributions equally, regardless of size.
  3. Listen and bring your best.
  4. Share leadership and provide mutual support.
  5. Pay attention to details and adapt quickly.
  6. Stay mindful of the big picture and keep scanning the environment.
  7. Patience and consistent effort will pay off.
  8. Celebrate together!


Adapted from a blog written for SAVI, August 2012.

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