There will be good, bad and sometimes ugly when one embarks upon the rocky road of collaboration. I’ve tried it with various partners and have learned the importance of staying true to myself, and my artistic vision.
I had a really enjoyable yet challenging experience when teaming up with guitarist/composer, Philip High. He had an open, outside-the-box mentality toward playing and composing music, while I had come from a classically trained, notation-based, perfectionist-driven background. His loose idea of structure and lack of clear boundaries were like alien creatures to me, but because I respected his talent and his character, I was able to trust his vision. As a result of that trust, I learned to improvise and allow myself to think, feel and play music in a new way.
We created an improvisational pianist/guitarist duo and performed for several years. It worked well and held my interest as I challenged my approach to both improvising and playing piano. That musical experience helped me learn to hear my creative ideas with less judgment, which led to uninhibited bursts of original musical expression in my performances. It was a great collaboration that opened up a new way for my compositional path.
I’ve collaborated with my sister, a flutist, pianist, guitarist and songwriter during family visits. Her musical genre preferences, other than classical, were polar opposite the styles I gravitate toward. Blues, folk, indie rock were her interests and I had no clue how to fit my piano part into that. But thanks to the training I’d had with my former collaborative partner, I was able to go with the flow and find a way to be myself through my piano phrasings and rhythmic contributions. It felt right because I’d built trust in myself and have a close friendship with my sister. We spent many hours jamming out to her songs, Bob Dylan, Dave Matthews and other guitar-based stuff, and somehow it worked. I had to push myself to listen for her groove, without thinking first about my own part. It was outside my comfort zone, but again, I focused on trusting myself and on being a harmonious support to my sister. That sort of selfless focus enabled me to collaborate successfully.
And I’ve had less than stellar experiences that led to parting ways due to incompatibility. I had one of those this past year, in which I worked very hard to compose ten original songs and lyrics based on an author’s script. It was grueling because he didn’t have full clarity in his story, characters or lyric ideas and because his ego constantly got in the way of finding common ground in the artistic endeavor. Still, I pushed myself to let go of my way of thinking in order to grasp his artistic vision, and composed the songs based on that intent. It was mostly like stabbing in the dark, not knowing exactly what his artistic vision was, and due to his lack of communication efforts. But I prodded myself along, pretending he was a client needing music for a project, with the philosophy that he, being the customer, was always right.
When I had finished all the music and completely rewritten lyrics for the musical, he dug his heels in with his stubborn ego. Persuading him to communicate about the revision stage of the project was a struggle. It was through that difficulty that I realized he was not a collaborator and if I wanted to go forward I would have to have enough collaborative spirit for both of us. After much reflection and several attempts at dialogue, I decided to leave the project.
It was tough to walk away from an entire year of work and a complete musical of songs and lyrics. But especially at the point when the work is to go public, collaboration must be trust-based and mutually respectful. Luckily, I had insisted on getting copyrights registered for all our works—and was able to keep all my music. I felt okay to walk away because I had a full musical’s worth of music already finished—enough to write my own story and new lyrics. Though ultimately, the author and I could not see eye to eye, we were able to part ways agreeing to disagree. Frustrated yes–but more importantly, true to our individual artistic intent.
So I’ve learned some things about collaboration. Respect, trust and communication are critical toward successful outcome. You can be as brilliant and genius as you want to be but if you are unable to unite for the good of the work, you are crippling your own progress. Two heads are better than one only if they are able to look in the same direction toward the goal.