Friday, 14 August 2020

Put first things last

Beethoven was struggling with finding a suitable theme for the last movement of his 1st Symphony. He had written the first movement's music and was working on the other movements that would lead towards his finale.

But this last music still stubbornly eluded him.

He toiled for some considerable time, trying out but always discarding many melodies, rhythms and harmonies.

Then, whilst reflecting upon the music in front of him (which was that of the first movement), two questions suddenly occurred to him:  

What if the first movement was really where he had been trying to get to all along? What if the first movement was really the culmination of his symphony's musical journey rather than the start?

Now, seeing the first movement as the finale, the final destination towards which he was travelling, Beethoven discarded the rest of the music he had written for the symphony and began to write new music: music that poured onto the page and flowed satisfyingly towards a final climax.

By putting first things last, Beethoven unblocked his thinking, released his creativity and created his first symphonic masterpiece.

What would happen if you put a first thing last? 

That first task of the day: what tasks would you do before it if you made it the last task of the day? How might doing this affect your efficiency and effectiveness?

That part of the solution you completed first: what could come before it? How would this change the nature and effectiveness of the overall solution?

That person you meet first: who would you meet beforehand if you met him or her last? How might this affect your relationships with people? How might this change your understanding of people?

That place you visit first: what places would you visit beforehand if you went there last? How might this change your perception of the people you meet and your understanding of the things that you see?

That first chapter of a book or first paragraph of a chapter: how would the narrative change if the chapter was put at the end of the book or the paragraph was put at the end of the chapter? What new insights and ideas might emerge?

That first part of your presentation: what topics would you present before it if you put it last? How would this change the emphasis and impact of your presentation?  

Thursday, 9 July 2020

Listen to and act upon micro-moments of feedback

Tasmin Little recently performed Max Bruch's 1st Violin Concerto for the 100th time. The Concert was broadcast, and during the interval Tasmin spoke of her feelings about performing the same piece so many times.

She spoke of how her performance of the concerto had gained depth over the years, benefiting from an ever-widening palette of approaches that was made possible by the insights gained from working with many different orchestras and the ideas and suggestions provided by many different conductors.

Tasmin spoke about one conductor in particular: Vernon Handley; he had felt that she habitually played a specific note slightly flat (or just that little bit too low) during the slow 2nd movement of the concerto.

Tasmin had listened to this small piece of feedback and placed it in her memory. She said she always recalled his words and was careful to "brighten" the note in question whenever she performed the concerto.

Significantly improving quality, enhancing expertise and skills, breaking through to new and innovative thinking: these things are usually the synergist sum total of many micro-moments of insightful feedback. One bit builds upon another bit that illuminates another bit until everything brightens: transformed into something better than before.

Like Tasmin, listen to, store and act upon micro-moments of insightful feedback, and gradually transform yourself and what you do into something better than before.

Tuesday, 23 June 2020

Use the four ways of interacting

Chilly Gonzalesthe Canadian pianist composer, describes four ways of interacting with his piano music: passively, actively, emotionally and communally.
  • Passively interacting involves listening to the music in the background and appreciating the overall ambience that is created for you. 
  • Actively interacting involves listening carefully to the music and analysing the detail that is revealed to you.
  • Emotionally interacting involves listening to the music and experiencing the feelings that are encouraged within you.
  • Communally interacting involves playing the music so that, through your performance of his music, the composer can directly share some of his feelings and sensations with you.
Adopt and adapt the above ways of interacting to both enhance your understanding of problems and improve the effectiveness of your solutions. 

Interact with a problem or its solution passively. Place it in the background of your day-to-day work and activity, and allow time for its overall look, feel, shape and impact to soak into your mind. Help this process along a little by sketching a Mind Map of the key characteristics of the problem or solution, putting it on a wall nearby and reflecting upon it between tasks. 

Interact with a problem or its solution actively. Place it in the foreground of your day-to-day work and activity. Give yourself time to analyse its details and how they combine to contribute to its overall look, feel, shape and impact. Help this process along by using tools such as Forcefield Analysis and Ishikawa Diagrams to analyse the problem or solution.    

Interact with a problem or its solution emotionally. Give yourself time to explore and express your emotional reactions to its overall look, feel, shape and impact. Help this process along by using tools such as the PINC Filter and the Six Thinking Hats, which provide structured space for the expression of feelings and intuitions.    

