Three and a Half Bestsellers
By Eric Booth
Bookstores place the bestsellers out front. Even online, the bestsellers appear on the homepage. Well, duh. It’s Marketing 101.
Clearly, I missed that course. In a lifetime of producing new stuff and moving on, my store of offerings is a jumble. I realized on a recent vacation that amid the jumble.com of my professional output, there are three and a half ideas that people refer the most, and even those are buried amid the decades of stacks of other well-intended items. These “bestsellers” have found their way into a variety of locations and applications, in the arts, as well as in education, business, medicine, religion and more. I hear them pop out of other people’s mouths as their own, which is partly flattering and partly unsettling. I may be decades late to Marketing 101, but in this essay, I put my bestsellers out front for people to grab and possibly use. Even Amazon can’t beat my price.
Before I name and present these rounded-up-to four ideas (and perhaps to build up a little marketing interest with the drama of delay), I must address two non-traditional frameworks I use about the arts. These perspectives color everything that follows, so we must pause in the store’s vestibule to: redefine art, and then to clarify what I mean by audience. That’s all.
In the U.S. we define art by its nouns: individual works in artistic media, art buildings, items deemed art by experts. Particular nouns may spark debate: Is a large Brillo box a work of art? Is a Ricky Martin concert? Is Dancing with the Stars?—and what if one of the dancing stars is a certified artist? Is the Star Wars Overture performed by The Philadelphia Orchestra a work of art? I don’t engage in that kind of debate; I say “wrong question.” Art lives in a quality of experience far more than the object one is attending to. Indeed, I believe what distinguishes entertainment is that it happens within what we already know. Whatever our reaction—laughing, crying, getting excited—underneath, entertainment says, “Yes the world is the way you think it is.” Entertainment confirms. And this feels great; I will pay serious money to have highly skilled people create marvelous expressions of my worldview. It is empowering and comfortable fun.
Art, on the other hand, happens outside of what we already know. Inherent in the artistic experience is the capacity to expand our sense of the way the world is or might be. This amazing human imaginative, empathetic capacity provides the artistic experience. It isn’t the particular noun one is attending to that provides the art; art lies in the individual’s capacity to enter a “noun” one is attending to, any noun, and expand her sense of the possible. Yes, of course, the quality of what you are attending to matters, and, certainly, great “artworks” are exquisitely designed to reward an individual’s investment of the verbs of art (humans haven’t designed anything more rewarding than master artworks), but the nouns don’t produce the artistic experience, only the verbs do that. I have had many dialogues with people about their experiences of what most of us would agree is not art—pop and rock music, club dancing, Neil Simon plays, Thomas Kinkade paintings, Jack Black films—and the descriptions of their experiences make it clear they are having artistic experiences. They may be looking at entertainment schlock by my standards, but the experiences they are having open their world wider, resonate in them, and leave them changed and more interested in the world. They don’t say this because our social norms inhibit this moment, but they have every right to say, “How dare you demean my experience by condescending to give it a second rate label.”
Most Americans define art by the nouns, especially those high-art fancy nouns, and people in the arts tend to do everything they can to affirm that specialness, even though it works against their longterm interests. Most Americans feel they are allowed to visit, adhering to the rules and finances of the art world’s ways, but viscerally feel they have no real place in that world. Most Americans struggle with the verbs that create an artistic experience in the encounter with complex artworks, while they naturally and frequently engage those same verbs in “non arts” parts of their lives. They see something defined as “art”; they don’t have a rewarding or relevant personal experience (or at least not an experience that fits with a high ticket price); so they decide the arts are not for them. Meanwhile they are having arts experiences in bits and pieces throughout their lives, but don’t connect them with the arts at all.
Given those realities, I define art as a quality of experience, and believe all of us have the job of supporting people’s capacity to have such experiences. Everyone in the arts has the same job title—write it on your business card: agent of artistic experience. The musician, the choreographer, the lighting designer, the usher, the assistant marketing director, the sculptor, the museum janitor, all, all have the same job to support people’s capacity to have artistic experiences, expanding their sense of the way the world is or may be.
Second, in thinking about how we bring people into arts experiences, we must divide the people we are talking about into two groups. Group A is “the art club”—the small minority of Americans who feel comfortable, enthusiastic, and at home inside “the arts.” Members know how to “speak” at least one of its languages, understand how to navigate its offerings, and feel excitedly welcome in its buildings. I estimate that some seven percent of Americans are card-carrying Art Club members. There is another significant percentage who like the Club and show up more or less often; they pick up a temporary card upon entry, but don’t identify themselves as Club members. The Group B audience is everyone else—the vast majority of Americans, those who don’t have a feel for “the arts” as commonly defined, who may think of the arts in positive ways, but not as a part of their identity or lives. They may attend sometimes, but that becomes a special occasion. Another way to think about these two groups is as the arts insiders and the arts outsiders.
