Thursday, 19 December 2013

Get a personal upgrade

A renowned conductor was giving a master class. He was standing next to a young man who was conducting an orchestra. The maestro's gaze shifted to and fro between the young conductor and the orchestra as he appraised the quality of the communication, engagement and understanding being created between them as the music flowed onward...

The baton waved; the music flowed; the baton waved; the score flicked over; the score flicked over; the score flicked over; the score flicked over. The maestro stepped forward, put one hand on the young man’s shoulder and with the other signalled for the orchestra to stop playing.

He acknowledged the response from the orchestra and then looked directly at the young man. ‘Do you know the music?’ he asked.
‘Yes,’ the young man replied. ‘I know it by heart.’
‘Then why look at the score?’ The maestro paused for a moment, then continued, ‘It is safe to look at the score, comfortable, but it is better to look at your players, more effective, more exciting! When you look at your players directly they will upgrade you; you will become more credible in their eyes.’

The maestro closed the score. He then stood back, a flick of his hand inviting the young man to continue conducting. This time the young man’s gaze remained firmly and consistently upon the players of the orchestra, a smile forming gradually upon his lips. 

The maestro did not step forward again until the end of the music.

When communicating with others most of us are guilty of playing safe and choosing the comfortable option. We look down at our notes or, even worse, back at our PowerPoint slides rather than at the people we are communicating with. This makes us as unmemorable as the screen upon which we watch our favourite films or television programmes; we become merely the medium through which our notes or slides communicate their messages, nothing more. So those listening to and watching us downgrade us: downgrade us to the status of an unremarkable transmitter or messenger with which they have no engagement or rapport and for which they have no respect.

When communicating with others stop bowing to your notes or worshipping your PowerPoint. Stop giving them your power. It is good to have these things by your side or at your back but, if you have prepared well, looking at and referring to them should be the exception to the following rule:

Look at those you are communicating with.
Give people the opportunity to see you as something more than an unremarkable, unmemorable, uninspiring transmitter of information. Give them the opportunity to engage with and respect you. Give them the opportunity to upgrade you!

Sunday, 1 December 2013

The expressivity/exactness matrix

“There are two components to conducting, expressiveness and exactness. These two components are in dialectical opposition to each other; in fact, they cancel each other out. A conductor must find the way to bring the two together.”

Ilya Aleksandrovich Musin
Conductor Maker

Ilya Musin (1906 to 1999) was a Russian conductor and renowned teacher of conductors. His identification of the paradox that lies at the heart of the art of conducting, the need to be both expressive and exact in one’s communication with the orchestra, is of immense significance, for not only conductors but also others who want to develop and utilise their skills to an exceptional level.

Exceptional performance within any sphere requires the ability to be both exact and expressive in our actions, to be technically reliable, accurate and consistent, and uniquely expressive, imaginative and creative. The best soccer players, golfers and tennis players can not only execute their skills perfectly time after time, but also combine and use them in new and unexpected ways that enhance their performance and surprise and delight their audiences. Think of Messi and his visionary passing, Ballesteros and his gift of recovery around the greens, Federer and his ability to wrong foot his opponents with unexpected shots and angles; they can not only execute their skills accurately and consistently but also find ways to express their personal style and uniqueness through their sport.

Many highly successful scientists are not only technically rigorous but also uniquely creative, imaginative and even playful in their approaches, again able to express their personal style and uniqueness through their vocation (Galileo and his imaginative and playful experiments, Einstein and his memorable and engaging thought experiments, and Richard Feynman and his creative and practical lectures).

So, how can we all work towards achieving and combining the exactness and expressiveness that leads to exceptional performance? The first thing to make clear is that it takes time and disciplined effort. For most of us it takes about ten years to achieve the fluency of thought and action that is an essential requirement for top level performance. Having said this, appreciating how the two dimensions of expressiveness and exactness interact with each other can act as a helpful springboard, providing the impetus for our initial and on-going efforts.                        

Exactness relates to our ability to execute our skills, apply our knowledge and use our experience. If we are low in exactness we will find it difficult to execute our skills, apply our knowledge and use our experience consistently, efficiently and effectively. If we are high in exactness we will more easily be able to execute our skills, apply our knowledge and use our experience consistently, efficiently and effectively.

Expressiveness relates to our ability to express our unique perceptions and preferences and demonstrate the blend of skills and attitudes that constitute our personal style. If we are low in expressiveness we will find it difficult to express our unique perceptions and preferences and demonstrate the blend of skills and attitudes that constitute our personal style. If we are high in expressiveness we will more easily be able to express our unique perceptions and preferences and demonstrate the blend of skills and attitudes that constitute our personal style.         

These two dimensions of exactness and expressiveness can be combined to create the above matrix, which can be used to inform and support the development of our skills and the personal style we use to deliver them.