Communally interact with a problem or its solution. Make time to share in others' perceptions of its look, feel, shape and impact. Help this process along by frequently creating windows for inspiration that will help you think and perceive flexibly and creatively.

Monday, 4 May 2020

Explore the Ma between and around things

Toru Takemitsu was always in demand as a film composer. Directors valued the way he made the atmosphere of a scene, particularly the feelings and tensions filling the silences within a scene, tangible.

As part of his preparation for writing a film score, Takemitsu would visit a film's location, walk around the sets, handle the props and mingle with the actors. He did this to "breath in the atmosphere" of the film and begin appreciating the director's intentions as they slowly manifested within the film's space and time.

His approach to creating film scores was highly effective: he wrote over ninety film scores and won numerous film music awards. He was particularly good at bringing out the atmosphere, tensions and emotions pervading a silent or quiet scene without adding a single note of music to it. Instead, he would write music immediately before and after the scene that would serve to highlight (through dramatic offsetting) the quality of a silence or quietness.

Takemitsu did the above because of his belief in the Japanese concept of Ma: the belief that the space between and around things is an emptiness full of possibilities, be this appreciating the silent breeze between trees, or reflecting upon the feelings, tensions, unspoken intentions and conflicts swirling within and around events.

For Takemitsu, creating film scores was about focusing upon the Ma of a scene (a scene's invisible atmosphere) and giving its possibilities a form that could be heard and appreciated. He did not seek to create something that, from his point of view, did not exist within the Ma of the scene: he sought to define what was unseen and unheard but possibly present.

Given the above, it is not surprising that Takemitsu's services as a film composer were much sought after by film directors.

The concept of Ma, the idea that the space between things is an emptiness full of possibilities, influenced not only Takemitsu's film music but also his many other works. As you listen to his music, you sense that its silence is at least as significant as its sound: sounds emerge from silence and seep and creep back into it; bright climaxes cast light upon following silence, revealing what is moving within it.  

And the concept of Ma influenced not only Takemitu's music but also his overall approach to life. When one reads his and others' descriptions of his life and experiences, it becomes clear that perceiving space as full of possibilities encouraged Takemitsu to do the following:
  • Collaborate rather than work individually. By working closely with others, he increased his ability to sense and define the Ma (the unspoken thoughts and unseen feelings and intentions) surrounding his collaborators' words and actions.
  • Seek to define what was unseen within a situation or space (e.g., the feel of a situation or the feelings permeating the space between and around a group of people) rather than fill a situation or space with his own preconceptions and ideas. By doing this, Takemitsu increased his ability to gain interesting and surprising insights both from his surroundings and from the people with whom he mixed and associated.
  • Wait for and then encourage something to emerge rather than force something to take a shape. By waiting for and noticing what might emerge and coaxing it into a recognisable form, Takemitsu again increased his ability to gain insights that others might miss. He also enhanced his ability to collaborate by giving himself the time to recognise and appreciate the emotions, understandings, assumptions, tensions and conflicts, etc., implicit within situations and between individuals.
  • Appreciate and accept the things he discovered (e.g., traditional music, local customs and practices, others' ideas and opinions, etc.) for what they were, on their own terms, rather than assimilate them into his existing thinking and approaches. By doing this, Takemitsu gained the ability to notice the entire nature of things: to see aspects essential to their uniqueness (e.g., their significance at a specific moment in time to people from a specific culture) that would otherwise be overlaid and obscured by his own experiences, expertise and preferences. This helped him internalise the often ephemeral, almost invisible, uniqueness of things and consequently perceive and adopt new ways of thinking and doing; he avoided merely integrating readily tangible and functional components of things (e.g., techniques, styles and forms) into his existing ways of thinking and doing.
  • Dialogue rather than debate. By seeking to explore and understand differing perspectives and ideas and holding them beside each other in his mind, Takemitsu allowed them to shed new light on each other: new light that revealed new shades of insight within the space between them; he had gained the ability to combine insights and form new and novel understandings and meanings.
Be like Takemitsu: collaborate with others and explore the feelings and intentions, etc., that surround words and actions; seek to define what is present but unseen within a situation; wait for and encourage things to emerge; appreciate and accept the things you discover for what they are, on their own terms; dialogue rather than debate.

Explore the Ma between and around things to discover new perspectives, insights and ideas.

