I had the unique privilege of interviewing Ida Nielsen, bass anchor for Prince and now stepping out in her own right as a singer – songwriter, following Prince’s tragic and premature death, age 57. In the interview and subsequent private conversations with Ida we discussed a number of topics with parallel lessons for anyone seeking to innovate by breaking the mould.
Discipline and Freedom
Ida is a perfect example of a professional musician who combines discipline with freedom in her musical life. She took up music at the age of 16, having learned mostly by ear. She then attended the Royal Danish Academy of Music to hone her natural born musical skills. When amateur musicians tell me that improvisation is all about creativity and freedom and nothing to do with discipline, I believe they have missed the point about the importance of structure / discipline / order. I’ve observed on many occasions musicians who have oodles of disciplined musical training who are unable to improvise and sometimes vice versa. Ida is a living example of someone who combines both. In the business world this is what Tom Peters refers to as “simultaneous tight and loose properties” and I see this as a direct parallel from music for people interested in bringing more creativity and innovation to their enterprise. Prince puts it simply:
Ida is also testimony to the concept of “deliberate practice” proposed by K. Anders Ericsson in 1993. This requires the systematic desire to extend one’s repertoire beyond one’s comfort zone. In my experience, some musicians reach a plateau of competence, due to rehearsing that which they already know. To master an instrument requires practice outside of the known regions of your competence. I know from my own experience that I had to switch from playing rock music to gypsy jazz in order to move my playing skill up a level through seeing and hearing things anew. This concept applies in many fields of human endeavour. Ida has respected great innovators in her field and built upon their innovations, for example Larry Graham, who is credited with the invention of “slap bass playing”, in his case due to not having a drummer in his band so he had to develop a more rhythmic way of playing the instrument.
Mastery, unconscious competence, effortless genius, being “in your element” as Sir Ken Robinson says. These are all ways to describe what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called the state of ‘flow’. Richard Thompson expands upon the idea in musical terms:
“Focus for performance is extremely important. I start quite early in the day of a performance, just very slowly focusing in on performing later that day with the whole idea that you are going to be as present as possible. You can play music for yourself, and that’s one thing, but to communicate with an audience is really something very special. When it happens, it’s a beautiful thing, an extraordinary thing, a wonderful feeling for the performer – this idea that you play something and people get it.
The way that you’re able to get stuff across to an audience is by getting inside the music as much as possible, reaching that really still place in the center of the music where you are totally present, almost unconscious, and totally engaged in the musical process and the storytelling process. When you get to that point, you’ve really achieved just about everything you can achieve as a musician.”
Prince’s sax player Marcus Anderson adds further insight into the state of flow:
“Although I can read music and therefore understand the “mathematics” of jazz, the real skill of improvisation comes from using your ear / intution, paying attention to the other band members, feeding off them and finding a flow that moves the group performance up to the max.”
Marcus Anderson, interview taken from “Leading Innovation, Creativity and Enterprise”, Bloomsbury
Ida is clearly in the state of flow with this performance, recorded at Pizza Express Jazz Club at an aftershow at 3 am in the morning:
Fairytales and Princes
We spoke outside of the main interview about Ida’s 5 years spent working with Prince and she had these things to say about what she gained from working alongside a master of innovation in music:
Serendipity : Ida explained how she got to play bass with Prince:
“I simply got a call on my cell phone. The person said they were Prince’s manager and they wanted me to go to Minneapolis and jam with Prince and the band. They said they would call me back – they did not and I began to think it was a hoax, but eventually they called back and I went to Paisley Park to play with them for three days”.
I completely got the mixed emotions of Ida’s story, having once had an e-mail from Sir Richard Branson telling me I had won a prize, then nothing for two weeks – a social media “expert” mailed me to say it was bound to be a hoax, completely bursting my bubble! It turned out it was not a hoax mail and I ended up writing and delivering events for the Virgin group.
Mastery : When performing with Prince, Ida had to learn more than 300 songs in order to have the flexibility to vary a given performance, sometimes on the fly. This is quite different than performing with most professional musicians, who prefer to hone a set and perform this as a set piece on all dates of a tour. This level of agility gave Prince and 3rd Eye Girl the ability to personalise their music to a given audience. To do this requires mastery at the individual and team level, with everyone paying close attention to each other’s performances.
“Doing a residency in any particular city requires a large repertoire to ensure repeat business”.
Teaching as the best way to learn : Ida mused that she had been lucky to have the greatest guitar teacher on the planet in Prince. Moreover, rather than the usual situation in terms of paying your teacher for lessons, Prince had actually paid her !! The greatest gift of innovation is to transfer your skills to others.
Check out Ida Nielsen’s music at her website for more insights into the skills of a master craftswoman.