An Artist's Process from Okorie Johnson

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Okorie shares with us his process of creation. We also want to challenge you to spend the next few minutes that follow to listen to his music and let it be the soundtrack to what you're doing. We have a feeling you'll be wowed.


 

 

I used to be an English teacher. And even though I am a cellist/artist now, I think I will always be a teacher deep down.  I love the classroom.  I love the exchange of ideas, and I especially enjoy the back and forth of conversation.

I try to bring aspects of the classroom to my live show - not so much to teach my audience anything, but to involve them.  

I was coming of age at a time in education where we were discouraged from being the “sage on the stage.” Instead, we were to create “student centered classrooms,” which are beautiful things.  They’re noisy, the students are engaged and constantly contributing, and ideally, they should be full of laughter, joy, and insight.

That’s also the perfect picture of an audience to me  - the fourth wall is merely a formality and the audience is joyously contributing to the show and growing from it.  I try to create this experience in my set.

In every Epi.phony show I play, I build in three interactive features.  One is an improvisation, sometimes with suggestions from the audience.  Another is a busking set, where I try to surprise, delight, and entertain my audience out of a few more dollars by playing popular, well-loved songs that they don’t expect a cellist to play - lots of mirth and laughter there. The third, however, is the most interactive and rewarding for me.  It’s called Storytime.

Storytime is a collaborative experiment where I provide the music and my audience provides the meaning.  

  1. I play a chord progression that I think is especially narrative.

  2. I invite my audience to close their eyes and to let the chord progression conjure up for them a person, setting, or a time.

  3. I tell them that I will improvise over this progression, and as I do, I ask that they pay attention to the image in their head, watching as if they were watching a movie.

  4. I improvise over the progression, creating a little bit of unexpected drama along the way.

  5. I end the improvisation, cut the house lights up, and poll the audience for their stories.

  6. For those that don’t get a chance to share out loud, I post a video of “storytime” to my social media pages, and encourage individuals to share their story digitally after the show.

Folks are sometimes shy at first, but I never have enough time for all the stories.  At some point, the dam just breaks.

Storytime does four things:

  1. It allows the audience to personalize some part of my show.  Each person can create and take home a memory that is theirs alone.

  2. It allows all of us to share something - the progression, the improvisation, the stories.  All of that becomes something that we have created together rather than something that I have exclusively shared.

  3. Because what people share is so creative, emotional, and narrative, we all get to travel boldly into the realm of storytelling  - which I think is the highest achievement of art.

  4. Each person who dreams up a story has named - or rather worded - what they felt, and hopefully will remember the song, the feeling, and the moment long after it ends.

People who don’t get a chance to share with the group find me afterward and gleefully share their stories.  People see me weeks later, at other shows even, and share those stories.  Almost everybody becomes part of producing the experience and the memory of Epi.phony, and it’s super special.

I love that.  It brings that best of the classroom to the best of the concert hall.  And with everybody helping to make the show, the room feels lighter and I couldn’t be any happier.

Okorie Johnson of Ok Cello