Today I was thinking about power in a workshop setting. Who has it, how it manifests itself.

The thought comes in response to something that happened in the first prison workshop, 2 days ago. We started with a briefing session for the creative team – just 15 minutes to gather everyone together and ensure we started with a shared brief or intention. I described my idea for the workshop – but made a quantum leap (as I tend to do) in which I forget to fill everyone in on my thinking that has led to this idea. In this case, I thought we were all clear that our ideal was for the workshop to flow without any obvious form, that we would be responsive to the group, and follow leads that came from the guys. Of course. But in addition, I knew that we would need a back-up, just in case everyone felt inhibited and nothing came from the group. The back-up idea was what I presented.

Basically, (it felt like) several people slammed my idea. Wham, down, just like that. Because they didn’t want us to have a plan, that the workshop should be responsive.  A surprising kind of keen-ness to assert themselves. Maybe we all have our own ambitions for this project (although the aims stated by all of them are more about building relationships and communication that artistic or content-driven aims. Perhaps they have them but are unaware of them.)

And I wondered if they realised how damaging that kind of blocking can be. We would never respond in such a way to one of the prisoners. Why would we do it to each other? Just as we want to bring out the best in the people we work with, don’t we want to bring it out in each other? And if not, isn’t that kind of patronising? To want it for the prisoners – why? Because we feel sorry for them? That’s not an attitude I have ever encouraged in this community outreach program for the orchestra. We go into projects first and foremost as collaborators, and we work with ‘the raw materials as they are on the day’. (That’s a mantra). Non-judging, trusting our own expertise to be able to make all things work, find the strongest music in everything.

In a classical music setting it is not so unusual to block the ideas of others. It is a harsh world. But as educators we know a lot these days about what creates ideal learning environments, and the security that people need to feel in order to offer forth their ideas. We need to practise these ideals in every learning environment we find ourselves in. Anytime we bring out the best in others, we create something better for ourselves.

In a workshop setting, I think there is power within each role. Yes, my role as director gives me power. Ultimately it is my vision for the work that shapes what we do, what we delve into further, what we keep and what we let go.

My style as director is also about creating space. I create space for other people everytime I invite their responses. (Sometimes, in classical music settings, this gets construed as a kind of incompetence – clearly I don’t know what I am doing so I have to ask the players!) I have the sense that some people see this as a kind of weakness or indecision on my part. I see it as a generosity, and a lack of determined ownership).

The musicians and others in the creative team have power because of this space I create for them. They know I will never block them publicly – if I want to adjust or alter something the language I use will not diminish their status as musicians from the orchestra. They know too that if they block me I will not enter into an undignified, unprofessional power struggle.

The music teacher from the prison has a kind of power, that comes from his familiarity with the environment, and the prisoners. He can tell me things would work better another way – though I then have a kind of power in choosing whether to heed his advice or not. We are different musicians and people, S and I, and have a different relationship with the project. I value his input, but have learned, as someone who is always an outside person running a special project, that being the visitor or the guest in a place means the rules about what is possible or what works are not always fixed.

And in the end the guys – the prisoners – have their own power. They can engage with what we do, or not. They can stay or leave. They can veto with their words or their body language. We are so well-meaning when we are there. In fact we are opening ourselves up to them, in a way, in our desire to be well-received, to have an impact.

Interestingly, a little later on, before the workshop had actually started, another of the musicians who had been silent in the debate about content, said to me,

“Wow, I was surprised people were so critical of your idea. I thought it was a good idea, it could work well.”

I appreciated him saying it. It was a good idea. But in the end, we didn’t need it. The session flowed, I was responsive, we tried some things that happened on the spur of the moment, it had a beautiful, natural ebb and flow to it, unforced, happy, relaxed. So there you go. But I will always think it is good to have a Plan B!

1 comment so far

  1. Sue on

    Hey G,

    I found this particularly interesting – what you’re describing happens in a non musical world as well, really in any situation that requires a team to work together. People jockeying for power. I think it’s a way of establishing their own place in the hierarchy – attack the ones they perceive as challenging their position or those who they feel they can take the position of. However, there’s no need to be so aggressive with those they don’t view as “competition”.

    It’s interesting to watch as an outsider, but is very hurtful if you’re the one being slammed – especially when you’re thin-skinned and you don’t care about the hierarchy and just want to get the job done as best you can!

    In this case I wonder how much of the slamming was due to them not liking your idea, and how much of it was them establishing their position of power. We’re such funny animals…



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