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The art of working together: listening, improvising and trust

by Matti Nives

Saxophonist Jukka Perko has taken his musical communication ideas into other fields of working life with successful lectures combining musical thinking and everyday workplace dynamics. Can listening to improvisation in music teach us something about working together and communicating?

March 2020, the coronavirus pandemic has taken the whole world and the especially fragile ecosystem of cultural entities as hostage. Small and large businesses are scratching their heads for new innovations to aid the process of steering clear of the challenges in a sustainable way. Innovation, specifically digital innovation, is needed. Where does that leave the ancient act of making music by improvising together, collectively?

“Well, if it’s any indication, I just hosted my first distance learning session for my students at Sibelius Academy,” says saxophonist Jukka Perko with amusement. Based in Helsinki, he is teaching a course aimed at equipping future jazz musicians with the tools needed on the road to becoming professionals. “We initially had two hours reserved for the session, but ended up spending three.”

One of the most successful of Finnish jazz musicians of all time, Perko is no stranger to thinking about the possibilities and pitfalls of human communication, be it within a jazz group or within any kind of organisation. Both situations involve people who benefit from making their ideas flow effortlessly, in other words: improvising together. For more than a decade, Perko has been taking his musical communication ideas into other fields of working life with successful lectures combining musical thinking and everyday workplace dynamics.

“It all has to do with trust,” he says. “The community, whatever it is, requires trust in order to implement bold decisions together. And sometimes that takes a long time to develop.”

Perko says that each individual in a group needs trust as a building block for situations where it is possible to turn one’s attention outward, away from the self. “This feeling comes naturally, and it helps us to connect with something bigger than any one of us."

“I’m often drawn to thinking about the words around this also, the difference between ‘trust’ and ‘reliability’,” he says. “In Finnish culture, we’re strongly drawn towards reliability, but we shouldn’t forget the trust that is also needed. Reliability might be about being on time for work each morning, which is important, but in order for the actual work to evolve, trust is needed. That goes both ways. Leaders need to take risks and be vulnerable in order for the others in an organisation to feel safe to do so. The same applies for a band working together.”

Jukka Perko C Ari K Ojala
Jukka Perko
Photo: Ari K. Ojala

To stay open, ready to listen

Improvisation is not restricted to jazz music. As Jukka Perko notes, it exists between the lines in all kinds of musical expression.

“Sure, improvisation is more obvious in jazz, but I would characterise it essentially as making the music true in any given moment,” he tells. “In that sense, there’s no music without it and there is something very pure in it when it happens.

“The same goes for life in an everyday workplace environment. It might be more evident in the so-called ‘creative industries’, but process-based work also needs communication and innovation. That being said, probably nobody would want to hear that their upcoming brain surgery is ‘based on improvisation’,” he says with a smile. “Still, no two brain operations are alike, and so basically everything requires adapting to the circumstances and working well with others in trying to achieve the task at hand.”

Sometimes unusual circumstances and limitations make improvising together and listening to others easier. Perko mentions a ‘Dark Concert’ held at the We Jazz Festival in Helsinki in 2013 as an experience where less was more for the musicians involved.

“I just talked about that gig with my students today. The fact that there was no visual element made the situation somehow more intense. After the concert, we remained there in the dark with the audience and had a nice discussion. That elevated the experience even further, I think. I also noticed that everybody was listening to each other, there was no talking over other people in the dark.”

Listening is something that comes up repeatedly in this discussion. It is a key element for turning outwards, for improvising; Jukka Perko highlights its role in the process of communication and also offers insights on the role of the listener in both live and recorded music. Can listening to improvisation in music teach us something about working together and communicating?

“Yes, absolutely!” says Perko. “The listener always has an active role where he or she communicates with the music based on previous expectations, experiences and the context at large. It’s important to stay open and to be ready to listen. When done right, listening can be one of the cornerstones of all improvisation. Again, it’s about the music becoming real in the moment, and that can happen through the listener on a very personal level, too.”

In the dark room together

Could the present COVID-19 situation with all of its restrictions bring forth new forms of communication and improvisation?

“Yes, perhaps,” says Perko. “My students at the Sibelius Academy mentioned that they had a Finland–Tallinn jam session via Skype. It had worked well, as the connection was seamless and created a real feeling of being in the room together and creating something on the spot. That goes well beyond the technical side of things.”

For the flow of improvising and collective creation, Jukka Perko offers a step-by-step formula – seemingly simple but ultimately quite demanding.

“Communication happens in turns. In music, I listen to what you play, and you listen to what I play. I’m influenced by what you play and you in turn by what I play. Your expression tells me that you heard me, and I’ll play my part in a different way after listening to you.

“Maybe it’s good to be together in the dark sometimes,” Perko says, referring to the aforementioned concert experiment. “Again, I wouldn’t advise brain surgeons to try it, but for the rest of us it can be healthy to be in a surprising situation once in a while, to be without all of our normal options. It may teach us something about working together.”


Featured photo: Dark Room (