“Willing To Fail” – Improvisation, Courage, and Creative Thinking

Posted: May 17, 2017 in Uncategorized

In a rare departure from interviews with scientists and engineers, STEM-Talk Host Dawn Kernagis and IHMC Director Ken Ford interview Jeffrey “Skunk” Baxter about his life as a musician and founding member of Steely Dan, and how he went on to become a defense consultant on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The two fields seem completely different, but Baxter explains the similarities between them and talks about how improvising in jazz is a skill that can carry over into defense analytics and tactics.

Baxter’s bio includes playing with a number of well-known bands, such as Steely Dan and The Doobie Brothers. As a studio musician for 35 years, Baxter recorded with Donna Summer, Dolly Parton, Ringo Starr and Rod Stewart. He was a record producer for Carl Wilson, the Beach Boys and Stray Cats. He also composed music for movies and television.

He has achieved a certain renown in Washington as an advisor and consultant for multiple agencies and defense technology companies. He chaired a Congressional Advisory Board on missile defense and was a senior fellow at the Potomac Institute.

  1. Angela Tabak says:

    Unfortunately, as a ballet dancer I can relate all too well with his comment about the symphony being “trained seals.” The ballet world literally revolves around staying in line and doing exactly as the choreographer or director says. On the other hand, there has recently been a shift in the dance world, requiring dancers to be more creative, versatile, and free thinking. Improvisation, which until recently was almost unnecessary in a dancer’s career, has become essential for being hired or cast (it’s essentially our ‘personal statement’). Ballet majors here at the U are required to take an improv class, which I took last semester. The class provided the opportunity to take risks and discover new limits through exploring movements and ideas, and the importance of using failure to adapt and grow. What I really valued about the class was that what you got out of it was entirely dependent on what you put in, because improv and creativity is something that has to come from self-discovery and exploration, and that can only be done if you are willing to take risks and experience failure.

    • Yes. I have not been a fan of ‘classical’ ballet. While the high degree of technique was doubtlessly impressive, everything felt overly choreographed to me. I responded more powerfully to modern dance, in which individuals were free to perform in a more spontaneous fashion. This reminded me more of the music I heard and played as a young person. I have seen more modern ballet performances in recent years. These incorporated improvisatory techniques, as well as technologies that would have seemed entirely out of place in classical ballet.

      Further, I might add that classical music performances were not always so rigid as we now understand them to be. Prior to Beethoven, it was understood that concerti and symphonies would contain cadenza sections, in which the soloist was expected to play ad libitum. It’s only in recent decades that various classical performers are beginning to return to this kind of spontaneous experimentation, which for approximately two centuries was entirely forbidden.

      My fear is that similar changes have taken place in classroom learning. Most students now want little more than to know what words they are expected to recite back to the teacher in order to get a guaranteed “A”. My thought is that this is hardly real learning, which requires genuine risks. My hope, however, is to try to bring back to the classroom the kind of creativity and spontaneity that Baxter finds useful in strategic defense.

      He’s a very peculiar individual, to say the very least. But as I tried to indicate briefly in class the other day, it’s quite frequently the so-called ‘abnormal’ individuals who stand to teach us the very most.

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