Art Club members can turn artistic encounters into personal gold. They can find meaning in artworks that are widely accessible (like Shakespeare and Monet) and in more complex works (like Pina Bausch and Philip Glass). Group B lacks the background that enables them to reliably and confidently make meaning of an artistic encounter. Art Club members can read the program notes at the symphony and turn the information into enhanced experience of the music; Group B reads the those same traditional program notes and feels less welcome and less able to successfully connect inside the symphonic listening. Art Club members feel their pulse quicken and attention sharpen when they enter the concert hall; Group B feels insecurity and self-consciousness rise (they might screw up and be embarrassed), and their attention gets more fragmented. Granted, everyone gets lucky sometimes—serendipitous transformative encounters do happen—“Wow,” and “Aha” hits everyone. Family and cultural background strongly influence Club membership, but anyone may be stopped dead in her tracks looking at Disney Concert Hall, may begin to weep when hearing the Ode to Joy inside the Disney Hall, and may love life anew seeing Alvin Ailey’s Revelations. In addition to lucky thunderbolts, the capacities for making meaningful artistic encounter can be learned (and deepened in those who already know how); people can develop a taste for, a feel for, a place in the arts in a variety of ways. This is partly (although decreasingly) why we have arts education in schools. This is why nearly every arts organization has outreach programs. This is why, increasingly, artists learn how to engage with a wide public to help draw people in. This is why teaching artists are so important. My three and a half bestsellers are all ideas that emerge from my thirtysomething years of practice as a teaching artist.
Please remember those two frameworks: focus on the verbs of art more than the nouns, and recognition that there are two very different groups we must consider in talking about “audiences.” Those frameworks underlie my three and a half bestselling ideas:
First Bestseller: Entry point
How do help people enter a work of art? How do you help people enter any complex body of information, any particular “world”?
Different fields answer that question with different traditions of guidance, but the most common way in all fields is to give people information. We introduce young people to the water cycle or the Renaissance or Picasso’s Guernica by telling them about it or having them read about it. A realtor tells you about the house on the way to see it. A tour guide tells you about the Alamo as you walk around it. Even in the arts, which are fundamentally experiential by nature, we give information in the program notes, and pre-performance talks “tell” about the world of the work.
There is nothing inherently wrong with this approach; however, it has serious limitations that we don’t consider when we apply it mechanically (and almost universally) as a strategy. To change the status quo, to outgrow limitations, we have to examine and challenge the automatic application of traditions. I will focus mostly the way we do things in the arts, because that is my main area of practice, and there is pressing need to change the status quo. However, these same ideas about entry point have served provocatively and well in many fields, including projects that have allowed me to experiment them in business, education, medicine, public relations, engineering, and even religion.
How can we take best advantage of the opportunity to guide people into satisfying artistic encounters (or engaging encounters with new areas in any field)? We instinctively, traditionally, do it by 1) giving information, and 2) giving it horizontally, as a buffet of information that serves up various kinds of entry points. We try to make the invitations to connect to the focal artwork “interesting,” which is why charisma is valued so highly. We hope the participant will find some parts of the smorgasbord particularly suited to individual taste and will use the information we have served up to enhance their experience in the encounter that follows.
Art Club members play this game well; they can take information (often even when presented in dull ways) and turn it into enhanced experience with the artwork. For that vast majority of Americans who comprise Group B, information does not help them into greater satisfaction. It may interest them, or give them something to do in with their attention instead of uncomfortably flailing, or indeed it may distance them (which is all too common), but it is not an effective or reliable strategy for bringing people into resonant experiences. Providing a variety of kinds of information—“let me tell you several things about the composer, the historical time, and the symphony’s structure”—may make the intervention seem less didactic, even more entertaining, but it doesn’t make it an effective tool for helping most people connect in ways that matter. Yes, it may help them see the repeated patterns in the choreography or notice the composer’s use of rondo form or reference to a folk melody, but the satisfaction of identification is thin experiential gruel. This kind of cerebral identification of elements that the expert has directed our attention to is not personally consequential enough, not delicious enough, to bring someone back—not enough to deliver the life-value required to make the arts a more appealing choice for scarce discretionary time and money than the many easier, cheaper and more stimulating offerings all around us. The recognition of the way the main theme recapitulates in the second movement is a fine thing to notice, but without a strong emotional or spiritual connection to the music, few are inclined to buy another ticket or work so attentively next time. This is why I challenge even the deep tradition of introducing youth audiences to the orchestra through identification of the instrument families—there is some satisfaction in getting the identification game “right,” but it is among the least resonant, human, relevant discoveries a young person might find in discovery of an orchestra. Too often, the effort-reward ratio for Group B makes that situation a poor investment of attention, time, and money—and we lose a precious opportunity to open up the powerful impact that we know is contained within these works of art. Notice the idiom: pay attention. It costs us something. We invest the effort of our attention in expectation of a good return on that investment (ROI). If we don’t get a reasonably good ROI—we paid attention but didn’t get much of personal value in return—we are less likely to invest the next time, or we may even choose not to attend that kind of offering because the ROI was inadequate.