Sunday, 19 April 2020

Gain from perspective 1.20

The computer game composer Wilbert Roget II (who has written award winning music for games such as Mortal Kombat, Call to Duty and Tomb Raider) describes composing in the 1st person: from the perspective of the characters within a game.

To achieve this perspective, part of his preparation is to become a game's character, try out the available outfits, tools and weapons, etc., and wander through a game's various scenes and levels.

Crucially, Roget does not become a protagonist: he does not become part of the action. This slight distancing ensures he is not distracted by the excitement of taking part and trying to succeed but instead focuses upon the look and feel of a game's world and characters.

By inhabiting a character and experiencing its world but not taking part in a game's narrative, I think Roget achieves not a 1st person perspective but a 1.20 person perspective: a perspective that gives him just enough mental space or headroom to notice details about the look and feel of a game that players caught up in the action would likely miss. 

Having gained insights from this 1.20 perspective, Roget can then create imaginative musical layers and backdrops that illuminate and enrich details that would be otherwise missed, so improving the overall quality of a game and enhancing game players' enjoyment.

We can all gain from using perspective 1.20. When seeking to solve a problem, do your best to experience it from the perspectives of those people affected by it. Whilst doing so, however, ensure you do not become too involved and caught up in a problem and its effects. Give yourself just enough mental space to begin noticing details about the look, feel and context of a problem: details that those caught within a problem's web of consequences would likely fail to see.

Wednesday, 15 April 2020

Throw it at the audience, warts and all!

"Throw it at the audience: warts and all!"

"Play anything you like."

"If they complain, never mind."

The above statements (from a Radio 3 interview) provide a significant insight into why two pianists, Zoe Rahman and David Rees-Williams, have become highly gifted improvisers: one of the secrets is to be uninhibited and able to express and share musical ideas "in the moment" as they form in the mind, appear upon the keyboard and begin sounding in the air.

This uninhibited expressing and sharing is not something all musicians can do. I recall one highly skilled professional orchestral violinist telling me that the mere thought of improvising in front of people filled her with dread: her training and musical conditioning inhibiting her own spontaneous creativity in favour of the rehearsed creativity of others.

Horses for courses and different musicians for performing different music.

But for those of us who need to contribute new and creative ideas (be these musical or otherwise), it is essential to marry our foundational knowledge, training and expertise with spontaneity of action.

The influence of our knowledge, training and expertise (our towering protective shadow of the tried, tested and sensible) can implore us to carefully rehearse our contributions before offering them.

This is often, of course, very beneficial. But habitual rehearsal can cause us to express and share ideas devoid of spontaneity: ideas that are shot through with and weakened by apparently sensible qualifications and "hedging our bets" second thoughts.

And it is these weakened ideas that people hear and, like an audience listening to a musician performing a "better safe than sorry" improvisation, quickly forget.

Rather than always perceiving your knowledge, training and expertise as a protective shadow of the tried and tested, occasionally try using them as a firm foundation from which you can launch new and creative ideas: share your ideas, warts and all; say anything you like in the way you like; if people complain, never mind (because this is better than having your ideas ignored and forgotten).

Thursday, 20 February 2020

Change the nuance of your idea

"The central idea behind the piece is having the same musical idea presented in slightly different ways by the two instruments, hence the changing nuance of the materials..."

Daniel Kessner

This quotation is taken from Daniel Kessner's programme note for a piece called "Nuance", a duet he wrote for bass flute and viola. 

Presenting or changing ideas in slightly different ways can achieve two closely associated things: it can help us perceive ideas in different ways, and it can help us improve ideas in surprising ways.

If you have edited photographs using Instagram filters or similar, you will have experienced the above at first hand: as you apply each filter to the photograph, some aspects are emphasised or enhanced and new aspects are revealed. Then, after you have selected a filter and begun editing the photograph's colour, brightness and contrast, etc., you discover that the slightest movement of your finger can bring forth additional and sometimes surprising nuances of shade, light and emphasis, some of which transform an average photograph into a good one and a good photograph into a great one.

Find slightly different ways to present or change your idea: change one or two of the words and phrases you use to describe it; slightly strengthen or soften the emphasise you give to different aspects of it; listen to it being presented by someone else, at one remove; add one or two small aspects to it, or take one or two away; slightly change the context within which it is framed.
 
What does changing the nuance of your idea reveal? How can what has been revealed help you enhance your idea?