Friday, 21 December 2012

Simply listen

When Wagner chose to open his opera Tristan and Isolde with a phrase that refused to resolve in the way that listeners’ expected he caused immediate disbelief and non – comprehension, quickly followed by frustration and even in some instances anger. At first these reactions seem out of proportion to the musical ‘offence’ caused, but when we take the human need for resolution into account perhaps they are a little easier to understand.

As a species we tend to assume instinctively that the problems and difficulties life throws at us can be solved. We believe that if we think creatively, have a willingness to do things differently and work long and hard enough we will be able to overcome almost any problem.

But the unique dissonance of the Tristan Chord questions this assumption. In one magnified, tortuous instant of sound it captures the emotional essence of a problem that has no easy solution. Tristan and Isolde love each other. Isolde is promised to and marries the king. Tristan is a trusted friend of the king. Do they betray their love for each other or do they betray their king? Not an easy situation to resolve!

Significantly, the Tristan Chord is one of the most analysed in the history of music (A quick web search will confirm this point!). People scrutinise it over and over again, looking for an effective and logical resolution to its tense ambiguity. It is almost as if the chord’s paradoxically transient but also suspenseful quality fixates many of those that hear it.

Perhaps a more fruitful way to appreciate the Tristan Chord is to live within its moment. We could cease trying to resolve it and start simply listening. We could begin to notice the feelings and intuitive responses we have to the music. We may then experience more clearly the power of the emotional insight contained within a single moment of sound.

The next time you are challenged by a difficult problem that refuses to be resolved stop battling against it. Accept its presence; sink into and explore it; become part of it; feel it from the inside out. The intuitive insights you gain may enhance your ability to manage its consequences. You may even find ways to turn them to your advantage.

Friday, 14 December 2012

Do it your way

Quite a while ago, I watched an amazing television programme about a very unusual musician. He was profoundly deaf and could experience the music he played and conducted through the vibrations felt within his fingers, hands and body.

This musical sense was very advanced. He could feel the subtly undulating waves of sound that marked out differing timbres, textures, dynamics and interpretations.

He gained a great deal of satisfaction from the music he performed. Those that performed with him also benefited from the unique insights his personal way of perceiving music gave him: he was able to suggest approaches and interpretations never even dreamt of by other musicians.

When asked if he would like to be able to hear music the way that most others did he replied that he would not. He said that he gained so much pleasure from the way he currently appreciated music that he did not want to change it for the world. Perhaps he was also aware that his unique musical sense gave him a special insight into music that others would find very difficult to emulate.
What is your personal preference for exploring issues and problems? Do you prefer to look at them, hear about them or feel your way through them? Or is it a specific mix of these senses? If you use your personal preferences for problem solving, rather than merely following a set system or house style, you will be more effective and enhance your enjoyment of the process. It will also help you uncover perspectives and solutions that others might miss.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Go back to the original

In 1874 Modest Mussorgsky composed a suite of piano pieces called ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’, each piece depicting the pictures viewed by a visitor to an art gallery. In 1922 Maurice Ravel rearranged the suite for full orchestra. Today, it is this latter version that is best known.

Ravel’s arrangement is extremely imaginative, showing off his genius for orchestration and making explicit those things that could only be implied in the original piano work.

The brilliance, colour and imagination of the orchestration, however, obscure some of the valuable characteristics of the original.

The piano version is very virtuosic. You can see and hear the pianist struggling with some of the passages. This makes watching and listening to a performance of it a very physical, visceral experience. The seemingly effortless brilliance of the orchestral version loses this aspect.

Also, the suite was written in memory of a recently deceased friend of Mussorgsky’s, the architect Viktor Hartmann. Arguably, the personal nature of Mussorgsky's grief is expressed best through the intimate medium of the solo piano rather than the very public arena of an orchestral performance.

Sometimes clearing away the rearrangements and modifications that have been made and added to something over time can reveal original features of forgotten value.

When you next want to improve a process, or find yourself having to address a problem that has arisen in a previously trouble free area, peel back the changes that have occurred to it over time and have a good, detailed look at the original.

Have various rearrangements and modifications obscured valuable aspects? Could a refocusing of attention upon the original foundations of a tottering process help to stabilise, strengthen and even improve it?

Friday, 23 November 2012

Apply transformation

The person credited with creating the musical technique ‘Thematic Transformation’ is the innovative, risk-taking composer Franz Liszt (1811-1886). 

His technique entailed taking musical ideas and changing them, sometimes radically, in order to explore different emotional, psychological and philosophical perspectives. 