The strategy I recommend, and that has worked with arts organizations large and small is this: 1) select one entry point (rather than a buffet of several) and invest in it, and 2) bring people through that entry point experientially, to engage them, remembering “engagement before information.”
Every rich artwork has many valid and interesting possible entry points. If I sought to prepare you to have a richer encounter with Hamlet, I could select among a dozen fascinating (to me) gateways into its greatness. I could select the story of Hamlet’s seeming madness—does he go crazy or not, what is his indecisiveness about, and how do we know? Or we could think about the design of the primary plotlines and how they intersect. We could trace Hamlet’s relationship with his peers—Horatio, Laertes, Rosencranz and Guildenstern, Fortinbras, or we could look at the religious and political norms of Shakespeare’s time that he imposes on an imagined earlier Danish Elsinore. All interesting, especially to me who got to play the role three times. In thirty years of teaching artistry, I learned that that the powerful strategy is to resist my natural impulse to explore several pathways into the work with you, and instead, pick one entry point, and lead audiences into it experientially.
An entry point is a distinctive aesthetic feature of the work with enough dynamic relevance that many people will be able to apply it to parts of their own lives to discover meaningful relevance. For Hamlet I might pick a central dilemma he deals with throughout the play: to what degree can you trust and act on non-logical experiences?
As an example of using an entry point well, teaching artist/violist David Wallace was giving a performance of Igor Stravinsky’s Elegy for Solo Viola, his only solo viola composition. Written in memory of Germain Prévost, the original violist in the storied Pro Arte Quartet, it was commissioned by the quartet’s founding first violinist Alphonse Onnou. The stories of connection and history are interesting and heartfelt, and talking about them would be a reasonable way to warm up an audience—this is the traditional approach for the Art Club. Especially since Pro Arte is celebrating its centennial anniversary as the longest continuous quartet in history. However, David selected a different entry point: What happens to people in the journey of grief? He chose a single entry point, and built his preparatory activities to experientially engage his audience with that relevant human question that Stravinsky and almost every other human has faced.
Here is how David Wallace’s interactive performance unfolded. He asked the audience his entry point question: What happens to people in the journey of grief? In a brief back and forth, they all established that much more than sadness appears in us. They began to name other states that arise: exhaustion, anger, feeling lost, love, bursts of clarity and appreciation of being alive, laughter, lethargy, and more. David selected several and asked the audience to explore what those emotions might sound like on his viola—trying out their suggestions for sonic equivalents, and asking them to help him play what they were hearing in their heads. When participants would use some descriptive words that captured a feeling well, David might play a couple of quick excerpts from Stravinsky’s piece that were like that creation of their own. He did this for four or five of the emotions. Then he had the group reflect on transitions between different emotions during grief—how do these tend to go. People shared ideas. David tried out their ideas musically, with their guidance, to capture the feel of changing emotions during the journey of grief. He then played a few samples from the work, so they could hear how Stravinsky presented transitions. Then he played the composition. The impact, as you can imagine, was powerful. The listening was packed with opportunities to discover and make connections. A sad piece, by a single instrument, was transformed into an exploration between composer, performer and audience, into one of life’s most poignant truths. Group B members of the audience could listen successfully, and were able to do so—they pushed their uncertainty aside, and connected with the grief experiences they had lived through. Group B listeners weren’t listening to identify places on a musical map or transition techniques, but discovered and experienced their way through the journey in the improvisation of engaged listening. Even Art Club members found their listening enhanced—they forgave the breach of traditional protocol of having the artist and audience talk aloud, because the payoff was so palpable and rewarding. David experimented and turned a good performance into explosive engagement.
How do you select a good entry point? How do you invite people to enter an artwork or other focal experience experientially? Those are the two key questions, and there are no formulaic answers. You ask those questions again and again, and answer anew at each new opportunity. These two questions and answering processes become a habit of mind for teaching artists and arts learning organizations who seek to connect to wider audiences in deeper ways. Indeed, the arts needs to adopt those two questions as primary habits of mind to bring regularly into the work, resulting in frequent experimentation to inflame the quality of engagement.
