Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Are you a strong, charismatic and (be honest) controlling leader? Adopt the 'Karajan Way' to ensure your long-term success

'Karajan was conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra in London. At a certain point he cued a flute player for a solo, but the cue was completely ambiguous -- a long horizontal movement of Karajan's hand, with nothing indicating "Now!" The bewildered player raised his hand: "With all due respect, Maestro, I don't understand: When would you like me to start?" to which Karajan promptly replied: "You start when you can't stand it anymore."'

From The Ignorant Maestro: How Great leaders Inspire Unpredictable Brilliance by Itay Talgam

What enables a strong, charismatic and controlling leader to achieve consistent long-term success? 

Obviously, they need to communicate an inspiring vision and how to achieve it. They also need the energy, ambition, self-belief and ego that will drive themselves and others towards not only achieving this vision but achieving it 'in the right way' (i.e., the way the leader has foreseen).  

The above alone, however, is not enough. Charismatic and controlling leaders are often perceived as dictator-like figures who must be tolerated in difficult or dangerous times and dispensed with in easier or safer times; longevity of success is not a commonly observed trait.  

How can such leaders avoid this fate?

The long and successful career of Herbert von Karajan, one of the most famous (and all-controlling and egotistical) conductors of the last century, provides an answer.

Karajan's career spanned sixty successful years, three decades of which was as conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and the secret of his success is hidden within the above quotation.

At first reading, Karajan seems to be giving a facetious reply to a musician's apparently reasonable request. However, reflecting on his reply (and subsequently looking a little more deeply into the great conductor's leadership style and approach) reveals three reasons for the longevity of Karajan's successful career:
  1. He perceived one of his main leadership tasks as making his players look at, relate to and learn from each other. By not giving a precise cue to the flautist, Karajan forced him to listen deeply to the music and find ways of playing with his colleagues that would help him overcome his feeling of uncertainty. Karajan encouraged the flautist to take responsibility for his playing and the quality of ensemble, or togetherness, he achieved with his colleagues. Over time, this approach encouraged Karajan's players to form the closely associated habits of learning from and leading each other, so enhancing the overall adaptability and musicianship of the orchestra. It also, importantly, provided the orchestra's players with enough personal responsibility and limited autonomy to feel that they were more than mere followers of the 'Karajan way'. This feeling of enhanced personal contribution to the orchestra's performances was significant enough to ensure that the relationships between Karajan and his players, although always biased in favour of Karajan and his vision, remained flexible and dynamic enough to not only support their longevity but also maintain their creativity and freshness.             
  2. Where he could, as with the Berlin Philharmonic and the Philharmonia Orchestra, he made sure that his musicians had the skills to not only play music at the highest professional level but also play it as he wished it to be performed. Karajan sought and recruited the best musicians from around the globe. He looked especially for those musicians who would be able to not only appreciate his vision and approach but also help develop it during rehearsals and realise it in performance.
  3. He was meticulous in his preparation, making sure that the orchestra was well-practised in meeting his musical demands. If Karajan had delivered the above response to a player who had not been given the opportunity to become familiar with and rehearse Karajan's musical approaches and interpretations, perhaps having been prematurely plunged into an unexpected and scantly rehearsed performance, the player would likely have not only remained confused but also become justifiably angry. This was, however, not the case. Karajan, throughout his 60 year career, was meticulous in his preparation and rehearsal. He gave his players every opportunity to become familiar with the demands of his conducting and musical interpretations. As a result, his players began to not only understand his demands but also find ways to meet them.
To ensure long-term success, charismatic and controlling leaders need more than vision and energetic ambition (and a well-developed ego to drive themselves and others forward). They also need to encourage people to learn from and lead each other, make every effort to recruit people with the right skills and qualities, and provide people with the opportunity to become well-practised in meeting the demands placed upon them.

Monday, 4 June 2018

Repeat, develop and combine

'One of the things you start to realize is that anything starts to sound more musical when you hear it again, he said.'

Gary Marcus (A quotation from the New York Times article 'When the Melody Takes a Detour, the Science Begins' by Pam Belluck.)

The above quotation resonates with me.

Often, as I improvise, my hands can seem to have minds of their own: forming unexpected gestures and falling upon unexpected notes.
Sometimes, these notes sound all at once: forming sudden dissonances. Sometimes, they run towards or away from each other: forming sinuous snippets of melody accompanied by gradually building dissonances. Sometimes, single notes are repeated: creating more or less regular rhythms (a type of musical arrhythmia).

