The stand-up meeting that helped develop better communication

By Rebecca Fischer

I have been around and in love with chamber music my entire life. I grew up in a house where playing string quartets, piano trios, and piano quartets was the family business. My friends’ parents went to work in an office building or on a farm, at a restaurant or an airline, while my parents went to rehearsals at colleges and homes where they led the life of collaborative musicians. I attended chamber-music festivals during my teenage summers almost exclusively, studied chamber music all throughout college, and have been playing violin in a professional string quartet for 17 years.

If I had to say why I love chamber music so much, I would certainly answer: It’s so great to share music with people you respect; you can’t beat the music; I value having an equal voice in a small group; performances as a team are so meaningful; etc. All of those things are true and good, but as I get older and my ties with the other members of my string quartet deepen, I realize one of the most significant reasons I keep doing this is that playing chamber music is a challenging and humbling learning experience every day.

Yes, there is an infinite amount of knowledge to glean from composers and their work, and I improve quickly because I have three colleagues who are also my teachers. But the humbling, learning part is key. Chamber music is about relationships. And the closer the relationships are, the more we are challenged to combat our greatest fears as humans, to break down walls we have with others, to trust other people on a magnitude that can be frightening (but so rewarding).

Relationship counselors advise creating safe spaces in our most intimate relationships where we know we are being listened to and regarded with love. In my marriage I know how crucial this is—when my husband and I are busy, overwhelmed with our careers, children, and money concerns, it is hard to listen to one another’s deepest thoughts with an open, uncluttered mind. The most loving, intimate relationships suffer from hurtful and damaging times. A safe space must be cherished and continually renewed.

The same holds true in a chamber-music environment. It makes sense that engaging in any artistic expression requires a vulnerability that is unusual. When making music with others this is even more challenging: We are asked not only to play “from the heart” ourselves, but also to listen to others’ deep expression, reach out to them, and find compromise in understanding the music and each other.

At best, playing chamber music stimulates the rare communion of souls who perpetuate an environment of openness and trust. At worst, playing chamber music aggravates bitter communication, marred by actual or perceived personal betrayal developed over years of not feeling “heard.” Musicians in these adverse situations feel alone in spirit—the exact opposite of what we hold to be so special about the act of collaborative playing.

About two years ago, my string quartet realized we were in a dire situation. Though we were dear friends who loved performing together and regarded each other with the utmost respect, we were going through a rough patch that highlighted our entrenched dysfunctional working habits. As much as we tried to control well-intentioned debates, many rehearsals ended in heated arguments with patterns of communication we could not reconcile. I often felt alone in these crisis moments when we were unable to find adequate ways to reach out to each other. After a particularly difficult concert trip, we finally said, “Enough!” We decided to either end our group or find a way to move forward. Although we still wanted to play together, we needed drastic change in order to make it worthwhile.

Thanks to our enterprising cellist and his knowledge of all things computer, we turned to a system of organization used by small businesses and software developers called “Scrum” or “Agile.” Not only did Scrum (named after the huddle rugby teams form when discussing their next play) offer highly efficient, process-oriented ways of running a small business within discreet cycles of time, it also had built-in ways to address interpersonal dealings.

After reading a book on the system, our cellist immediately started crafting a way that Scrum could be applied to the chamber-music model. As a group we have been changing and refining it ever since.

The most significant change we made is how we work together to create an open environment before we start playing.

There are many excellent ways that my quartet has appropriated the use of Scrum, for example, the egalitarian practice of taking turns being the administrator of the business every two to four weeks. But the most significant change we made is how we work together to create an open environment before we start playing. At the beginning of rehearsal we have what is called a stand-up meeting (literally, a meeting in which we stand up in a circle facing each other). In this meeting, we answer three questions:

1. What have we done (for the business) since we last saw each other?
2. What are we going to do today?
3. What prevented us from doing our work?

These may seem like mundane questions—the first and second are directly related to the details of running our business and rehearsals—but the third question is the one that is essential to our interpersonal function. “What prevented us” can include things from the previous day’s rehearsal that interrupted the flow of the work, a comment that one person said to another that felt hurtful, or something unrelated to the quartet that an individual needs to share in order to go forward with the day. This third question is an invitation to let down our guard, to accommodate the vulnerability our group needs in order to do the soul-baring work of playing chamber music.

In The Agile Team Handbook, author and Agile trainer and coach Jan Beaver lays out benefits to the daily stand-up: “Teams that sit talk about 40 percent more but actually get less done, while teams that stand talk about 40 percent less but actually get more done.” He explains that “standing focuses everyone’s attention on the speaker” and “standing in a circle, effectively shoulder-to-shoulder, demonstrates the boundaries of the team.”

Since we have a stand-up meeting every day in our “team,” we count on this safe place for the opportunity to talk about difficult things from the previous day. If there was an argument, for the most part it’s easier to talk through it a day later, after the blood pressure is down.

As an introvert, I find this environment to be an easier place in which to express myself verbally. If my quartet has gone a day or two without a stand-up meeting, we are noticeably more defensive in rehearsal and less likely to compromise with one another.
I share this information about my string quartet for two reasons:

1. Smaller scale: Scrum has provided ways to address conflict and has dramatically increased my group’s productivity. Scrum might not be for everyone, but if knowledge of this system can help other “teams,” I’m all for everyone thriving!
2. Larger scale: In a world increasingly dividing itself into “us vs. them,” we need ways to find empathy for different perspectives.

Scrum offers a path toward empathy and understanding on a real, documented platform. In assuming that the team is more important than the individual, Scrum creates a supportive team environment that sustains and lifts up its members. Maybe this model of chamber music can make a lasting impact on our changing world.

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