To select a good entry point—a crucial choice since that becomes the idea you put all your chips upon—I recommend the following process. Begin by encountering the work again yourself. Come back to that artwork afresh, and keep a sharp eye out for the aspects of the work that particularly turn you on, excite you, as you are in your life and career and experience today. Look first for the aspects of that work that feel hot for you. (And I often tell artists, if you don’t find something has you burning with excitement, choose another work—life is too short and opportunities too precious to settle for ordinary engagements.)
Once you have penciled in a couple or a few possible entry points that turn you on, brainstorm aspects of the work that you have a hunch will be especially interesting and relevant to this particular audience at this time and place. If you don’t really know who the audience might be, or if you have been told about the audience (say fourth graders) but don’t have a personal sense of what makes such people light up, or if it is a Group B audience and you don’t really know what makes them tick, you have some homework to do. Don’t make assumptions about an audience you don’t know, because you are probably going to be wrong. Remember that having false assumptions imposed alienates anyone, and those assumptions appear in a hundred different ways, so they are going to show. Do your homework—-ask around, hang around with some of them, maybe do an interview or two, to get a feel for the nature of the group you are going to be with. I used to assign my Juilliard students who were going to spend a year with a particular classroom of elementary school students to begin by interviewing two students, at length. They were always surprised, even shocked, to discover how music really lives in those young lives, and where the possible entry points for classical music might lie. People in the arts who perform for young audiences—when was the last time you took the time to learn about young people’s artistic thinking, interests, aesthetic hot zones?
The next step of the process is to line up an entry point that is “hot” for you with one that you are pretty sure is going to be exciting and relevant for the group you will be with. Pick the one that seems to match both sets of interests—it should feel intriguing, fun, even challenging.
There is a third element you want to check in on, but I have never seen the first two criteria line up without the third being naturally in place. This is making sure that the entry point represents a genuinely significant aspect of the artwork—maybe not one of the academic expert’s key top three features of the work, but a legitimately important feature. This is just to double check in that you are not picking an eccentric peripheral feature that would be of interest to you and the learners, but wouldn’t illuminate the whole of the experience of the artwork. For example, you and a group of six graders might be fascinated by pirates in the Elizabethan era, but that would not be a strong entry point for an experience of Hamlet, even though they have a cameo mention.
The one final nuance I would add to selecting a strong entry point is that it gains power if it can be presented as a great question. A great question is one that has an immediate grab, an emotional or intellectual bite; a great question launches a rich answering process; a great question almost-irresistibly invites people to discover personal relevance in answering. David Wallace’s performance was not build around the question, “What Makes Stravinsky’s Elegy for Solo Viola a great artwork?” but rather, “What is the sound of the journey of grief”?
Let me give another example of entry point from another artistic discipline. Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington DC invests in this way of connecting to audiences. Instead of preparing Art Club audiences to have good experiences with their productions, they are hungry to provoke “explosive engagement” with a wider audience that includes many Group B attendees. If you always do what you’ve always done, you will always get what you always got. The arts can’t afford traditional engagement any longer; we need explosive engagement. The traditional ways we prepare audiences are fine for producing what we always get; if you want to change that, try adopting and experimenting with the idea of entry point. At Woolly Mammoth they design a suite of activities to engage with the public in their surrounding DC community, interactions that theatrically investigate a key entry point for each play. These activities seek to engage people who have an active stake in a theme of the play, and draw out their personal voice with others to enrich everyone’s understanding of the world of the play. They call this endeavor to explosively engage an audience for each play Connectivity, and they have boldly positioned it as one of the pillars of their theater’s future.
For example, in practice, Woolly Mammoth did not design their public engagement for the play Oedipus El Rey (an adaptation of Oedipus Rex set in Chicano gang culture) around the question, “What If Oedipus lived in a Chicano barrio?” This would have been a perfectly plausible marketing hook, but it spoke only to the Art Club members who already give a rip about Oedipus. Instead, they built their Connectivity program around the question, “Can we change the cycles of destiny that determine our lives?” That is a question of relevance for members of the Art Club and Group B. (Think about it—have you been able to make those changes in your own life? Have you challenged your family expectations, your ethnic heritage, aspects of culturalization you don’t like, your addictions?) Their Connectivity plan enabled them to launch electrifying conversations all over DC, and inside their theater, because we all live that question, have a personal stake in it, and can learn from the particularly profound ideas to this relevant question that Sophocles and playwright Luis Alfaro have to offer. Connectivity is built upon their investing in a single potent entry point, and they design as many ways as they can manage to draw people all over Washington DC into experiential exploration of that entry point. Those explorations happen inside and outside the theater, and everyone one is a theatrical investigation of a powerful, relevant entry point.