Liszt’s Faust Symphonie (based on Goethe’s famous work) makes extensive use of thematic transformation. Liszt introduces us to Faust and the other characters (Gretchen and Mephistopheles), giving them their own musical themes. He then gradually transforms each of them through music, depicting the physical, psychological and emotional experiences and traumas of each protagonist. 

Interestingly, it is inaccurate to say that all the characters are given their own musical themes. Mephistopheles, the Devil, does not have any musical themes of his own but distorted, disfigured versions of Faust’s own musical themes, suggesting strongly that we all have our own devils within us.

Applying the above principle of transformation can help us to better understand and address many of the problems that we face in our lives and work. When next considering a problem ask the following types of questions: 
  •          How is the problem viewed through the eyes of others?
  •          How does exploring and appreciating these differing perspectives transform the problem?
  •          How do the views of staff, managers and board members transform the problem?
  •          How do the views of customers and stakeholders transform the problem?
  •          How do the views of your children transform the problem?
  •          How do the views of your partner transform the problem?
  •          How do the views of your parents transform the problem?
  •          How do the views of your friends and enemies transform the problem?
  •          How do the views of others not directly involved transform the problem?
  •          How does simply discussing the problem transform its nature?
  •          How does the passing of time transform the problem?
  •          How could the problem be transformed into the foundations of a solution?
  •          How could the perfect solution be distorted into new problems and difficulties?
  •          How does context and environment transform the problem?
  •          How does distancing yourself from the problem transform it?
  •          How does placing yourself within the problem transform it?
Transforming a problem by exploring and appreciating it from differing perspectives can help us discover innovative, mould breaking solutions.


Sunday, 4 November 2012

Slow it down

I play the piano, badly now and averagely when I was a young music student. For some reason a got through quite a number of piano teachers and each of them implored me to ‘slow down!’ They strongly encouraged me to practise pieces at a much slower tempo than that indicated for performance. This especially related to the fast and intricate passages.

As you can imagine, for a teenager full of hormones and eager to show off during the fast and loud bits this was something of a frustration. As a result I found this type of slow practice very difficult to do, but when I did manage it my playing benefited immensely.

Now, as I struggle to regain some of my technique, I continue to find the rewards of slow practice to be great. This is particularly so when I am grappling with the intricacies of Bach fugues. When I play this music in slow motion I notice harmonies and subtleties that I would not have noticed otherwise, and as I gradually speed up my playing my mastery of the music (and its tricky passages!) is that much more assured.

Sometimes we can be so keen to attain our goals or find solutions that we rush headlong towards them, barely noticing the subtleties and complexities of the problems we are trying to address. Unexpected difficulties can then spring up before us, causing us to falter in our progress.   

Consciously and systematically slowing down and experiencing our problems in slow motion can help us better appreciate not only their nature but also the full extent of their challenges.

Develop the habit of dividing a problem into short segments or parts. Take your time as you look over them. Notice their intricacies and interrelations and how they develop and grow towards the overall problem. Pause and reflect before coming to any conclusions about what you have found. You will then be able to identify, develop and execute your approach to solving your problem that much more effectively than otherwise.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Turn your problem into a song

The song is one of the oldest and most enduring of musical structures. It has a simple form: verses narrate the song’s story and a chorus encapsulates its key message. As the verse carries the burden of the narrative, its tune is usually less memorable than that of the chorus. The chorus needs a memorable, catchy tune in order to highlight the key message and help people sing along.

When thinking about issues and problems apply the principles of the song. What are the verses of the problem? What is its narrative? What are its various components or differing aspects? When analysing the verses of the problem what chorus emerges? What is consistently emphasised as each verse passes by? This aspect may well be the major, underlying issue that needs to be addressed.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Time shift

One of the most famous musical examples of time shifting is Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony. In the words of Prokofiev, his Classical Symphony is ‘as Haydn (one of the greatest composers of the 18th century) might have written it had he lived in our day’.

Listening to this symphony can be likened to the experience of meeting an old friend after a long time apart. They will have moved on with their life and updated their image and wardrobe but their essential character and what originally made them attractive still shines through (perhaps even more brightly than before). As a result, we are reminded of the worth of the person and how our friendship with them enhances us.

Prokofiev’s symphony is written in his own modern style but Haydn’s spirit pervades it. Formality and correctness of structure where very important in Haydn’s time, so great care and attention is given to the overall form and balance of the symphony. Additionally, and more specifically, the piece is brim full with the spirit of fun, wit and invention that was so characteristic of Haydn’s personal style.