I have the habit of repeating all these sounds; I linger with them for a while and hear more and more of the music latent within the apparently messy notes. Eventually, I hear enough  within these notes (and my hands become familiar enough with their feel) for me to begin developing their potential: I play them quick; I play them slow; I change them: playing them at higher or lower pitches.

I also gather all my unexpected discoveries and order and combine them in different ways.

I follow where my hands lead and create a new piece of music.

This is possible because I allow myself to repeat the unfamiliar and the initially unexpected or unattractive.

And doing this is essential to not only musical improvisation but also creative innovation.

When you need to be innovative embrace the unfamiliar and unexpected, the quirky and eccentric, and even the initially unattractive. 

Be prepared to explore them repeatedly. Then, gradually, familiarity will not breed contempt but uncover potential. As you get 'used to the ideas' you will begin to explore, develop and combine them.

Eventually, what may have seemed unattractive propositions to avoid will become attractive options to pursue.

Monday, 21 May 2018

Do not fall off the creative problem solving train before it has even left the station!

'For the texts, I decided to use several languages, but since I didn't actually speak most of them, I just picked out words for their look and sound. My sources for words were my opera recordings. I'd pull out a libretto, listen to the opera, and select the words I liked, based on their sounds. I didn't look at their translation.'

Christopher Rouse describing the composition of his work Karolju, a piece for chorus and orchestra based upon made up Christmas Carols. (Quotation taken from 'The Muse that Sings: Composers Speak about the Creative Process, by Ann McCutchan.)

Our attempts at creativity and innovation can easily fail before they have properly started. Often, the cause of this can be tracked back to the way we habitually separate the act of creative problem solving from the process of selecting the people and other resources we are going to use to do it.

This can be like bringing together all the people and materials needed to build a traditional house and using them to build a skyscraper.

Our remorselessly logical approach to selecting the people and resources we are going to bring together to creatively problem solve, which is understandably based upon common-sense criteria focused upon what we consider to be relevant experience and expertise and proven track records of effectiveness and efficiency, can severely limit our ability to be creative and innovative.

The logical, unquestioned assumptions that underpin our selections can predispose our thinking towards very specific expectations about what a solution should look like, so forcing us down less innovative tracks than would otherwise have been the case.

An historical example 

Speaking of tracks, the introduction of train travel was one of the most innovative and influential developments of the industrial age. Essential to its effectiveness was the safe transportation of passengers, drivers and guards. It was only natural that the best carriage-makers of the day, and the best most tried and tested designs and materials, would be brought together to create the new train carriages. Strangely, the new carriages (based upon the expert knowledge and experience of the day) looked remarkably like horse-drawn carriages or stage coaches (with the guards perched precariously on the outside at the front or back of the carriages).

Now, trains are quite fast (faster than horse-drawn carriages) and this previously unexperienced speed frequently caused guards to fall off and injure themselves. Indeed, the falls were so bad that many guards died of their injuries.   

The expert carriage-makers of the day were brought together again, and the designs and materials meticulously reviewed. The conclusion was as follows:

'The guards need to hold on tighter!'

If these experts had thought a little more freely than they did and sought the views of guards and passengers, they may have gained some very useful insights about how to make the carriages safe and effective. Indeed, perhaps some of the guards and passengers could have been selected to contribute to the design of the carriages. Guards and passengers would have had a different perspective on carriage design, probably focusing very much upon a carriage's interior. This would have led to a better use of seating and space, thus enabling guards to work and sit inside rather than outside the carriages. 

But this did not happen for some considerable time, and however hard the carriage-makers exhorted the guards to ‘hold on tighter’ the injuries and deaths did not diminish.

So remember

The creative problem solving process includes the selection of the people, techniques, tools and resources that will be brought together and used to creatively problem solve. Be not only logical in your selection of these things but also intuitive and curious; make some of your selections for different, unusual or emotional reasons. Who or what would be intriguing to include in the process? Who or what looks and feels like an attractive addition to your problem solving resources? What would be fun to try out simply because it is different or unique or you have not encountered it before?

Who or what will you include in your creative problem solving process simply because it sounds like an attractive idea?