The matrix consists of four quadrants:

The beginner quadrant is where we are at the beginning of our journey towards mastery of our skills and acquisition of our personal style. We are low in exactness and expressiveness. We do not have the skills, knowledge and experience we need and therefore lack the confidence to express ourselves and develop our personal style. Key to moving out of this quadrant is successfully identifying and taking those first few crucial steps that will help us begin to develop the skills and gain the knowledge, experience and confidence we need.

The loose cannon quadrant is where we are if expressing ourselves within our chosen field comes easily but reliable and consistent execution of its technicalities does not. We are high in expressiveness and low in exactness. We possess a personal style that needs to be polished; others commonly perceive us as possessing a 'natural but raw talent'. We are capable of flashes of insight and brilliance but they are unpredictable and unreliable. We do not know how we succeed at things and so we find it hard to replicate those successes as and when needed. Key to moving out of this quadrant is to identify and focus on our key strengths and attributes, find out precisely why and how they work and then practise these aspects until we can call upon them at will, so ensuring consistent and effective execution. We also need to try out these aspects and approaches in different contexts to identify when they are most and least appropriate and/or effective.

The technician quadrant is where we are if we can execute our skills and apply our knowledge within our chosen field accurately, consistently and effectively, but whilst doing so we find it difficult to express ourselves individually, imaginatively and creatively. We are high in exactness and low in expressiveness. We need to identify and develop a personal style. We may be perceived as reliable and a ‘safe pair of hands’ but not a ‘star performer’ capable of delivering brilliant and unique ideas and performance. Key to moving out of this quadrant is moving away from our comfort zones and the usual or generally accepted ways of doing things. We need to explore differing approaches and ways of doing things and identify those that intrigue us, appeal to us and perhaps even positively challenge us the most. We then, through experiment and practice, need to fine tune and blend them to create our unique style, our unique way of going about our chosen work.

The maestro quadrant is where we are if we can execute our skills and apply our knowledge consistently and effectively and in doing so express ourselves individually, imaginatively and creatively. We are high in exactness and high in expressiveness. We possess a mature and evolving personal style. We are likely to be perceived as someone who can suggest different and insightful ways of looking at things and effectively implement innovative ways of doing things. We are the people organisations and businesses rely on to create their competitive edge and help them become acknowledged leaders in their fields. Key to staying in this quadrant is battling complacency. We need to continue growing and developing our skills, knowledge and experience. We need to seek out new and exciting challenges. We need to make a habit of seeking and acting upon feedback. Lastly, and arguably most importantly, we need to reinforce our own skills through helping to develop those of others.

Look out for future posts that will give you more ideas about how to move out of the beginner, loose cannon and technician quadrants and continue to develop within the maestro quadrant.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Make mistakes make things better

It was the world premier of Elgar’s 2nd Symphony. Elgar was conducting. The music was complex, difficult and demanding and all the players needed to be on top form.

The lead trumpeter was mentally preparing himself. The music was climbing towards a climax -- a climax he would finish-off by playing an extremely high, long and exposed note. The moment was swiftly approaching; the trumpeter took a deep breath and began to play, joining the gathering upward swell of the music that was ever reaching up and up towards his climactic high note. It took great effort and stamina and no little concentration to get there, but get there he eventually did – perfectly!

But in that moment of climax the effort expended in getting there caused the trumpeter to mentally blank out and stop counting. As a result he played the high and incredibly exposed note for two bars too long!

Devastation! Embarrassment! To make such a mistake in front of the great composer was unforgivable! Straight after the performance the crestfallen trumpeter rushed to Elgar’s dressing room to apologise. He found Elgar standing, bent over a table and carefully writing something into a score. The trumpeter’s earnest apology streamed forth.

Elgar looked up from the score and smiled. ‘Thank you,' he said.
‘Apologise was the least I could do,’ replied the trumpeter.

‘No apology necessary,' said Elgar reassuringly. ‘The longer note you played was an improvement,' and pointing to the score on the table with his pen he said, ‘I have already written it in!’

Mistakes cannot always be avoided, but they can sometimes help us enhance things in unexpected ways (just as they did for Elgar and his symphony). The next time you or anyone else makes a mistake ask yourself the following questions:
  • How could its results or consequences be used to improve things?
  • Has it uncovered a potential solution?
  • Has it presented an opportunity to talk to someone or do something that you would not otherwise have had?
  • Can you learn anything from the mistake and its causes that could be useful to you in the future?
  • How could you exploit what is interesting about the mistake and its causes?

Friday, 15 November 2013

Kleibergram it!

