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This chapter is from the book

Maintaining Momentum

Looking ahead for potential issues and addressing them before they become problems helps avoid a loss of momentum. This outlook can be seen as a strategic perspective more than a tactical one, but that’s not to say that you should look only strategically. Strike a balance between planning and simply reacting. Both extremes have their own problems. It is possible to plan too much and become overly confident as a result. On the other hand, you simply cannot plan for some things, such as aberrational events. This is why it is essential to maintain a state of readiness in which you can react and improvise. When a team must respond to change, each member of the team must react quickly enough that momentum is not lost.

The combination of tempo, pulse, and groove defines the rate at which the participants in an activity generate change. If jazz musicians play a slow ballad, the tempo will be slow, with typically no more than 60 beats per minute. To get a feel for this tempo, tap or clap once per second. The bass often plays in two, which essentially means the pulse is half the tempo. To feel that pulse, tap or clap once every two seconds. If you can, keep playing that pulse while you read on. Now what about the groove? Ballads are usually introverted, with a solemn, melancholy, or reflective disposition. The groove must be very simple; for that reason, it is usually the same as the pulse, with no additional complications. Even a soloist playing over the top of this will often play sparsely, with very few notes. As a result, the overall velocity is low. You can stop the pulse now if you managed to keep it going through those last few sentences. Everything we’ve discussed—the slow tempo, the two-beat pulse, the simple groove, and the simple playing over the top—creates temporal tension. The listener must patiently wait for each change to materialize, and the result is dramatic. Imagine a small group, perhaps a trio or a quartet, playing a ballad. Recalling that momentum is a function of mass and velocity, we would expect the momentum to be very low because the velocity is low and the group is small. When the momentum is this low, a real danger of losing stability arises. This can happen in any task in which a small number of people are producing a low rate of output.

Jazz musicians do two important things to prevent a loss of stability from low momentum. First, they impart greater weight to specific notes. They do this by choosing the notes carefully, placing them with extreme precision, and stressing the note or playing it for its full duration. When playing fewer notes, the importance of each one increases. Second, specific notes are set up by playing one or more short notes immediately preceding the expected note. This has the effect of preparing the listener and the other musicians for the expected note. To get a feel for this, let’s perform a number of exercises in rhythm.

Begin by tapping out a slow pulse like you were doing previously. Once per second, tap your hand on a table or on your thigh and say “DUM” at the same time. Once you’ve gotten a feel for the regular pulse, begin to precede the occasional note with “ba” as in “ba-DUM” but make sure “ba” is short so you maintain a regular pulse. Do you feel the difference when you prepare the note? To get more sophisticated, say “ba-pa-DUM” and always make sure that “DUM” falls with the tap of the hand on the expected regular pulse. The use of these preparatory notes effectively increases the velocity and momentum for a short period of time, leading up to one specific, expected contribution. To make the benefit of these preparatory notes more obvious, let’s slow down the pulse so that is extremely slow. Tap and say “DUM” and leave nine seconds between each pulse. To do this and actually maintain a regular pulse, you will have to subdivide the time in your head by counting silently between the pulses. Say “DUM” followed by “2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10,” but count the sequence of numbers silently. Perform this slow version of the exercise for someone else. They will find it extremely difficult to predict when the next pulse falls. However, if you set it up with a preparatory note, then they have an idea that the pulse is coming. You can also speed the exercise up and tap out the pulse at, say, 120 beats per minute or two taps per second. If you listen to a jazz performance, pay close attention to the sound of the bass and you will occasionally hear the bassist adding these preparatory notes to impart more momentum into his or her bass line. It’s important to note that the technique of giving weight to notes and the technique of preparing notes both help to maintain or increase momentum at any tempo. It’s just that they can be critically effective at a slow tempo.

How does the use of these techniques play out in other activities? It should be possible to give more weight to a specific contribution in any activity. For example, in a business or software development team, you can have additional people lend their help. Senior people especially can make a difference. The idea is to not only help ensure the success of those specific contributions, but to communicate their importance to everyone. Similarly, you can increase the momentum leading up to a specific contribution by setting it up with a smaller preparatory effort. People do this all the time. If a team has an important monthly meeting, the chair of the meeting might send out one or more reminder notes in the days leading up to the meeting. This ensures that people don’t accidentally miss the meeting. The chair might also send out an agenda and any preparatory materials to ensure that people will be effective at the meeting.

