The I in Team

If you are a keen musician, and you want to give a concert at the glorious Foundling Museum, where I am fortunate enough to be Public Events Programmer, you are required to fill in a form that I designed not long after starting the job. It’s not particularly complicated. You tell me your name and your contact details, give me a bit of information about yourself and a link to a recording, and then propose a programme. So far, so simple, eh? But then there’s a final question, and this is where quite a few people lose their way. I want to know why you want to perform specifically at the Foundling Museum. Why there, why you, why this programme? I’ll give you a hint: the correct answer does not involve treating the building as a neutral space, devoid of all context, in which you can come and perform the latest Beethoven sonata you’ve mastered. It’s a place with a story of its own. A story which might, in fact, mesh with your musical musings, with a little thought and effort. If I think we can work together – really actually have a meaningful interaction between art, music, story, building – then I’m far more likely to invite you to perform. The best performances have always been the ones in which location and musicians work together.

Between research discussions, event planning, lecturing and presenting this week, I have been thinking a great deal about how people work together. In the humanities, most of us spend quite a bit of our time on our own. We probably research alone, spend quite a bit of time in libraries and archives on our own, present conference papers on our own, and write essays, articles and books on our own. We are independent units and our personal research interests are what drives our work, which means we are also concerned to find ways to make those ideas interesting and relevant to other people. Unlike science subjects, group research and publication are less common. And similarly, if you’re a solo performer (and pianists are particularly prone to this – I speak from experience), the chances are that you spend quite a lot of time on your own, practising and listening and reading. Plus the fact that, since being ‘the big soloist’ is often still regarded as the peak of a musician’s potential career trajectory, aspiring to alone time is actually considered more desirable than working with others.

Some universities have tried to combat the seemingly rather hermit-like nature of their humanities academics by forming research groups and clusters within departments. The idea is that it encourages people to work together on something more than they could achieve on their own. The problem comes with the fact that the verb ‘encourage’ can sometimes translate as ‘insist that’, and thus irritate or depress the scholars by telling them that they can’t work on the research area that they really want to. Similarly, publishing an academic book might involve undertaking a lot of unexpected jobs in collaboration with other people (making marketing materials, for instance, or producing indexes and sourcing image permissions) whilst the publisher might exert control over aspects of the book that the writer(s) expected to be able to control themselves, so that they feel their sense of agency over ‘their’ book to be dented or reduced. And increasingly (and by ‘increasingly’ I mean ‘that I’ve personally noticed’, though perhaps it’s always been this way), university students seem to offer their undivided attention in a group workshop only when the material considered is directly targeted at them, with little interest in what advice or suggestions are given to other participants, even if this might also be of serious benefit to everyone in the class.

Team of people knocking fists over a table

This is not to say, of course, that working alone cannot be enormously beneficial and lead to a particular kind of discovery, or book, or performance that the group environment would simply not produce. In fact, it’s not exactly the reluctance of some people to work with others that I find so interesting, as the idea that the very possibility of considering collaborative projects could lead to something equally fascinating. And, indeed, that this is borne out in numerous historical and current examples. Think of your favourite film. Your favourite opera or musical. Your favourite play. Probably also your favourite novel, since the chances are there was an editor in there as well as an author (and the designer, the cover artist…). Even a solo piano sonata needs a composer and a performer, and those two people are seldom one and the same.

Now think of the last time you could have collaborated with another person and didn’t. It doesn’t have to be a utopian creative venture. Perhaps you could have helped a struggling parent carry their pram up the Underground steps but were in a hurry. Maybe you were in a public talk and overheard a conversation behind you that you liked the sound of, was interesting and relevant to the event, and didn’t quite dare to turn around and join in. Did you go to the front after a conference paper, having loved the research that you’d heard, and not quite have the courage to ask if they’d be willing consider writing a journal article with you on your own, closely related subject? Did you send off the umpteenth concert proposal this week to a venue that’s not a concert hall and not consider that the venue itself might provide some inspiration for your programme?

We spend a lot of our time in a rush, there’s no denying it: from too many academic meetings to crammed rehearsal schedules, fitting in teaching to pay the bills, research days squashed into midnight caffeine-fuelled book binges and weekends we don’t get to have off. Now and again, it’s worth looking up from the place where we most often ‘collaborate’ – liking, retweeting and commenting on social media – to the people we’re in a room with. Sometimes we’re in that room every week, and class after class could provide advice aimed at someone else that has surprising and profound resonance for us as well. But sometimes we’re only brief visitors, and there’s only one shot to try for some teamwork. Not every collaboration will work, and not every would-be partner will want to share. But it’s worth asking, isn’t it? Together, we can make amazing things.

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