A part of my work with the World Wildlife Fund for its Earth Hour event in Los Angeles on March 28, I helped organize a group of young musicians to perform at the event.  My guitar teacher, Lonnie ‘Meganut’ Marshall, put together a group of kids who played drums on recycled plastic buckets they’d painted to fit the theme ‘Funeral for Fossil Fuel’.

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The Life Drum Core, as Lonnie named the group, was a big hit.  They got coverage on all the local TV stations, and on the night of Earth Hour, their four-minute performance was well-received.  They ended up afterward jamming with the mayor, who grabbed his own recycled bucket and began banging out a beat.  (He wasn’t bad.)

A week before the event, the ten kids in the Drum Core got covered by three local TV stations as they rehearsed downtown at L.A. LIVE.  While we were waiting for the TV crews to arrive, one of the dads pointed out USC football coach, Pete Carroll, sitting on a bench near the entrance to the Nokia Theater.  He was with a couple of young assistants, texting on a Blackberry. I walked over to Pete and asked if he’d mind saying hi to the Life Drum Core.  “Sure.  Give me a minute,” he said, and went back to his Blackberry.

In a minute, he came over, talked with the kids, and got his picture taken with them.

And then Pete Carroll said something he did not have to say.  He said, “Have them come out to football practice one day and play on the sidelines.  Call my office and we’ll make it happen.”

We made it happen.  Last Saturday, Lonnie and five of the Drum Core kids attended a USC football scrimmage at the Coliseum and played on the sidelines while the USC football team practiced.  It was a good day for everyone involved.

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You’d expect a successful coach like Pete Carroll to be solid on the fundamentals.  He is.  Let’s break it down like a football coach would break down a well-run play:

Understanding the game.  Carroll quickly picked up on the Life Drum Core game.  These are students who don’t have music or arts programs in their schools.  Professional artists and musicians like Lonnie donate their time to give the students art and music instruction. It is project-based learning.   Carroll immediately understood the game and the players involved.  He got the concept that these are students who don’t have a school to schedule performances for them.  Their performances are, in a word, improvised.  This understanding of the game informed everything that happened afterward.

Teamwork.  Improvisation is not designed as a solo act or soliloquy.  It is most effective and teaches us the most when performed in groups.  Carroll, in effect, put the Life Drum Core ‘on the team’ for an afternoon.  While at the Coliseum, they were treated like members of the family.

Additions.   Because the group was formed to perform at Earth Hour, and would normally have disbanded after the event, Coach Carroll’s invitation made it possible for the scene, and the group, to continue playing for a surprising new reason.  Additions to a scene are great if they move the scene forward like this one did.  The Life Drum Core’s performance was, likewise, an addition to practice, a kind of gift from Carroll to his players.  More than one player came up to the kids and Lonnie afterward and thanked them.  “It really got me pumped up,”  offensive lineman Garrett Nolan told them.

Listening.  It was Carroll’s good listening skills that let him absorb what the Life Drum Core is all about, and act quickly and intuitively on that information. He could have gone into ‘pep talk mode’ and given the kids big-ups and left it at that.  Letting the kids and Lonnie do a lot of the talking gave Carroll his opportunity to add to the scene.

Environment.   Carroll had a ‘business objective’ in inviting the Life Drum Core to practice.  Their presence added to the environment he builds during scrimmages to simulate game conditions where sound is concerned.  As the team runs its plays, speakers on the sidelines are cranked up to deafening volume with crowd noise. Drummers pounding drums on the sidelines made the ‘hostile crowd’ simulation more realistic.

Working with Status.  As with just about every scene he’s in, Pete Carroll was high status in this one.  (Meaning he has more resources at his command, more prominence in the world than his fellow players.)  Now, high status players, whether it’s an arrogant athlete or a pompous CEO, can often be condescending.  Much of their focus goes to maintaining their status, and behaving in ways that call their status to other players’ and the audience’s attention.  (If you’re a football fan, think Terrell Owens.  If you’re in business, think every other manager you’ve ever had.)  As Pete Carroll showed, this does not have to be the case.  By listening and giving gifts as Carroll did, a high status player can confer status on other players in the scene.   This is not always productive for improv comedy where the objective is to make fun of arrogant atheletes and pompous CEOs, but in business and in life, it is always a powerful and productive move.  It’s the move Pete Carroll made.  He used his status to elevate the other players in the scene. (Speaking of which, note the book he’s holding in his right hand.  Thank you, Pete!)

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