Do not fall off the creative problem solving train before it has even left the station!

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Reverse your usual expectations

Most music is written in 'keys'. Keys are specific groups or 'scales' of notes that a composer can choose from when writing music. There are two main types of keys: major and minor.

Think of weddings, celebrations and Christmas: much of the music written for these will be in major keys.

Think of remembrance services, funerals and Halloween: much of the music written for these will be in minor keys.

Arguably, the association of major keys with lively occasions and joyous feelings (and minor keys with sombre occasions and sorrowful feelings) is almost as much about cultural expectations and conditioning as about the characteristics of the keys themselves.

For example, in Russia and Eastern Europe lively and energetic pop songs (and even advertising jingles) are written in minor keys. Indeed, when asked why this was the case, a Russian musician said that the major keys were reserved for 'inexpressible sadness': a very dramatic reversal of Western European expectations indeed!  

Antonin Dvořák, one of the most accomplished and popular musicians of the 19th century (and, as a Czech, heavily influenced by Eastern European musical traditions and practices), also challenged Western European expectations concerning the use of keys.

In the Third Movement of his 4th Piano Trio in E minor, Op, 90 the slow and sadly reflective opening and closing sections are in a major key and the more lively and energetic middle section is in a minor key. This, at least to Western ears, reversal of the usual use of keys not only adds an exotic richness to the sound and texture of the music but also (given the slightly more complex overtones and subtly dissonant emotional undertones of the minor keys) weaves a darker melancholy into the otherwise brightly dancing liveliness of the movement's middle section.

Dvořák was able to add subtle but telling emotional depth to his Trio by simply swapping the expected order and function of his music's keys. This straightforward but not always emulated musical 'slight of hand' provides a small but telling hint as to why many consider Dvořák a particularly creative and accomplished composer.

Often, we can not only uncover significant insights but also (like Dvořák) gain superior solutions by reversing our basic expectations (be these perceptual, cultural or social, or bound-up with traditional practices and ways of doing things). 

What would be the outcome if you reversed the expected order of your actions or the methods and techniques you use? What would be the outcome if you began in the way opposite to that usually expected? What would be the outcome if you travelled in the opposite direction to that usually expected? What would be the outcome if you swapped the techniques usually used for solving one problem with those of another? What would be the outcome if you reversed your expectations about an individual or a group? 

What would be the outcome if you chose to be optimistic where you were usually pessimistic and pessimistic where you were usually optimistic?

Friday, 24 November 2017

Look beyond the habitual and immediately obvious

Ravel once commented that the snare drum rhythm running through his orchestral piece Bolero mimicked the sound of the machinery in his father's factory. He also said that the piece's melody was inspired by a song his mother sung to him at bedtime. These two memories and the way Ravel combined them in his mind and music hint at how the contrasting qualities of his parents became melded within Ravel's consciousness, helping mould the person and composer he was to become: not only precise, correct and logical but also sensitive, intuitive and artistic.        
Mark Elder (conductor of the Hallé Orchestra), speaking in purely musical terms about Bolero, has described a similar melding: he talks of the 'snake charm' melody and repetitive snare drum rhythm of Bolero as being not in opposition but intimately and interdependently linked; he describes them as growing and evolving equally and as creating an emotional tension between themselves that significantly contributes to a unique and compelling musical experience. 

This melding of contrasting or opposing ideas to create something uniquely powerful is made possible by Ravel's ability to look beyond the habitual and obvious ways of perceiving things.

When thinking about a side-drum, many if not all of us will immediately imagine a loud dry rapid-fire cracking sound produced by a drum being played by someone in uniform taking part in a parade or ceremony (or, if they are unlucky, marching into battle at the front of an army).
This imagining is almost instinctive given the strong martial history and associations of the snare drum. This instinct has, with understandable justification, been reinforced over the years by those who have played and taught the snare drum. For example, one such teacher (Sanford A. Moeller) wrote the following: "To acquire a knowledge of the true nature of the [snare] drum, it is absolutely necessary to study military drumming, for it is essentially a military instrument and its true character cannot be brought out with an incorrect method. When a composer wants a martial effect, he instinctively turns to the drums."

When writing Bolero, however, Ravel did not use the snare drum in this militarily influenced and compositionally traditional way. He looked to the snare drum's use in dance music, where the contrast of precise rhythm against flowing melody defines and enhances the beat and lilt of the music: drum and melody meld to create an enjoyably foot-tapping whole.