So there is your entry point challenge—why and how to select one. This same concept can apply to a festival, to a season, to a series, to a citywide arts endeavor, to a subject of study in school, to a project in a business, to a legislative agenda. As a teaching artist, I have helped others design entry points for each of those learning opportunities. The next question shifts to the ways we can bring people through that entry point experientially. The question of how.
The how of bringing participants into an entry point requires a booklength answer to explore properly. (Indeed, I did write a book about it, entitled The Music Teaching Artist’s Bible. In spite of its primary focus on music, it is written for teaching artists of all disciplines.) Teaching artistry is the how. TAs devise ways for others to creatively engage in experiences that shed light on a new world they are preparing to encounter. This essay will just glance at some of the key ideas of teaching artistry. David Wallace had the entry point idea of the sonic life of a grief journey, and his teaching artistry devised ways to actively engage the audience in exploring that idea. He designed a sequence of activities that I partially described, which were welcoming, inherently engaging, scaled to the skills and interests of his particular audience, and scaffolded to start easy and gain in complexity at each step, leading the audience experientially deeper into the relevant terrain of the work under study, with reflective moments to help participants discover what they know and prepare them to link to. These are key tools of teaching artistry: meeting participants where they are in terms of understandings and interests, establishing creatively conducive environments quickly, tapping their innate competences in fun and satisfying ways, asking provocative questions, scaffolding a series of steps that are complete in themselves and lead to richer questions, engaging people in a surprising variety of ways, and providing reflective opportunities.
To learn more about entry points or teaching artistry, read my book mentioned above, or check out many available essays on my website (ericbooth.net) or read David Wallace’s excellent book Reaching Out. I hope you get a sense of the wide applicability of the notion of entry point. It has served many well. After a workshop with me, the Marketing Department of a major orchestra decided to have one staff member be in charge of listening to all the pieces on a program and decide an entry point for marketing each evening, which informs all the marketing for that evening, down to the way the folks who answer the phones for the orchestra speak about each program. Woolly Mammoth Theatre goes through an elaborate process to decide the Connectivity entry point for each play in their season, and it informs every part of the public engagement and identity of that production. (It is worth adding that the Woolly Mammoth process that determines that entry point, including not just staff members but also Board and community stakeholders, forges an unusually powerful and dynamic commitment to the importance of each play, just as they begin to commit their full organizational energy to mounting it.) A major arts presenter offers two “festivals” a year, built around a theme or idea, and they now identify an entry point for the public identity of each festival. A string quartet creates an entry point right along with each new program they decide to prepare, so the program and its broad invitation are linked.
A new project of mine, the Orchestra Engagement Lab, is a co-commissioning project where orchestras begin by joining in a retreat where we not only explore a theme with the composer and a featured musician, but also with a team of teaching artists who concurrently explore possible entry points that will open the work wider to many Group B audiences even as the piece is being composed. The result after the intensive weeklong retreat, and then a year of experimentation with the artists and the work, is a new commission, with a clear entry point suggested, and a buffet of tested ways to engage new Group B audiences (as well as Art Club members) in the artwork through the entry point activities.
Second Bestseller: Engagement Before Information
…including bonus half idea
This second bestselling idea of mine can be seen as a subset of the Entry Point idea, because it is about the how of bringing people through an entry point. It deserves its own identity because it challenges our norms, and makes many in the Art Club uncomfortable.
As we saw in the Entry Point section, engaging people in preparatory activities is what activates their discovery of relevance when they enter the artwork. For people in the Art Club, giving information works as a way to engage. Art Club members know how to read or hear about the genesis of an artwork or its historical context, and have that information prompt a hundred adjustments in the way they actually experience the artwork, to make for greater connection and satisfaction. It is a sophisticated capacity, a wonderful collection of knowledge and skill to be able to do that. It isn’t fair that such a majority of Americans have not been taught this skillset. It opens worlds of experience that the arts contain, and experiencing the wealth the arts contain is a universal birthright. Belief in this human right drives the widespread effort to open “the arts” as we now think of them to wider audiences. This urgency makes the skills of teaching artistry invaluable.
Learning what was going on in Shastakovich’s life right at the time he composed a particular symphony enables that Art Club listener to hear more, to discover more, to find greater satisfaction. For the vast majority of Americans, learning what was going on in Shastakovich’s life right at the time he composed a symphony does NOT empower them to discover more, find greater relevance and satisfaction, in the symphony. On the contrary, it makes them less able to make personally relevant connections. It might make them think about historical connections, and might interest them about the difficulties in the composer’s life, but when the music begins, those intellectual prompts are unlikely turn into satisfying discoveries inside the music. (Just as youngsters who are listening to a symphony for the first time may be able to think, “OK, so that is the brass family playing loudly now,” just as we have instructed them to listen—but that is among the least powerful ways they could be applying their attention.) The irony is that if they were first engaged experientially, and had a positive experience of the music with a good teaching artist, they would then be curious for more information and would take in more and retain it longer. That is the irony: for those in Group B, the vast majority of Americans, when information is used as engagement it almost always distances them from making personally relevant connections; yet when they are engaged experientially and have a positive experience of the artwork, they want information afterwards and find it valuable. That is why the preposition before is the key word in this idea: engagement before information.