There is one other important technique that jazz musicians use to maintain momentum, and that is syncopation. This is a completely independent technique from the rhythmic device of swing. The two can be used separately or together. In Latin jazz, straight eighth notes are employed just as in classical music but syncopation provides the momentum.

Syncopation is quite simply the technique of deviating rhythmically from a regular pulse. One way to do this is to alter the timing of notes. If you say “DUM-DUM-DUM-DUM” evenly, then there is no syncopation. You can suspend or delay the second note by pausing for two-thirds of the note (we’re also using the rhythmic device of swing at the same time) and then filling in the last third with a preparatory note. So you would say “DUM-[pause]ba-DUM-DUM,” and of course don’t forget to tap. Your second tap will be right on the pause. Repeat this a few times and you’ll notice that the suspension of the second note creates momentum simply because the pause causes people to feel or imagine the missing note. Of course, the note is not actually missing but simply delayed. Let’s try syncopation another way by anticipating the second note. What we will do is begin the second note where the last third of the first note would be. We will then hold that note until we get to the third beat. So we say “DA-ba-aa-DUM-DUM” and make “DA” short (two-thirds of a beat) and “ba-aa” one continuous note. If you tap at the same time, the second tap will coincide with “aa.” Anticipating the note generates momentum by creating the illusion that the tempo is increasing.

Suspension and anticipation can be used to increase momentum by altering the timing of contributions with respect to a regular pulse. These techniques of syncopation give people freedom in the timing of their contributions. Here’s one final example to illustrate a third way to syncopate. Notice the emphasis on the first word at the beginning of one of Shakespeare’s most famous lines:

  • Now is the win-ter of our dis-con-tent
  • DUM-ba-ba-DUM-ba-DUM-ba-DUM-ba-DUM

Rather than changing the timing of words, Shakespeare simply alters the placement of the emphasis. The technique of displacing accents is employed in almost all music, and jazz musicians use it frequently.

There are two important points to keep in mind when syncopation is employed. The first is that you must always respect the pulse even when the syncopation is extended or constant. If you lose track of the pulse then you will lose momentum. The second point is that when you contribute in a way that deviates from the pulse, you should do it with total commitment to avoid the deviation being misinterpreted as a mistake. If you listen to jazz musicians, they will regularly accent syncopated notes to make them a rhythmic feature. If you had a regular Thursday meeting and then one week you had to move the meeting to Wednesday, you would try to reschedule the meeting in a way that avoids any confusion. When competitors come into play, then obfuscation, discussed in Chapter 8, “Act Transparently,” should be employed. If your regular product cycle is to make available a major release of a product in June but then one year you want to get the jump on the competition, you might want to communicate this syncopation clearly to your team but not to your competitors.

It’s important to understand that when people interact together in support of momentum, there may be variances with respect to the tempo, pulse, and groove. Many new jazz musicians practice with “play-along” recordings because they don’t have easy access to other musicians. This is quite difficult to do, and many people believe it doesn’t help develop the correct sense of tempo and groove. One reason is that a recording cannot respond to a live musician. The reality of being human is that our timing can’t always be exact at a high resolution. An electronic or mechanical drum machine might be able to play in perfectly exact time, but we prefer the sound of a good human drummer because a human can do creative things and respond in ways that a machine cannot. Although the drummer is the primary communicator of the tempo in a typical jazz context and the bassist is the primary communicator of the pulse, the reality is that everyone in a band is responsible for the tempo, the pulse, and the groove, and everyone has the ability to weaken and strengthen them. It’s interesting to study some of the famous pairings of drummers and bassists. Some jazz musicians are well-known for playing on the front of the beat; others are known for playing on the back of the beat and others squarely on the beat. By analogy, in any activity, certain people will be more gung-ho, with a tendency to move quickly, and others will be more cautious, often waiting for others to move first. No style is better than the others, but it can be useful to understand the subtle nuances of each. A well-balanced team should have a mix of both styles. If too many people in a team want to rush in, the team may take unnecessary risks. If the team’s thinking is too conservative, the team may not be competitive.

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