From here, for a composer as talented and deep thinking as Ravel, it was only a short step or two towards making imaginative personal associations between contrasting or opposing memories and experiences (as the opening paragraph illustrates). 

Through the genius of Ravel, these memories and experiences and their associations (at once opposed but also mutually supportive) flow into the unique music of Bolero. They enhance its artistic richness and enhance the enjoyment of listeners who (just like Mark Elder) sense a tension and then growing energy between the father's rhythm and the mother's melody. 

By the end of Bolero, rhythm and melody (father and mother) have become transformed into one loud writhing mass of purposeful sound and feeling that penetrates deep into the bodies and souls of listeners; once heard, Bolero is never forgotten.

When seeking to solve problems, especially difficult and complex ones, we are often confronted by apparently contrasting or even opposing ideas and options. These contrasts and oppositions are reinforced or even created by how we habitually perceive the ideas and options, which is greatly influenced by their most well-known history and how they are commonly (and perhaps most easily) applied.

Seek the alternative histories and uses of the ideas and options before you. Once found, do they uncover creative and useful ways to combine the ideas and options? Do they reveal how contrasts, oppositions and differences can be combined to create generative tensions: tensions which will power the growth of unique solutions and approaches?

More than this, do the alternative histories and uses you uncover (together with the creative associations and combinations they suggest) trigger even more associations with and between your personal experiences, knowledge and memories?

To start this process, ask (and persevere) with the following questions:
  • In what other ways have the ideas been used?
  • In what other situations and contexts have the ideas been used?
  • Could you adopt, adapt and combine some of the other uses?
  • Do some of the other situations and contexts change the way you perceive the ideas and how they may be used and combined?
  • Do these additional uses and combinations of ideas trigger new associations with and between your personal experiences, knowledge and memories? What personal memories, knowledge and experiences do they bring to mind? 
  • Does what you remember cause further changes to the way you see the ideas in front of you (and how they may be used and combined)?     

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Create a prelude to your creative thinking

During the Renaissance Age of music (1400 to 1600) and the following Baroque Age (1600 to 1750), composers gradually developed and refined pieces of music that became known as preludes. As their name suggests, these were usually played before more complex and demanding music. Initially, during the Renaissance, they enabled players to 'test the strings' and warm up their fingers. Later, during the Baroque, they provided a free-flowing intuitively structured contrast to the more logically rigorous and tightly constructed music (most often a fugue) which followed it. (J.S Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, a set of 48 Preludes and Fugues, is arguably the most well-known example of this.)

Bach's 48 preludes are notated in detail, but not all preludes were notated this way: often the pitches of notes were indicated but not their values in terms of duration, and note combinations (chords) were suggested by flowing lines rather than precise placing. These practices added just enough direction and intention to the music without diminishing its intuitive and improvisatory feel; preludes were freely structured and improvisatory in style, but they were by no means chaotic.  

The use and nature of preludes provide important insights into how we can enhance our approach to creative thinking and problem solving. Before immediately diving into the intricacies of a problem (and quickly becoming lost within a complex fugue of ideas and possible solutions) take the time to warm-up your mind and tune into and play intuitively, but also purposefully, with your thoughts.

Try the following: 
  • Loosely sketch your key issues and ideas.
  • Allow your mind the time to become familiar and comfortable with the look and feel of the issues and ideas in front of it.
  • Do not make judgements about the issues and ideas in front of you; resist the temptation of placing differing values upon them.
  • Let your mind intuitively play with the issues and ideas. How do they look and feel when you nudge them in different directions and put them in new and different places?
  • Which issues and ideas seem to be related?  Which ones seem to naturally connect, flow into and develop from each other?
  • Draw-out and sketch your thinking as it develops: capture the flow of your ideas and the connections you make. You can use your own approach, a rich picture or mind map to do this.
  • Lastly, look at your work. You have created a prelude to your creative thinking. What insights has it given you? Where are they leading you? What do you need to think about more deeply?                       

Saturday, 26 August 2017

This is how a collaborative person works: 30. search for and find your first influential champions

(This post draws heavily upon the experiences of Paul Macalindin as described in his book Upbeat, which chronicles his inspiring work with the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq.)