Here we encounter the how question: How do we engage a wide audience in a particular artwork, if giving information is not an expedient solution? I don’t have a simple answer for you because there is no simple answer. However, I can assure you that that is the right question, and our mission is to ask it again and again, each time we are challenged to connect an audience and an artwork. The how of engaging audiences is the art of the teaching artist. And it is an art, so there is no simple handbook of fifty guaranteed-to-engage activities. There are resources you can turn to for inspiration, but the art is in the particularity—the specific entry point for a specific work and a specific audience.
How can we engage this audience in this artwork on this occasion? There is your mantra. I tell those who commit to the work of widening inclusion among Americans in arts experiences to get used to that question because they are going to be asking it for the rest of their aspiring years. Remember Rilke’s advice to a young poet to come to love the questions themselves? The ongoing answering is the work I have invited a lifetime of colleagues into—the aspiring community of those who are committed to the social justice of aesthetic experience, those who have the feel for the art of engagement, those who have the creative patience and resilience to keep asking and answering and getting better all the time. There is a modest library of books and essays of teaching artist activities available to consider and adapt, and certainly call on colleagues to help you come up with experiments to try. But nothing replaces the feel for the creating-experimenting process of active engagement.
Yes, information has great value. People in the arts (particularly in classical music) want to use information as engagement so badly they insist it can be the best method of engagement sometimes. I fight them to resist that assumption. If I say yes to a particular suggestion, they look so relieved, as if they had dodged a bullet. What they did was dodge the challenge. The pull toward using information is strong, especially in the classical music world, and, yes, the challenge of answering the key question of engagement is difficult, unfamiliar, even uncomfortable. Too bad. Press on; it is only new learning, learning beyond a lifetime of assumptions and familiar ways of doing things, even beyond the practices that work for you personally. The process has its pleasures, and remember how important the answering is—opening up the experiential treasures of the arts to those who haven’t had the good fortune to be prepared to receive them. Taking on this challenge is the essential way to revitalize the arts in this country. If you don’t take on this challenge, you don’t get to complain about diminishing audiences, about people “not getting” the arts in this culture, about the state of arts in America—because you prefer to be part of the comfortable problem rather than part of the challenging solution. Engagement before information is a mantra that reminds us that we have many ways that actually work to make the encounter a new audience member’s encounter with an artwork, even a challenging one, rewarding and satisfying enough for them to want more.
Bonus half bestselling idea: Enabling constraints
This notion almost found a full place on the best selling ideas rack, but it is really a subset of the last, and it isn’t really mine, so it becomes a bonus half. I have heard this idea adapted and adopted with a long life after I introduce it to an organization. It is a way of thinking about engaging people effectively, using enabling constraints.
Colleagues have suggested various arts teachers as the first to name this concept, but I don’t know its actual origin. I first heard it from the mouth of my colleague Tom Cabaniss, the composer, writer, and master teaching artist, mor than ten years ago. I presume to include this term of someone else’s in my list of personal bestselling ideas because I have used it relentlessly, and many people connect it with me.
It is a philosophical paradox with practical implications. The idea: limitation can enhance freedom. By guiding people into a challenge that is constrained with limited choices, you can empower them to learn more, to go deeper, to find greater success. Artists deal with constraints all the time—the canvas is 13” by 22”, the play must have two acts and run less than 100 minutes—and the creator often uses them to advantage. The conventions of an art form are enabling constraints—rondo form and concerto relationships, monologue and dialogue, etc. Artists play with those expectations in every artwork, and there is excitement around the edges. Even when innovators boldly challenge those conventions, they don’t challenge them all, they challenge some of the expected constraints with powerful effect. If they challenged them all at the same time, the work would lose communicative focus. Merce Cunningham challenged the use of narrative but adhered to many other elements of the language of choreography. Stravinsky challenged tonality but kept (and emphasized) many other parts of orchestral language. Harold Pinter was a profound explorer of enabling constraints—his plays look entirely traditional on the page, but challenge productions to delve deep into the silences between the lines to surface the truth of the play that cannot be said in words.
