Every band has a template for the creative process. These are the pivotal steps taken to either remain inside or outside the proverbial box. Recording a song for a band can take on many approaches and the path is not always the same. For The Beatles, there was one step they often took along the way in their studio recording creation. It involved auditioning a new song in the studio to George Martin, their producer and sounding board.
There are many pictures documented of The Beatles pitching their song ideas to their producer. Early studio session photos usually depict George Martin perched on a stool with his head bowed down and his hands placed on his knees. He is arrayed in a crisply starched white dress shirt and an immaculately thin tie dangling in time to the music. John Lennon and Paul McCartney are standing on either side of George Martin. Their guitars are slung over their shoulders with voices harmonizing. George Harrison may be slightly off to the side picking out lead guitar riffs and studying the chord formations on John and Paul’s respective guitars. Ringo Starr is in the background listening intently to the lyrics and perhaps imagining how his future percussive beats will compliment the lyrics of “Another Lennon-McCartney Original.”
Producer Martin would listen intently to the tune and then provide direct feedback to the songwriters. His opinion was highly valued by the band and they at first viewed him as a kind of schoolteacher. He may have suggested an arrangement idea or technical suggestion. Perhaps, George Martin was looking for a teachable moment for the band to take them down a new path in songwriting and recording. Perhaps, he was tuning into an innovative and whimsical idea a songwriter suggested and looking to build upon it.
The Beatles had a gift of being open to the best idea regardless of who shared it. Martin’s direct and timely feedback coupled with the songwriting genius of The Beatles led each song to embark on a creative journey that would eventually impact generations of listeners. The collaboration of The Beatles and George Martin was always rooted in this first step of auditioning a song before recording. It began with the simple act of listening.
In starting my new assignment as principal at Lexington Middle School, I find myself taking a few pages from George Martin’s playbook as a leader, educator and collaborator. It is easy for a principal to leap into a school full of vigor and ideas in the name of change and innovation. I made a similar move in my first principal assignment. Thinking I was going to single-handedly save the school with the simple wave of a smile and a quote from a well-thumbed book on change leadership, I stumbled hard over my ego and stubbornness. I am still learning and striving to hit the same universal notes as The Beatles did.
For the first two weeks in the new school, I am making an intentional effort to practice what I call Visible Listening. This practice takes on many permutations, but the aim is still the same in service and support of kids, teachers and the school community. Visible Listening means visiting classrooms and engaging with students and teacher. It means sitting down and being open to learning more about the pulse of the school. Visible Listening means sitting down with each team member (whether they are a student, teacher or family member) and setting up time for an intentional conversation by asking three simple questions:
- What is great about our school?
- What do we need to work on together to grow our school?
- How may I serve and support you as your principal/lead learner?
I imagine myself as George Martin sitting on that stool in Abbey Road Studios and the teachers are my Beatles. I am listening to their words and music. Looking for ways to learn more about our school. I am in tune with those teachable moments and hoping to share what I can with them. In turn, I am looking for those teachable moments so they may edify me about our school. We are sketching out plans to build a masterpiece for our students so that they may add to the tapestry of our school culture. We are building the blueprint for our students to create their own respective masterpieces.
During one of these chats with my some of my new bandmates, I noticed that I was talking too much. My excitement for our collaboration was droning on too long and I could sense that I was spiraling into that nonsensical “Charlie Brown Teacher Voice.” Stopping immediately, I asked them what their dreams were for our time together. The barometer of the conversation changed and we were able to learn more on building our collaboration to new heights. I am so happy that I took the time to stop my ramblings so that I could tune into the dreams of my colleagues.
Beatles Producer George Martin knew that active listening to The Beatles was a crucial element in the recording process. Tuning into his clients provided a necessary foundation for the band to create the timeless and universal songs that still inspire us today. His simple act of Visible Listening led to a world-changing musical canon.
The creative and collaborative focus that is The Pepper Mindset helped The Beatles build an innovative album which still challenges and motivates. “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” could not have happened with dismissive or rushed listening. 50 years after its release, “Sgt. Pepper” still stands as a pinnacle of recording achievement.
Principals are called to practice Visible Listening in service and support of our students, teachers and families. Stopping for those intentional pauses and inviting those whom we serve into the collaborative marrow will lead to world-changing music in the schoolhouse. Visible Listening is a pivotal move in building The Pepper Mindset and we can adopt that same action to enact bold and creative innovations for our school communities. Visible Listening is one of many notes any educator can use to compose a majestic schoolhouse symphony.