Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Change things at the last moment

I recently saw a Facebook post by Tasmin Little, the virtuoso violinist. Tasmin had posted a photo of a page from a piece of music. There were many handwritten markings and numbers above the notes on the page.

Tasmin explained that the page was from a piece of music she was going to perform in a few hours time and that the markings were changes she had that moment made to her bowing and fingerings (these being the precise way her bow and fingers would contact the strings of the violin to produce the notes).

Why does Tasmin make these last minute changes? Are they made because of last minute doubts and insecurities caused by weak self-confidence? Or are they made purposefully and positively as a result of strong self-confidence? The results she achieves clearly indicate the latter rather than the former: Tasmin Little consistently produces top class, vibrant performances.

These last minute changes help Tasmin maintain and build upon her enthusiasm for her music. They also add a sense of risk that encourages Tasmin to focus fully upon her performance: to apply her entire mental and musical faculties towards meeting the challenges, some of them self-imposed, that the music presents.

Bringing this enthusiasm and energy, sense of risk, freshness and enhanced mental and musical focus into the "here and now" moment of performance significantly increases the likelihood of Tasmin giving exceptional performances: performances which help both her and her audience hear the music in new ways.

Music on a page is transformed into unique creative experiences discovered by and shared between Tasmin and her audiences.

Tasmin can identify and implement creative and performance enhancing changes to her music because she has the following:
  1. An in depth knowledge of her music and the different ways it can be interpreted and performed.
  2. The skills required to implement her last minute changes and manage their associated risks. 
  3. The willingness, ability and enthusiasm to take risks. 
  4. Willing and able collaborators who possess the knowledge and skills required to adapt to her last minute changes.
  5. The generosity to share her thinking, knowledge, experience, skills and expertise with others (so encouraging people to collaborate with her).
  6. An initial outline plan of performance, which are the notes and other markings on the page plus her past approaches to performing them, that provides a reassuring benchmark against which last minute changes can be compared. 
  7. Clarity of intention about making her last minute changes; all changes must add to the quality of her performance (e.g., they must increase excitement, add a new insight, enhance technical implementation, or enhance musicality in some other way).  
  8. The confidence to express her personal views about the music and how she may best performed it.           
We can all use Tasmin's "last minute changes" approach to enhance the focus of our thinking, improve the way we apply our skills, and increase the energy and creativity with which we overcome our challenges. 

To do this effectively, we need to adapt the above eight points to our own contexts:
  • We need to gain in depth and relevant knowledge (both of our challenges themselves and how they have been addressed previously).
  • Develop the skills necessary to make last minute changes and manage their associated risks.
  • Be willing and able to take risks.
  • Find willing and able collaborators.
  • Have the generosity to share our knowledge and skills.
  • Create an initial plan based upon what we know and what we have done in the past (so we can compare last minute changes against a reliable benchmark).
  • Be clear about what we intend our last minute changes to achieve.
  • Have the confidence to express our personal preferences for addressing our challenges.

Saturday, 12 January 2019

Trick people!

Haydn's music is packed with jokes, tricks and surprises. Jokes that are obvious, earthy and rude; tricks that are teasing, subtle and sophisticated; surprises that are comic and dramatic: you name it and Haydn has probably dropped it into his music somewhere.

The sudden loud note within the otherwise quiet and genteel slow movement of the "Surprise Symphony" (probably included to wake those in the audience nodding-off after too much rich food and wine); the unexpected bassoon fart during the 93rd Symphony (perhaps again an observation aimed at a well fed and stomach bloated audience); the long pauses, strange tonal twists and turns and "guess where the beat is" teasing of the 80th Symphony; the sudden and dramatic stopping of the music during the finale of the 60th Symphony for the comically surprising and urgently required retuning of the violins: Haydn, quite literally, never missed a trick!

What is the effect of all this joking, teasing and surprising?

It delights people and makes them live in the moment; it wakes people up mentally as well as physically; it makes people feel energised and dynamic; it nudges people off track and shifts their perceptions; it encourages people to respond quickly and flexibly to the unexpected.

It makes people's minds smile and primes their minds for creativity.

When seeking creative solutions to problems follow Haydn's example: use jokes, tricks and surprises to encourage people to experience the moment and respond energetically and flexibly to the challenges before them.

Here are six things you can do:
  • Introduce a surprising task or activity. This can be something quick and fun that will divert people just enough to freshen their minds and raise their energy levels so they can return to the main task with added focus and enthusiasm, or it can be something substantial that approaches the main task from a different and interesting angle. For example, you can achieve the former by using short energiser exercises and the latter by asking people to approach an issue or problem from a different person's, community's or organisation's perspective.
  • Keep people focused on the task before them but change the way they are approaching it. For example, get people walking around and drawing diagrams of an issue rather than sitting at a table and talking about an issue.
  • Introduce an unexpected person to the group. This could be someone from a different organisation, sector or community who has had to deal with a similar problem within a different context. It could also be someone from a seemingly unconnected profession or occupation who could non-the-less offer new perspectives and additional ways of thinking about and doing things.
  • Go to a different and unexpected place. Take a walk in the park; work in the park; go to an art gallery; visit a museum; go to a colleague's place of work; work where the problem is rather than in a meeting room; visit and work within a seemingly unrelated business or organisation: changing the environment where you meet and work can alter perspectives and stimulate fresh thinking.
  • Change the expectations associated with the task so people have to "retune" their thinking. Altering the required results and outcomes can uncover innovative solutions by forcing people to think and do things in different ways.
  • Create uncertainty so people have to think flexibly and identify options. Provide differing and imaginative scenarios and contexts within which ideas and solutions may need to be implemented. This will make people think in terms of possibilities rather than certainties, encouraging them to generate options rather than an agreed course of action.

Obviously, the above things need to be done thoughtfully and carefully. When introducing jokes, tricks and surprises ensure you do the following:  
  • Tailor your jokes, tricks and surprises to your audience. Will your audience appreciate what you are doing? Do they have the necessary knowledge and experience to "get the joke". Does what you intend to do fit the context within which it will be introduced? 
  • Gain the knowledge and expertise necessary to carry out the jokes, tricks and surprises effectively. Do you really know what you are doing and how you are going to do it? Have you done enough background research and developed an adequate level of skill to perform your jokes and tricks, etc., effectively? 
  • Practise and rehearse your jokes, tricks and surprises. If possible, try them out in front of a live audience. At the very least, describe to someone what you intend to do and ask him/her what they think about it.  
  • Vary your jokes, tricks and surprises. Do not repeat yourself and become predictable; if you do, your jokes and tricks will become irritating and counter-productive. Develop a wide repertoire of jokes and tricks so you can frequently and consistently surprise your audience.   
  • Give people time to warm-up, catch-on and get the joke. Do not introduce jokes, tricks and surprises too early. People need time to feel comfortable with their environment and familiar with the situation before them; they need to warm to their task. Also, once you have introduced your joke or trick, etc., give people time to enjoy it. If you do not, all its benefits will be lost.  
  • Give people permission to laugh. People often feel it would be inappropriate to have fun and express enjoyment. Cultural assumptions about what is and is not acceptable behaviour can contribute significantly to this feeling (e.g., many business and organisational cultures equate being serious with professionalism and having fun with non-professionalism). It is important, therefore, to make clear to people that they can laugh and express enjoyment. The best way to do this is to model having fun. Telling people they can have fun will most likely cause the opposite reaction.                
  • Take the problem seriously but have fun solving it. Separate the problem from the way it is tackled. Obviously, a serious problem needs to be taken seriously. This does not mean, however, that the methods used to solve a serious problem must be unenjoyable and unstimulating. Indeed, the energy and mental stimulation generated by enjoyable and surprising approaches are often essential to solving serious problems.    

Wednesday, 2 January 2019

Build upon quietly dissenting voices

I recently listened to Beethoven's 5th Piano Concerto. It starts grandly: with a muscular flourish the piano immediately introduces itself, and the orchestra sets to with music fit to accompany the entrance of an emperor (hence the concerto's nickname). These imperious sounds are played out and developed gloriously.

Then they are interrupted.

They are interrupted by a quiet, simple melody.

Then, almost as if the little melody did not exist, the music resumes its imperial progress.

Until it is interrupted again, by the same simple melody (which Beethoven has now gently elaborated, somehow giving it a shimmer of otherworldliness).

Then the imperiousness returns, only to be interrupted yet again by the simple melody (which Beethoven has continued to gently develop: sacrificing a little simplicity in return for added subtle delicacy).

Finally, Beethoven takes the shimmering otherworldliness and subtle delicacy he coaxed from the simple little melody and fashions music from them that becomes the emotional centre of the entire concerto: he transforms them into an exquisite slow central movement.  

Beethoven provides increasing space within which the dissenting voice of the initially quiet little melody can be clearly heard and beautifully developed. His ability to do this is one of the things that contributes to his greatness as a composer.

Noticing and providing space for the expression, exploration and development of dissenting voices is an ability that can be used to enhance non-musical creative thinking and problem solving. To develop this ability do the following:
  • Listen out for dissenting ideas and opinions, however simple or quietly expressed they are.
  • Make time and space to explore these ideas and opinions, especially when they are surrounded by grand and impressive ideas and opinions that demand attention and attract support.
  • Put thought and effort into not only exploring but also developing dissenting ideas and opinions. What are they implying and how could this be clearly expressed? What is their potential? For what could they form the foundations? To what uses could they be put? What do other people think of the ideas and opinions? How do other people see them being developed and used? What can you and others do to make all these developments and uses a reality? What is the first thing you and others can do to develop these ideas and opinions? What skills, knowledge and resources will you need?
Do not allow the potential of quietly expressed dissenting voices to be swept away by the prevailing moods and interests surrounding them.

Tuesday, 28 August 2018

A final thought about the glass harmonica: beware wineglass thinking

To see the previous posts in this series click here.

I have previously described how Benjamin Franklin used the following two creative problem solving techniques whilst inventing the glass harmonica. (Please click on the links to find out more about them and read descriptions of how Franklin used them):
  1. Changing the angle from which a problem is addressed.
  2. Applying inside out thinking to solving problems.
These techniques are very simple and, with hindsight, the solutions they enabled seem obvious. Obvious or not, however, it took a very long time for these solutions to be uncovered.

I have written about some of the reasons why this may be here, where I describe how timing and conditions need to be conducive to new and innovative ideas emerging.

In addition to these contextual reasons, there is a one other reason: one that originates from our tendency to become stuck within the ruts of habitual thinking when seeking to problem solve. In the case of the development of the glass harmonica and its predecessors, it was people's habitual perception of the ubiquitous wine glass that limited and in some cases reversed progress. 

Most of us, when we think of a wine glass, will imagine something like this:
 If we are shown something like this, we may feel very slightly uneasy:
 And if we see this, most of us will immediately think "what a waste":  
This type of thinking is habitual; we automatically think of a wine glass that is stable and upright so that it can be safely filled with our favourite drink. 

This image of an upright "effective" wine glass is etched into our day-to-day thinking and, like any habitual thinking, it has (given the right opportunity) the potential to influence how we seek to solve problems. This potential was realised during the development of the glass harmonica and its predecessors.

From the Renaissance up to and including the appearance of the glass harp during the Age of Enlightenment (a period of just under 400 years) the above mental model of a wine glass dominated thinking about making music with glass: an effective glass (whether it was used for drinking or playing) was always a stable upright glass into which liquid could be poured unspilt. Sets of upright wine glasses were, as far as is known, always used to make music and each glass was tuned to the required pitch by filling it with a specific amount of water.

Even when a Fellow of the Royal Society (Edward Delaval) became interested in the musical properties of glass, this mental model was never challenged. Delaval focused upon finding ways to improve the tuning and sound of the upright water-filled glasses of the glass harp (the glass harmonica's predecessor) rather than seeking radically different approaches.

For centuries, the development of glass musical instruments remained fixated upon upright wineglasses filled with water. This limited their viability and effectiveness, the former because of the glasses' fragility and difficulty to transport and the latter because of upright wine glasses' inability to enable rich and florid playing of a wide variety of music.     

Even when the glass harmonica was revealed to people (and with it a new way of perceiving glasses and making music with them) the habitual mental model of an upright filled wineglass was obstinately persistent in finding ways to interfere with people's thoughts.

Some observers of the instrument, not understanding its underpinning principles, sought to improve it by applying broken bits of their habitual mental model of a wineglass rather than sweeping them to one side and thinking afresh.

This caused faulty thinking that led to dubious suggestions for improvement. Specifically, some people instinctively clung to the notion that glasses were always there to be filled (even when they were there to be played). This led to a suggestion that the mechanism and sound of the glass harmonica could be improved if its sideways-on glass bowls were partially submerged in a trough of water. Suffice to say (and as the previous link explains) this dubious "improvement" proved disastrously cacophonous.

It is often our stuck and habitual thinking, our personal versions of the above "Wine Glass Thinking", that can hinder our ability to identify and develop innovative ideas.

Tuesday, 21 August 2018

The glass harmonica: a story of creativity and innovation (No.18)

To see the previous posts in this series click here.

People often react to new inventions in unexpected ways. These can sometimes have positive consequences, but they can also cause negative ones. 

The introduction of the glass harmonica caused three particularly noteworthy unexpected reactions.

Here is the third reaction:

People suggested and made dubious improvements to the glass harmonica due to ignorance or misunderstanding of its underlying principles.

Some people, having seen one or two old and un-played glass harmonica's, suggested that the instrument could be improved by immersing its glass bowls in a trough of water.

This modification was expected to achieve two things:
  1. Players would not need to wet their fingers at regular intervals.
  2. The glass harmonica would adopt and adapt the tried and tested approach of its predecessor, the glass harp (which used a number of glasses, each glass filled with water that tuned it to a precise tone).
The above modification was eventually tested by a glass harmonica player, William Zeitler, and the results were far from ideal; they were, in fact, cacophonous.    
This was because the idea of improving the performance of the glass harmonica by immersing its bowls in water was based upon a lack of understanding about how the instrument worked.

Each of the glass harmonica's bowls is pre-tuned (blown and ground to the correct size and depth to produce the required tone) and water is used only to moisten the fingers sufficiently to produce a smooth and singing sound.

Once these bowls were immersed in water, haphazardly altering the space for resonance within each bowl, the pre-tuning of each bowl was lost. This splintered the glass harmonica's carefully graduated scale of tones into ear piercing shards of sound.

The lesson for any new invention is clear:

Lacking an understanding of its underlying principles, people may suggest dubious modifications to a new invention that could limit its effectiveness or make it ineffective.

To read the last post click here.

Monday, 20 August 2018

The glass harmonica: a story of creativity and innovation (No.17)

To see the previous posts in this series click here.

People often react to new inventions in unexpected ways. These can sometimes have positive consequences, but they can also cause negative ones. 

The introduction of the glass harmonica caused three particularly noteworthy unexpected reactions.

Here is the second reaction:

Rumours about the glass harmonica emerged and spread that affected the instrument's popularity and development.

Rumours began to emerge and spread about the glass harmonica soon after its premier.

There were two main types of rumour: superstitious rumours and seemingly rational rumours.

The superstitious rumours credited the sound of the glass harmonica with supernatural powers that were mostly perceived as malign, causing people to become depressed or go mad (or fall ill or die).

The seemingly rational rumours focused on the manufacture of the instrument: specifically, its glass bowls. A rumour emerged that the lead used to make these bowls was poisoning glass harmonica players through contact with their fingers. There is no evidence that such poisoning is possible.

Both types of rumours were based upon similar instances of ill health (mental and physical) and unexpected death. The seemingly rational rumours were based upon the ill health and deaths of some of the glass harmonica's players and ignored the fact that most well-known players, including Benjamin Franklin, led long and healthy lives. The superstitious rumours were also fuelled by this evidence, plus the unfortunate deaths of one or two audience members (who had promptly expired, seemingly upon exposure to the glass harmonica's malignant tones). 

The superstitious rumours primarily affected the popularity of the glass harmonica, contributing to its eventual disappearance from the mainstream musical repertoire.

The seemingly rational rumours not only contributed in a similar way to the demise of the instrument but also hobbled its development and lessened its effectiveness. For example, to avoid supposed lead poisoning through hand contact with the lead glass bowls, a keyboard mechanism was placed between the player's hands and the glass. Given the nature of the instrument and the sensitive and subtle contact needed with the glass to produce the music, this modification proved less than effective.

Lastly, the above rumours grew within and emerged from pockets. These pockets were geographic and demographic, and they were closely associate with each other. The geographic pocket was centred upon the city of Vienna, and the demographic pocket was situated within this city's affluent upper classes.

18th century Vienna's closely networked and influential upper class, together with the city's reputation as a cultural and social trend setter, ensured that rumours about the glass harmonica were not only spread rapidly within Vienna but also (once they emerged from the confines of the city) taken seriously by others in Europe and around the world.

The lessons for any new invention are clear:

Rumours about a new invention will inevitably emerge and spread. Some of these may be based upon old or even superstitious thinking and some may be seemingly rational. The former rumours could adversely affect the popularity of an invention. The latter rumours could not only adversely affect the popularity of an invention but also significantly hinder its development and effectiveness. 

At first, the rumours will be generated within identifiable geographic and demographic pockets. If these pockets are perceived as influential, the rumours will quickly spread to other areas and be taken seriously by many people.

To read the next post click here.

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

The glass harmonica: a story of creativity and innovation (No.16)

To see the previous posts in this series click here.

People often react to new inventions in unexpected ways. These can sometimes have positive consequences, but they can also cause negative ones. 

The introduction of the glass harmonica caused three particularly noteworthy unexpected reactions.

Here is the first reaction:

The glass harmonica was used in strange and unexpected ways.

As Franklin states, he created the glass harmonica so that it could "admit a greater number of tunes". Not long after its invention, however, the instrument's otherworldly sound attracted the attentions of people who imagined other uses for it.

Dr Franz Mesmer was one such person. He developed an early form of medical therapy, which became popularly known as Mesmerism, that sought to use a force called "animal magnetism" or "lebensmagnetismus" to enhance people's health.

On hearing the glass harmonica, Dr Mesmer immediately perceived its sound as an auditory manifestation of this lebensmagnetismus and consequently sought to incorporate the instrument into his therapy regime.

As the centuries have progressed, Mesmerism has faded from medical practice. The unique look and sound of the glass harmonica, however, has continued to attract similarly unexpected attention. Most recently, the instrument has been incorporated into New Age and other assorted alternative medical therapies.

This unexpected use of the glass harmonica has positive outcomes. It could also have a negative outcome.

The positive outcomes are that the instrument continues to be played and that its profile is maintained within a significant segment of the population.

The negative outcome could be that its association with non-mainstream thinking and practices, many of which emphasise spiritual if not supernatural aspects, could give the glass harmonica an on the fringe "New Age" reputation as an instrument used to conjure and direct mystical forces rather than make music (the latter, after all, being the purpose for which it was intended).   

The lesson for any new invention clear: 

An invention's use for unexpected and surprising purposes could assure a significant level of popularity and success. Dependent on the reputation it subsequently gains, however, these could be achieved at the expense of the invention's success within the area for which it was intended.

To read the next post click here.