Teaching artists (TAs) design activities of finite scope that enable participants to creatively succeed. TAs work well with Art Club participants, but they are invaluable to the future because they know how to engage Group B audiences, basically anyone and everyone, through the use of enabling constraints. For example, ask a ten year old (or an adult who doesn’t draw) to draw a self portrait, and she will come up with something, and it might be fun, but it won’t hold much learning potential because she is just grabbing ideas to solve the problem. There are too many variables in the challenge to make satisfying choices; the non-artist doesn’t have enough personal experience of drawing or basic technical ability to apply to the complex challenge, and so cannot really invest herself in the task. (Imagine how awkward the non-artist adult would feel trying to solve the problem of drawing a self portrait. Similarly, imagine how you might do if handed a scene from Hamlet and asked to read it with an actor; or asked to invent a melody line.) However, if you give that child (or adult) the assignment to draw three lines on the paper that capture something about how she feels today, she can go to work in a different way. She can reflectively identify three aspects of her experience to depict; she can manage a limited but genuine variety of choices about the nature of each line that captures her intent, using genuine artistic considerations of thickness, curves, angles, length and more; and she can complete the work that holds her ideas and is ready to meet an audience. She has been able to slip into the work of art, has completed a work of art that holds her uniqueness and her intent, and, with luck, provides a tiny burst of satisfaction and sense of success. She is ready to take on a more challenging assignment next. You are moving toward self-portrait by tapping basic competence every step of the way. This even works for Group B adults who are convinced they are “not artists,” but could complete this activity because of its empowering finitude.
Good teaching artists are masterful in the design and delivery of activities that succeed in this way, to lead people step by step, through an escalating sequence of enabling constraints, toward remarkable accomplishments in a short period of time. We call it scaffolding—adding one stage at a time, which lead to a surprising height before you know it.
The enabling constraint is the way to start engagement. It has to be beautifully matched to the participants and the occasion to succeed. It has to be appealing—inherently interesting to try. It has to provide a sense of completion, of success and closure, so the participant is intrinsically-motivated to go deeper, to try more. And the deeper they can go through scaffolded steps, the more curious they become about the subject area, to become curious for information.
One example. A Rotary Club asked me to do a speech on the arts. They also asked me to connect it to paintings since the speaker after me was going to tell the Club about an art show she was opening, and that the Club was sponsoring to raise money. The canvases were by local amateurs, and were mostly images of still life paintings and landscapes. In my speech, I applied an entry point, engagement before information, and used an enabling constraint. I asked everyone to make a little rectangular frame with their fingers (thumb and index finger of each hand, as large or small, as close to their face or far away, as they like). I asked them to scan the dining room with that frame to settle on some specific part of the room that they think would be a good subject for a still life painter to paint. Then, remembering the still life subject, to describe it to their neighbor at the lunch table, and explain why they picked it. After that, I gathered some responses about things people thought made for a good still life subjects, based on what they decided and heard. I collected ten or so good ideas about quality criteria for still life paintings, which were, unsurprisingly to me, quite similar to the criteria an art historian would have told us were the essentials. Twenty minutes later, when the speaker after me discussed her upcoming art show, she got a question: “What are the main criteria for a good still life subject according to the experts?” She got to say, “The same as yours.” Everyone in the room felt competent as an arts-knower, and was more interested in seeing the art show. Engagement before information—my little activity had engaged them creatively, had tapped their sense of relevance, and curiosity arose to create a teachable moment. The attempt to engage succeeded because I used an enabling constraint with fingers and untapped innate knowledge to slip them into action.
Great teaching of every kind employs enabling constraints. The questions proposed in Socratic dialogue are enabling constraints. The series of drills in basketball practice that focus on dribbling can be enabling constraints. The first activity I do with a corporate Board of Directors in a “creativity but no art” workshop must use an enabling constraint that activates their participation without hitting the alarm tripwire of “art.” If my activity works well enough, we can begin to build their curiosity to learn about creativity through scaffolded steps that lead to imagining new possibilities in their own field of business.
Third bestselling idea: The Law of 80%—Eighty Percent of What You Teach is Who You Are
This third bestselling idea is hardly original to me. We live with this difficult law in parenting. It is a truth that goes back to learning before humans had language, carries through to apprenticeship and organizational culture, and applies in all teaching situations. If you doubt it, think about the great teachers in your own life. It wasn’t the quality of the handouts, or the brilliance of the syllabus, that made you choose to adjust the direction of your life. It was the quality of the person in the room—how he thought, how she listened and responded, how he formed sentences, felt, dressed, reflected, cared, etc. Similarly, when a teacher was going through the motions, not listening or seeming to care much, think of the impact that had on your learning. The Law is not about niceness but about the power of authenticity—I was shaped by some college teachers who were mean and terrifying, but the quality of their thinking, their passion for the subject, made a lasting impression on me.
