Improvisation and Innovation Lessons from Prince

Improvisation and Innovation Lessons from PrinceThe name Prince is synonymous with innovation in music. From classy pop classics such as ‘Purple Rain’, ‘Diamonds and Pearls’ and ‘U Got The Look’ through to high class jazz, soul and funk, working with artists such as Miles Davis, Chaka Khan, and George Clinton. I’ve seen Prince quite a few times over the years, sometimes at close range.

If you have not, check this performance of Superstition with Stevie Wonder out to see what you have missed.

Unlike many performers in rock’s monarchy, a Prince live performance is often different every night. This is because Prince operates from a menu of 300 songs, which the band may be called upon to play at any time, whereas many other artists prefer to perfect and then repeat their set night after night.  Admittedly, this is difficult for some of his audience to take but speaks of artistic integrity and a desire to constantly develop. I was discussing how Prince achieves such amazing levels of nimbleness and ingenuity with my colleague John Howitt, a professional musician who has performed for Celine Dion, Anastasia and Shirley Bassey to name but a few.  John had some interesting things to say on the subject of preparation in relation to doing new things:

“To reach mastery in improvisation paradoxically requires intensive detailed preparation. What looks like a seamless performance is the result of many hours of preparation and Prince is meticulous in this respect. In business this has been referred to ‘the 10,000 hours effect’ by Tom Peters and, more recently, Malcolm Gladwell. The idea of prepared spontaneity contradicts what some so-called creativity and innovation gurus say on the subject, yet we constantly see parallels across many industries. Sloppy creativity produces sloppy results in many businesses”.

Furthermore John went on to talk about the use of synthesis as a spur to innovation:

“Prince is also a master of fusing musical genres and influences outside his core style to innovate. This enables him to still exert a major influence on artists of the 21st Century, such as Lady Gaga, Beyonce and many others. In business, the ability to cross mental boundaries is the parallel skill set, as exemplified by companies such as 3M and Google”.

I explored more of Prince’s personal qualities and the relationship with becoming an agile, ingenious and innovative company in the book “Sex, Leadership and Rock‘n’Roll”. I’m delighted to say that I managed to get a copy of the book to Prince at his last series of London concerts and was told that he found it very insightful.  John Howitt draws a distinction between Prince’s level of risk taking on stage versus his experience of working with artists such as Celine Dion, who aims for a perfect, polished performance which can be reproduced night after night. Both approaches are valid and rest on thorough preparation if you want to reach out for excellence. An object lesson for all – if you want to be a high performer, know that perspiration is much more important than inspiration.

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Peter Cook is Rock’n’Roll Innovation Editor at Innovation Excellence.  He leads Human Dynamics and The Academy or Rock, and provides Keynote speaking, Organisation Development and Business Coaching. and  You can follow him on twitter @Academyofrock

Peter Cook




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No Comments

  1. Nicholas Dobson via Peter Cook on March 3, 2012 at 3:11 pm

    This just posted in Linkedin:

    Nicholas Dobson • it seems to me that Prince specialized in a dynamic struggle between two extremely different way of looking at the world, and in a sense has or had a weak sense of reality that he was desperate to resolve. somehow he did! his music has always sounded to me like a person trying to make sense of his world. i don’t know, arguably art IS an attempt to make sense of the world. but i feel it more acutely with Prince then with any other artist in history.

    His struggle between the physical and the spiritual is the stuff of legend. his apocalyptic themes. the way he alternated between pride and shame. these sound like problems.

    But a real artist knows how to turn their biggest problem into a theme, and create art around that theme that says something universal. Prince’s attempt to discover consonance in the world and in himself, and (call it a wild guess) a violent desire to be loved, shifting self image, devotion, lust, empathy, burning ambition, – i think these things motivated him. his incredible training and skills (the ability to DO ANYTHING should be mentioned) and his beguiling personality did the rest.

    Too amped to be stopped

    i am only saying this because i listen to the Parade EP just about every day. thank you for mentioning him.

    Best wishes all


  2. Peter Cook on March 12, 2012 at 4:06 am

    This from Linkedin:

    Rich Farris • I’m not so sure I would consider Prince a major public improviser. I mean, don’t get me wrong, his work is extremely creative. I’m a major fan of his studio work. But from what I’ve seen, I think a lot of his public performances have been extremely controlled. I have never sensed he leaves very much to chance. Perhaps that has changed in his more mature years, but that’s how it looked to me back in the 1980’s and 90’s. I never noticed his songs varying much in delivery or timing between public performance and recording.

    Led Zeppelin was apparently well known for their improvised concerts. I’m told you literally had no idea how long their concerts would last because their mood drove everything. It might be 2 hours or 4. I don’t think we have too many bands like that touring anymore. Peter Frampton certainly proved he can make up stuff in public. I have to believe Stevie Ray Vaughan probably did it, perhaps even Eric Clapton & Jimmy Hendrix. But I don’t think real improvisation is as commonplace as it should be in popular music. The real ‘tune’ masters, like the Stones, Beatles, and Prince, tended to stick to the script, as best I can tell.

    What thrills me the most is to hear about songs that were literally invented on stage. If you look at the history of the song ‘American Woman’ by the Guess Who, that song was literally invented on stage, during a guitar tune-up, in front of fans. It just doesn’t get any better than that. Precious few can make that claim.

    Prince has toured with Larry Graham, who is an amazing improviser. I saw him take on 15,000 fans, all by himself, with nothing but a bass guitar. For a solid 15 or 20 minutes, he rocked the entire stadium all by himself. It left a lasting impression on me. But again, I don’t get the sense that Prince ever wants that kind of freedom when he’s on stage. I think he’s a little too self conscious for that kind of pubic openness. At least that has been my own impression.

    Improvisation is an important topic for creativity and innovation. More people should look at it more closely. It’s one of the real roots of creative knowledge.

    Peter Cook • Rich – the article talks of improvisation in the context of structure and Prince is a master of ‘prepared spontaneity’. His approach has changed over the last 20 years. If you look at his more recent work you will see that in practice. But it is not free improvisation – after all there is an audience to consider. So, I agree that Prince does not just jam around, but there is a balance to be struck with improvisation in the delivery of a performance. My colleague knows Larry Graham and even in his case, he has a number of ‘chunks’ that he can connect in an imaginative way.

    Re Led Zeppelin, you can see a post on their approach to business (not improv) at

    Re the mix of structure and creativity in delivering high performance, there is much more in my book ‘Sex, Leadership and Rock’n’Roll’ on this aspect. You can find a sample on this topic at

    Many thanks for your comment


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