Billy Kirsch is a classically trained pianist who spent the early years of his career as a jazz pianist in New York City. Now based in Nashville, Kirsch, a Grammy- and Emmy-nominated songwriter, is the president of Kidbilly Music, which creates music-based team-building and icebreaker sessions for conferences and events of all sizes.
I met Kirsch at the PCMA Education Conference in Baltimore, where I was struck by his warmth and intelligence, and intrigued by the range of his musical expertise. I could see a natural link between his skill at jazz improvisation and the collaboration inherent in team building. But where exactly did country music fit in, I wondered?
Kirsch answered that question in a recent blog post. “What sets him and his company apart, he wrote, is “our tradition as Nashville songwriters, hit songwriters who have cut our teeth on the art of telling a story through song … We can rock, we can rap and we can twang. But we’re songwriters first and foremost, Nashville songwriters.”
I caught up with Kirsch between his conference gigs, and we talked about his career and his business by email:
Convene: How did your songwriting career lead to team-building?
I’ve always had an avocational interest in education and lifelong learning. I helped found a school many years ago, and I just completed a 2-year term as a Parent Teacher Organization president for a high school here in Nashville. Several years ago I had an opportunity to perform at a convention and I spontaneously decided to ask the audience to help me write a song about what they all had in common. It was fun and the experience intrigued me. Fast forward six years and Team Building Through Song has become a passion, an obsession and a full time career.
You and your team have had many successes in the country music world. Does that style predominate in your sessions?
Great question and the answer is no. Even though most of our success has been in the country music world, all of us have varied backgrounds. Some of the songwriter-facilitators who work with us have written songs for diverse artists like Ray Charles and Kenny Loggins and have written for television. So the music we bring into our sessions can include blues, pop, rock, and country.
At the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) ASAP conference earlier this year, you divided an audience of 600 up into groups of 10. What was that like?
That was a large group and the session was a 90-minute energizer. I call it controlled chaos — in the best way. Every table of 10 created a song about their shared experience and then they got up and sang the songs as they were completed. So within that very large group, we were able to get active participation.
But most often we work in more traditional team-building settings in which we divide groups from 30 to several hundred into teams of about 25 participants each. Every team goes into a breakout room and works with a songwriter-facilitator to create a song.
What is your secret to getting participants to engage? How do you stop being a performer and become a co-creator?
We really let our clients, our participants, do the creating and that’s why the level of engagement is very, very high. In fact, the comment we most often hear from groups is that they’ve never experienced so much engagement across the board. Participants brainstorm, come up with themes, and fill flip charts with great information. All we do is keep them on track and help them put their shared story in song format. We keep it fun, musical and we keep it moving – But we’re not performing per se, we’re just leading the way.
Have you ever encountered a group with which you failed to connect through music?
I hate to sound like I’m spouting propaganda, but honestly this has never failed. I’ve led programs with physicists, accountants and other supposedly ‘left brain’ types. As people age, many of us forget how inherently creative we all are and we forget that most of us excelled at creative pursuits when we were children. We haven’t lost that creative ability, we’ve merely ceased to exercise the ability.
But music is an integral part of everyone’s life. Everybody has a significant song they relate to from high school, or a first love, or a wedding song etc. So once we tap into the commonality that music provides, inhibitions tend to melt away. People feed off each other’s energy and ideas. Once this happens the rest of the session is always easy.