Why do I propose this perennial truth as an idea of mine? Not only because of the bold extremity of its claim (which I believe). Not only because of its punchy wording. I get some share of this idea because partly because I unflinchingly place an emphasis on personal responsibility in a way that most recognize but few are willing prioritize in training. But mostly I call this universal truth a bestseller of my own because I teach it as an integral part of the educator’s toolkit, to be refined, honored, used proudly and happily, never to be ignored. And I live by it. Traditional teacher and teaching artist training focus on pretty much everything except the inner game, on the quality of your personhood. I insist on it, not only for moral and sheer human reasons, but for practical ones too—if this is our greatest tool as educators, let’s not willfully avert our professional gaze. Also, if you are not in love with the work at hand, genuinely excited by the richness and relevance of the work, then even a great entry point, and good engagement activities, are only going to take the work so far. Conversely, if you are radiant with the excitement of the opportunity, the power of that 80% will forgive an lackluster entry point and a lot of pedagogical imperfection.
The Law of 80% has distinct importance around issues of the Art Club and Group B audiences. I am often the first artist that has presented to a group, and I know that the “who I am” makes as least as much impression as anything I say, and probably lasts longer than any nifty quips I might drop. The Law of 80% applies to all arts advocacy. It applies to the impression you make in chatting with the person sitting next to you on a plane. It applies in the moment when we tell young people something that does not match with what we do. It applies when we tell young people something that strongly matches with what we do do. It applies to advocacy opportunities within the Art Club itself, when, for example, someone from the exploratory wing of the arts (me) gets time with a more traditional group like a conservatory faculty or group of orchestra musicians. If my 80% doesn’t resonate as truly life-dedicated to the arts, that conservatory faculty or orchestra of musicians is going to eat me alive, with my non-musician’s presumption upon their time. But because my 80% resonates with an art-part of themselves, they will give me the benefit of the doubt to explore the entry point I offer. (But they will still eat me alive if the engagements don’t continue to ring true.)
The Law of 80% applies to arts and other professional conferences and gatherings that embody their core values in the conference design and those that don’t. The plaque on my desk reads “be the thing.” This reminds me to always seek to express the core of my message, including my enthusiasm, in forms of expression that match the content. Conferences I design in which the sponsors make a serious attempt to have the activities of the conference model its underlying beliefs and messages always prove to be more dynamic and more impactful, even if some of the experimental ideas didn’t entirely work. The 80% carries a huge human message. It shifts expectations and mental mindsets, it changes the ground upon which the learning unfolds.
This Law of 80% is more than an opinion, it has relentless implications for practice. Most bluntly for teaching artists, it demands that you not take on projects that you do not love. There are many ways to justify taking on work you do not love, but to take this truth to heart means you hold the highest respect for the art and the participants. First, find something you love in a work you don’t entirely embrace, and teach that. It matters that you be in love with a work you put at the center of a project; and if you can’t find something to truly love about a work you are teaching, don’t teach it. That sounds drastic, but it honors a responsibility to ourselves and to our learners. Imagine if all education lived by that?—if it is not relevant and important to you, don’t teach it. It might make for a radical disruption of school curricula, but it certainly would revive the engagement and investment into what happens in classrooms.
The Law of 80% offers enormous opportunity for professional learning. Just imagine if meetings that fill work days attended to this law. With a couple of organizations that were being “meeting-ed to death,” in my consultant’s role, I had them experiment with “meetings as a work of art.” The person who called a meeting, adhered to the Law of 80% (and often used the power of entry point, engagement before information, and enabling constraints) to design something that mattered to him, and that was shaped to the learning that was the point of the meeting. Those meetings tended to be shorter, memorable, elegant, and resonated for a longer time than usual. They were fun and effective. People looked forward to them, and even though the extra time they took to prepare meant that they decided before long that not every meeting had to be a work of art, we found that every meeting changed as a result of rediscovering the responsibility and opportunity of inviting people to learn with you.
One closing thought. The truth that who we are is what we teach has implications for more than our time in classrooms and workshops. It impacts more than our explicit and implicit work as advocates and mentors. I believe we are all teachers all the time—like it or not, choosing the to accept the responsibility or not, that’s how life works. You teach your colleagues in the way you work, in the way you communicate with them. You teach all the young people you meet in the way you behave and connect to them. Some version of “the golden rule” appears in every religion and moral philosophy—you are teaching others every time to you relate to them. If fully embraced, the Law of 80% is a spiritual invitation. It invites us to continual attention to the truth of who we are, and to the ultimate artistic challenge of expressing that truth: making choices that fill the way we live with the truth of who we are. Both sides of that challenge are difficult—awareness of who we are and authentic expression of that truth—and both require lifelong commitment and attention. And that truth doesn’t require any slogans of mine, or “selling” as an idea. That is merely how it is, and we are invited to join the ongoing improvisation to carry it on.