Call and Response - The Sound of Collaboration


In music, call and response is a technique where one musician offers a phrase and a second player answers with a direct commentary or response to the offered phrase. The musicians build on each other’s offering and work together to move the song along and create a sound that’s inventive and collective. Outside of instruments, speakers and listeners also tap into call and response when statements (calls) are accented by expressions (responses) from the listener.  

Mirroring the drum’s rat tat tat that sparks the piano’s twinkle of notes, when I facilitate ISKME’s Action Collabs,  I use improvisational  techniques to encourage participants to listen and build on each other’s contributions as they score their way to new solutions in education.

Picture, if you will, a school district annual meeting that includes a variety of stakeholders. There’s a circle of chairs in the middle of the room and seated are a principal, teacher, city official, student, and curriculum specialist. They’re brainstorming on how to decrease the number of high school dropouts in their district. This is a group of people who might not typically find themselves problem-solving together, nor are they typically experienced in how to actively listen and build off each other’s ideas.

Enter improv. Short of handing out saxophones and jazz guitars and leading the group in a call and response workshop, I facilitate exercises that encourage call and response-like collaboration. “Vacations”, for example, gets right to the heart of working together and is based on one of the primary tenets of improv - “Yes, and” and mirrors the sound of music’s call and response.

Participants are paired and our example duo is a principal and a teacher. They’re to imagine they’ve just returned from their vacation to Katmandu, where they had a whirl of a time. Each offers a memory of their trip and the partner acknowledges that “yes” that did, in fact, happen “and” remembers an additional thing that also happened. It sounds like this:

[teacher] “Remember when we took that amazing vacation to Katmandu?
[principal] “Yes, and remember that day when we met that monk with the monkey?”
[teacher] “Oh, yes, that monk was carrying that monkey all over the market and having him tap dance for money!”
[principal] “Yes, and then you started dancing with him and it started to rain.”
[teacher] “Totally! It was down pouring and I started belting out Singing in the Rain as I danced with the monkey.”

Reliably, Action Collab participants are floored with how creative, generative, and fun “Vacations” is as they “Yes, and” their way to shared memories. I encourage participants to think how they could apply the technique to their everyday workplace; and they start to imagine testing out “Yes, and” at work and transforming meetings from non-productive and dull to iterative and collaborative. It’s a revolution in new thinking and action.

Listening to jazz, we sometimes think their ability to improv, work off of each other, and create is effortless but it’s not. Players spend time cultivating their skills; and similarly, collaborative communication takes practice, preparation, and openness to others in the conversation. Use your next meeting to practice. When someone offers an idea, take a risk and say “yes, and” - add to their idea in some way. It can be small, but be intentional and find a way to connect. The conversation will benefit from your additions. “Yes, and” / “Call and Response” – it’s all about listening, building on offerings, going somewhere together, and creating something brand new and unexpected.