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They're Playing Our Song

A unique night of music contains lessons for our industry

Geoffrey H. FletcherI WAS LUCKY ENOUGH recently to be part of a small audience that witnessed a very interesting concert performance. Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard assembled a group of musicians he has played with in the Seattle area over the past 20 years, and together they put on a show, The HankKhoir, inspired by the work of country music legend Hank Williams. The musicians, of all genres from jazz to country to funk, to straight-ahead rock 'n' roll, teamed up in different combinations for two hours. They covered songs by various artists, but all played at least one tune they had written themselves. Every song had a connection to Hank Williams (although I am still struggling to see the link between Williams and Grace Jones).

Assembling musicians of various genres in support of a theme has become fairly commonplace, dating as far back as George Harrison's Concert for Bangladesh. What was unique about HankKhoir was Gossard's wish that musicians not only play on songs from genres outside their usual territory, but also play their own songs in a way that departed from their original recordings. One of the participants, folk rocker Pete Droge, told me, "He said we needed to open up, reimagine our songs, and don't play it like the record."

The result was two hours of some of the most interesting, artful music I have heard. It worked. Why? "Leadership," Droge said. "Stone had a vision for the evening, and he had the confidence in all of us that it could work. It was risky, but the risk was shared by everyone, especially Stone. If he was willing to go out there and play in a way he wasn't used to, so would we. We all were in his orbit; we had no egos and we had that strength, that gravitas, with Stone at the core."

The other factor was trust. The musicians had only a few rehearsals, so they had to trust in Gossard's vision and in the talent around them. Droge said that one of his songs, "Under the Waves," had never been backed by a band; he played all the instruments on the recording. Through three rehearsals, one sound check, and the live event, the presence of the band made the song different each time, "and it fell in perfectly every time."

What's the lesson to be taken here? Successful ed tech programs have some of the same elements as HankKhoir: a visionary leader who challenges strong professionals to get out of their comfort zones, and a staff with the confidence and trust in that leader's vision to allow it to stretch and grow. The tools are important, no doubt, but the vision and willingness to try something different is vital. Get outside yourself and reimagine what you do. You might make beautiful music.

This article originally appeared in the October 1, 2009 issue of THE Journal.

About the Author

Geoffrey H. Fletcher is the deputy executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA).