Saturday, 20 May 2017

This is how a collaborative person works: 16. lead with generosity and flexibility

(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.)


'The soloist was a woman, and a particularly beautiful one at that. Throughout the morning, she gave us her constant loving attention, making sure she always played to the orchestra, maintaining eye contact with each of them. The generosity which had led her to accept us, now shone out through the hall. After so much effort, we needed this. Sometimes, the players just couldn't react to her finely shaded interpretation and my accompaniment of her. So she changed it to work for them. I was impressed, and they were in awe.'

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



Much is said and written about how to lead collaboratively. Quite right too; it is and will continue to be an increasingly important and sought-after ability.

Sometimes, however, the more we think about and study something the less willing we become to acknowledge and value some simple truths about it.

Only when we see their power, in the moment, are we forced to turn and nod our heads in their direction.

The above quotation describes such a moment. The soloist is violin virtuoso Arabella Steinbacher and she is rehearsing Beethoven's Violin Concerto with the orchestra. 'Constant loving attention', 'always playing to the orchestra', 'maintaining eye contact with each of them': this is the moment to moment body language of not only a sensitive and collaborative musician but also a sensitive and collaborative leader. It radiates generosity and an enthusiasm for playing with rather than playing to: of working and performing with people rather than assuming and expecting that others are willing and able to follow the direction you wish to take.

The effect of Arabella Steinbacher's collaborative approach was two-fold: 1. it built a strong, warm and effective working relationship with the conductor and the orchestra; and 2, it laid the foundations for a performance which was less about straightforward compromise and more about uncovering complimentary strengths and subtly balancing and melding them.

The concert performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto was not likely to have been one that any of the performers had imagined beforehand; it was probably surprising and unique to the situation -- and stronger and more memorable as a result.

The lesson for anyone seeking to lead collaboratively is clear: be willing to live in the moment with your partners and demonstrate your generosity of spirit and flexibility of action through your moment-to-moment interactions with them. Yes, keep your direction and purpose in mind but be open to and willing to embrace the variations your partners seek to weave in and around them. You will then most likely achieve your goals in unique and surprisingly effective ways.

Friday, 19 May 2017

This is how a collaborative person works: 15. encourage, involve, appreciate and develop women

(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.)


'I had no interest in playing to cultural sensitivities around the inferior position of women in Iraq, and readily looked at talented female as well as male tutors.'

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


Here, Paul is challenging the inferior position of women in Iraq head-on. This was essential to the success of the NYOI on at least three levels:

1. Encouraging women to play full parts within the NYOI, as not only tutors (as described above) but also players within the orchestra, ensured it had sufficient quality musicians to be viable and sustainable over a number of years.

2. Where their quality and ability merited it, encouraging and selecting women to take leading roles within the orchestra (as tutors, section leaders or managers of key support functions, etc.) created role models which showed that women could not only do these roles but sometimes do them better than their male colleagues. This contributed to achieving two interconnected NYOI goals: 1. providing all its young musicians, whatever their gender or backgrounds, with as many opportunities as possible to realise their potential; and 2. giving its players the confidence to go on and take leading roles within their country's wider artistic life.

3. Encouraging women in the above ways helped the NYOI tap into the skills, qualities and characteristics most usually unique to women. This is beautifully described by the following:

'Sabat's sister, Saween, a modest violinist, transfixed everyone with her incredible voice. Incanting deep Kurdish sorrow without a trace of Western vibrato the filigree butterflies emanating from her glottal twists and turns fluttered straight into our stomachs.'

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

The context of Iraq emphasises the importance of helping women play full and influential parts within not only collaborative projects which need their skills but also societies and cultures which, because of their attitude toward women, are at best only half resourced.

This is equally important within less extreme collaborative and cultural contexts. Look around at those working with you. Do you have enough partners to sustain your work? If not, does this coincide with an absence of women? Have women with the required qualities and abilities been given the same opportunities as men to take lead roles? Lastly, and perhaps most challengingly for those who think themselves sufficiently diversity aware, are you really identifying and taking advantage of the unique skills, qualities and characteristics of the women working with you?

Friday, 5 May 2017

This is how a collaborative person works: 14. choose the right vehicles for your context, your people and their motivation

(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.)


'The electricity cut out during our Skype call. This is why classical music is such a good art form for Iraq. You don't need to plug in a cello!'

'I decided we should also perform Beethoven's Prometheus Overture, a fitting start to as bold an act of creation as ourselves, and finish with Haydn's Symphony No 99. These two works lay at the heart of my pedagogy, as the musicians couldn't help but learn about their various roles as orchestral players, melodically, harmonically and rhythmically.'

'Haydn's Symphony No 99 was not only my best guess at what they could pull off in two weeks, but also an injection of humour. Haydn revels in his false starts and finishes, witty turns of phrase, pregnant daft pauses and great tunes. 

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


The first quotation cuts to the chase in explaining why classical music was such a good vehicle for artistic collaboration within Iraq: it did not overly rely on technology and the energy needed to power it!

The second quotation emphasises how important it was to find and focus upon music which would help the young players of the NYOI develop the broad range of skills needed to collaborate musically and perform orchestral music well.

The third quotation illustrates the care needed in finding music which would maintain the young players motivation by being not only suitably challenging but also appropriately enjoyable to play.

The above makes it clear that amongst everything which has to be thought about and addressed whilst starting and developing any collaborative project, three questions must be given priority:

  1. What is the best vehicle or form of collaboration to meet the needs and limitations of your context? 
  2. Which vehicles, projects or activities will help you and your partners develop the skills needed to perform effectively and attain the collaboration's goals?
  3. Which vehicles, projects or activities will achieve the right balance between being not only suitably challenging but also enjoyable (or at least fulfilling) to do?               

The last question is often the least asked but can be the most important to answer, especially when encouraging people to do new and difficult tasks and achieve new and ambitious goals.

Monday, 1 May 2017

This is how a collaborative person works: 13. welcome provocation

(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.)


'Orchestra of Dreams, Channel Four's news segment on us, aired that evening. With it came the first taste of some tough questions. How did it feel accepting money from a government that invaded Iraq? Was this guilt money? Zuhal and I were taken aback but also grateful for the provocation, which helped us read the visit's political undercurrents.'

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


The above quotation relates to a documentary aired during the NYOI's 2012 tour of the UK. It emphasises how important it is to welcome and be grateful for provocative comments and questions.

Arguably, this is particularly so for collaborative initiatives which are ground breaking and consequently often seen as controversial (just like the NYOI).

This is because many such collaborations find themselves working against the grain of establishment practice and public opinion and the provocations received from the custodians of the former and the representatives of the latter help them enhance the clarity and acceptability of their purpose and key messages, improve their overall effectiveness and, importantly, prepare for any negative reactions, unhelpful political manoeuvrings or animal traps placed in their way.

When listened to openly and carefully, provocative questions and comments reveal much about the preoccupations and interests of the people a collaboration has to work with, work around and, in some cases, work against.

So, as well as getting your mouth ready to make arguments in defence of your collaboration, get your ears ready to listen very carefully to what people are saying and how people are saying it (and get your eyes ready to notice where and when they are choosing to say it).

Then, as I say above, you will be able to use what you have discovered to not only enhance your effectiveness within the context you are working but also prepare for and perhaps avoid the harmful frictions and painful splintering that comes of working against the grain.