By time shifting the spirit of Haydn’s music to within his own modern musical style, Prokofiev creates an innovative symphony that not only stimulates the ear but also invites the listener to revisit and perhaps more greatly appreciate the principles at the heart of Haydn’s classical approach.

We too can use time shifting. Like Prokofiev we can adapt a past approach to a current challenge or problem. We can also gain new perspectives on problems and additional ideas about how to address them by placing them in the future or the past.

Ask yourself the following questions:

·      How does the problem look when placed in the future? What would it look like in a few weeks, 1 year, 10 or more years from now? How does the way you view it change and what are the implications of this? What insights have you gained and how could they help you deal with the problem now?

·       How does the problem look when placed in the past? What would it have looked like a few weeks, 1 year, 10 or more years ago? How does the way you view it change and what are the implications of this? What insights have you gained and how could they help you deal with the problem now?

·       How would you have solved the problem a few weeks, 1 year, 10 or more years ago? Can the approach be adapted to your current situation? How can you do this successfully?

·       How would you solve the problem in a few weeks, 1 year, 10 or more years from now? Can the approach be adapted to your current situation? How can you do this successfully?


Friday, 7 September 2012

Show people what you mean

There is a passage in Rimsky Korsakov’s orchestral piece Capriccio Espagnol that is pure musical theatre. One of the movements is in the style of a Spanish gypsy song and during one memorable passage the violin and viola players remove their instruments from under the chin and begin to strum them like guitars (quasi guitara). The effect of seeing so many people playing their instruments in this novel way is stunningly memorable and it enhances the Spanish flavour of the music greatly, really conjuring up the image of Spanish guitar players strumming away in the village streets and cafes of Asturian Northern Spain.

Visually demonstrating something can be a very powerful way of making meanings, consequences and intentions clear. How can you most graphically demonstrate the nature and consequences of your problems and/or the appropriateness and effectiveness of your ideas for dealing with them? What will really grab people’s attention, keep their gaze and help them clearly see what you mean?

Try some of the following:

  • Create a picture, diagram or cartoon strip of your problems and/or your ideas for dealing with them. 
  • Create a colourful and memorable story that describes the background to your problems and how your ideas for dealing with them were thought of and developed.
  • Let people see your problems at first hand and show them your suggested solutions in action.
  • Encourage people to physically experience the problems and/or the possible solutions by acting them out.

Friday, 31 August 2012

Aim at unity not uniformity

Those musical ensembles that stand out as the most original and best achieve a difficult feat: they are able to reconcile the tensions between the individual’s need for self-expression and the group’s need for unity of purpose and direction.

John Aldiss, the well-known choral conductor, encouraged each singer to sing with his or her own unique voice within the overall sound world or ‘harmony’ of his choir. The Takacs Quartet, generally accepted to be one of the best string quartets in the world, achieves a similar thing. When writing about its playing, critics comment that even within very difficult, dense and contrapuntal passages each player manages to keep their own individual voice whilst simultaneously supporting and creatively weaving between around those others that surround it.

Often, when responding to demands for quick wins and instantly innovative solutions, we can force harmony between people, flattening out the unique contributions that individuals could make and forcing their voices down uncomfortably constraining lines.

If you want your group to make best use of an individual’s ideas and identify truly innovative solutions, you need to reconcile the tensions between the individual and the group. This needs to be done not by forcing a compressed cohesion but by respecting and supporting the individual voices we hear and interact with.

The next time you need a group to address a problem and discover innovative solutions to it seek to acknowledge, encourage and make use of individual perceptions and ideas by:

  • Giving each person the opportunity to attune their thoughts to the problem and think about their own interpretations of and responses to it.
  • Explicitly acknowledging and valuing individual perceptions and ideas.
  • Providing a clear structure for addressing the issue that allows each person the time and space to express and explore their ideas.
  • Explicitly looking for ways to combine and weave individual perceptions and ideas together in new, interesting and supportive ways.
  • Working hard at incorporating differing perceptions and ideas into the overall latticework of the group’s endeavours rather than doing your best to pick them out and leave them to one side. 

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

One step back, two steps forward

I started playing the trumpet at 11 years old and by 18 I had worked my way through the various examinations, attaining the final and most advanced level 'with distinction'.

Needless to say I felt rather pleased with myself. 

On the back of this success I applied for and gained a place at music school. Again I felt rather pleased with myself.

My trumpet tutor was a past co-principal trumpet with the London Symphony Orchestra: very highly respected.

I played for him. He listened intently and when I had finished playing he said, 'We need to rebuild your technique from the bottom up. We need to start by working on your breathing and the way you place the mouthpiece on your lips.'

No gentle easing into things. No mention of the intricacies of the music or my interpretation of it. It was an instant and gigantic step back to basics.

Suffice to say I no longer felt that pleased with myself.

At first I was crestfallen. It took me a week or three to come to terms with it all. The amount of work I was going to have to do! The things that I had taken for granted that I was going to have to relearn! The bad habits I was going to have to overcome!

But over the next 3 years and with the expert help and support of my teacher I was able to rise to the challenge. I learnt how to breath properly, pulling the air down into my stomach. I practised this until it was completely natural to me. I repositioned the mouthpiece upon my lips, putting more emphasis on the bottom lip and less on the weaker and less mobile top lip. This took a while to get used to as it meant that I had to build up a completely new muscle structure around my lips and mouth and within my cheeks. But again I just kept practising until it all merged comfortably into place.

By the time of my final trumpet recital I was a changed player. By taking a step back I had, eventually, taken at least two forward. My tone was fuller than before and my stamina, very important for a brass player, was much improved. Also, I could play high notes that were previously unattainable for me.  

Now, after 3 years hard work and having taken a significant step towards my degree, I had earned the right to feel somewhat pleased with myself.

Sometimes the best way forward is to take a step back. It can feel disheartening at times, but if you stick with it the dividends you eventually receive can be well worth it.

Taking a less senior job, going back to school, resitting examinations, restarting a project: all of these present opportunities to rethink your approach to things. How can you add to your knowledge and expertise? How can you take advantage of interesting opportunities and creative options that were missed first time round?

So the next time you are presented with a challenge that necessitates a disheartening backward step, do your best to focus upon the specific opportunities it could present:

  • Now that you have a valuable second chance what will you do differently?
  • What new avenues or approaches will you explore and try out?
  • How will you build upon what you learnt first time round?
  • Which areas will you pay more attention to and work harder at?
  • Which areas do you wish you had taken the time to enjoy? How will you make sure you do this?

Friday, 6 July 2012

Do the simple, silly thing

Years ago, I used to play the trumpet. One of the ways I ‘warmed up’ before a rehearsal or performance was to pick up my mouthpiece and play it by itself. This Spike Milligan like raspberrying never failed to gain a smile from anyone passing by, even if they were seasoned and professional musicians. Its silliness always seemed to appeal to people at a very instinctive, almost childlike level.

It was my turn to do the smiling when I heard the 2nd Trumpet Concerto by H K Gruber. During a concerto it is usual for the soloist to make a memorable and grand entrance. Gruber subverted this characteristic by making it memorable but comic. The soloist made his first entrance by playing the mouthpiece alone. It was a simple, silly thing to do but it brought a smile to my face and immediately engaged me in what proved to be a very complex and difficult piece of music.

Gruber achieved an extremely effective and original opening to his concerto by having the courage to do the simple, silly, perhaps even childlike thing – and it worked wonderfully!

One of the greatest blocks to our creativity is our inability to appreciate simple, childlike, apparently silly or naïve approaches. Our serious, grown up way of thinking blinds us to their potential usefulness and smothers any childlike glimmers of interest we may fleetingly show in them.

If we are serious about wanting to address problems creatively we need to allow ourselves to be silly, to explore the childlike simplicity of naïve approaches. If we allow ourselves to do this we are likely to uncover ideas and approaches previously censored from our minds.

We may even find that some of the so-called silly or childish ideas are in fact the most simple, straightforward and effective ones to implement.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Music is creativity in the air!

Music is creativity in the air. It surrounds us like a second aural skin.

We desire the beat of its crashing waves of energetic sound and the calming strokes of its softly undulating tones and rhythms.

Music mirrors our lives: it has a beginning and an end; it quickly shifts from mood to mood; it is fast and slow; it has highs and lows; it works itself out as it flows along. Sometimes, we can hear it struggling with problems set deep within its beating heart.

If we open our ears and minds, music can offer us much: we can share in its creativity and apply its logic; we can benefit from its discipline; we can experience thoughts and emotions not easily expressed in words; we can learn invaluable lessons from the people who practise, perform, conduct and compose it.

Here, I will explore how we can absorb music's creative principles and practices into our lives and work: how we can develop a "musical sixth sense" that will strengthen our creativity and open our minds to innovation.