'During my phone call with Max in his Orkney home, I managed to declare myself the 'Musical Director of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq,' barely able to speak the words without choking. 'All my love goes out to you!' came his immediate response and then he blurted out, 'And I will be your Honorary Composer-in-Residence!'

From Upbeat: the Story of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq by Paul Macalindin

'Hello both,

I was on Twitter last night and I spotted Barham Salih (the government official we talked about -- did we talk about him?) on Twitter tweeting, I followed him and was amazed by his tweets. I wrote to him this:

@BarhamSalih As a young Iraqi living in Baghdad I am extremely happy to know that someone from our government tweets -- kudos to you!

And then it hit me, I didn't know he's going to response or not but I thought it didn't hurt to try:

@Barham Salih have you ever had a chance to read this? would you be interested in supporting this initiative?

http://tinyurl.com/ragfu2 (this link contains my article in the Times)

Now, I've spotted this message from him:

BarhamSalih@ZuhulSultan Thanks! You make us all proud. I definitely want to help with this amazing project send me your phone number to get in touch

I've sent him my phone number and e-mail... FINGERS CROSSED!


An  e- mail written by Zuhul Sultan from Upbeat: the Story of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq by Paul Macalindin

These two quotations (the first Paul's description of a phone conversation he had with the leading British composer Peter Maxwell Davies and the second Zuhul Sultan's email describing her discovery of and initial Twitter contact with Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih) emphasise how crucial it is to search for and reach out towards individuals who are willing and able to become your first influential champions: those who are eager to use their power and access to resources or credibility and standing within their professions to help fire-up and drive forward a young and innovative initiative; they catalyse progress and launch people towards success.

There are two types of first champion: 1. those who offer your initiative its first crucial and significant practical support (which Dr Barham Salih did by providing $50,000 to fund the NYOI's first summer school in Iraq); and 2. those who offer symbolic support which gives your initiative credibility in the eyes of key supporters and potential supporters and motivates those working within the initiative (which Peter Maxwell Davies did for the NYOI and its people).

Sometimes these two types of champion are combined in one individual. Often though, as was the case with the NYOI, they manifest within separate individuals. 

The above quotations also describe three fundamental ways in which to search for and reach out to these first champions:
  1. Be clear about the types of people and support you need; create a profile and have it to the front of your mind whilst you search. Ask yourself these two questions: 1. 'Who can unlock resources, support and good-will from within governments, communities and populations, etc.?'; and 2. 'Who has credibility and influence within communities, populations and professions crucial to your initiative?' (Both Paul and Zuhul, through either experience of their context or discussion of their requirements (or a mix of the two) had a well-defined idea of the types of champions and support for which they were searching.)
  2. Develop a healthily focused and outward looking social media habit which not only pushes your message out to people but also pulls people towards you. (Zuhul had obviously formed the habit of scanning her social media horizons for possible contacts and support which, once found, she instinctively sought to not only push information at but also attract towards her by engaging with them on a personal level.)
  3. Try, speculate, take the risk and 'have a go'. Be confident in reaching out to potential first champions. Often, we can be hesitant about reaching out to people who have great status or high profile reputations. Overcome this hesitancy! Make contact and ask the question, 'Is this something you would be interested in supporting?'. If you do not try you will never know and no first champions will emerge, but if you ask the question they may appear. (Paul and Zuhul easily overcame any initial misgivings they may have had and subsequently gained important first champions for their cause.)                                                    
Lastly, this final quotation from Paul's book offers one more particularly effective way to identify first champions: 

'... and when I had finished, triumphant that I'd won them over, the members sat in deafening silence. Here I was reaching out for feedback, enquiry, intelligent criticism, and all I got was a room full of middle-aged people, neither shaken nor stirred.

Out of this, however, two important musical allies arose from the midst. Renate Bock, President of the European Federation of National Youth Orchestras, listened deeply and compassionately while Oliver Khan, Director of the Singapore National Youth Orchestra, gave out the warmth and wisdom I had desperately sought.'

Those most likely to become influential first champions (or at least reassuring and morale boosting supporters) will stand out in some way from the crowd. This may be through their deep and quiet concentration upon what you are saying or through their positive reactions and words of support. At the very best, these reactions may signal that people are early adopters of new and innovative ideas and initiatives, making them prime 'first champion' material. Look out for these reactions and make sure you engage with the individuals from which they come.