Carlos Kleiber is widely recognised as one of the greatest conductors of recent times. Part of this greatness lies in the unique ways he communicated with his orchestras. He not only used creative ways to explain his musical requirements (he once said he wanted the opening of Beethoven's Coriolan Overture to "sound like a Rolls Royce crashing into a wall at sixty miles an hour" - quite a powerful image for musicians to have in their minds as they start to play) but also worked hard at acknowledging, supporting and enhancing the contributions of individual musicians.
He would write short notes to players describing what he wanted them to do. These notes were not, however, curt directives but polite, personalised handwritten notes that went something like this:
"Clarinets basses - "Tristan und Isolde" 5-5-78 Prelude 1 action, 5th to 10 bars with the ending: please, do not enter without me, because I wait for a long time here. And maybe this attack should be lighter. Thank you very much, good luck, yours Carlos Kleiber." 
Here is another example:
"Take Note Horns (I, II and III) Rosenkavalier Act  III, 4 before 22 Please do not hurry the 12/8 etc but place them very exactly toward ‘2’ and ‘D.C.’. (There is a lot of difficult stuff going on the while!) Bassoons and violas are with you. With best wishes and regards. Yours C. Kleiber"
He closed this note with his rubber-stamped ‘Thank You’, and his usual imprint of a happy face.
These short notes have very clear characteristics:

  • They are always handwritten by Kleiber
  • They are always very specific and focused upon what is happening or what needs to be done  
  • They are always personally delivered
  • They are always delivered at the right time (not just before the performance begins)  
  • They are always polite and respectful in tone
  • They always show that Klieber is listening carefully to individual players (that he is aware of what they are doing)
  • They always wish people good luck or the best (they are always 'up beat' in manner)
  • They always say thank you
This is a very impressive list for notes that are only a few sentences in length, and it explains why they were so effective in encouraging players to give of their best during performances. Indeed, the personal acknowledgement these notes provided, along with their personally tailored feedback and suggestions, caused many of the players to whom they were given to keep, preserve and value them, almost like holy relics.

When working with others we can often underestimate the power of a brief comment that is well delivered, be this face to face or, as in Kleiber's case, written as a note. We can often assume that because a comment is brief it must also be lightweight and insignificant or sharp and directive, but (as the above 'Kleibergrams' show) this is not the case. 

It is the characteristics and manner of a comment or note that matters, not its length or seemingly weighty complexity.

When working with others do not underestimate the power of a well-crafted short note or comment. Apply the characteristics of Kleibergrams to the brief comments you make to people about their work and contributions; watch people's faces light up as they respond warmly to you and eagerly seek ways to enhance their work with you.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Re-express your idea

The British Composer Peter Maxwell Davies arranged a keyboard piece by J.S. Bach, the Third Prelude in C Sharp Major from the First Book of the 48 Preludes and Fugues, for a small instrumental ensemble, giving a prominent part to the Glockenspiel. This instrument consists of wooden blocks that when hit can create a uniquely mellow, delicate, slightly reverberating sound. Maxwell Davies re-expressed Bach’s piece through another musical medium, and in so doing brought to the fore an aspect of its character that perhaps had been hidden or at least not so easily appreciated in its original arrangement, this being its gently percussive quality. Additionally, the difference in sound texture between the glockenspiel and the other instruments in the ensemble served to illuminate the delicate, transparent interplay of the various musical lines and rhythms.

Re-expression is a tool commonly used by composers to enhance musical interest and bring out new, original perspectives. The same principle can be used to creatively explore the everyday problems and issues presented to us. What new perspectives are gained when different words are used to describe the problem? What happens if we re-express the problem as a picture or a sculpture? What happens if we invite someone else to express the problem in their own way, using their own words and phrases?

Re-expressing an issue or problem through a different medium can highlight the key fault lines that lie within it and illuminate unseen perspectives and avenues for exploration that could prove useful in effectively addressing or solving it.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Drop in the unexpected

I like to improvise on the piano.

I like to let my hands and mind take the lead and to follow where they take me. Sometimes, whether by luck, some kind of intuitive judgement or mistake, I surprise myself. An unexpected harmony or twist of melody drops into the music and gives it a whole new feel and direction that lights up my mind and energises my playing.

You see something very similar happen when musicians improvise together. One of them may drop in a surprising snippet of melody or an unexpected turn of harmony. The faces of the other players light up and their playing takes up and develops the unexpected phrase, taking the music in a new, creative and stimulating direction.      

It is this unexpectedness that gets the neurons firing, rewarding the brain with those strong feelings of pleasure that come of suddenly discovering something of beauty. This sense of pleasure causes the music to 'take off': to become inspired and to become inspiring. It causes the players to challenge themselves: to stretch their abilities and find other pleasurable musical moments to develop and explore.

Dropping in something unexpected is not only for musicians; it is something we can all do. That unexpected insight, observation or idea we keep to ourselves: drop it in. That person whom no one would expect to be invited: invite her. Those actions or decisions usually done sooner or later: do them now. That caring, supportive or pleasing comment we were keeping for a more suitable time: drop it in now. If no one expects you to have an opinion: drop one in. If no one expects your generosity or help: give it now.

Experience the pleasure of the unexpected and watch it ignite your own and others' creativity and enthusiasm.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Use the creative pause

Musicians know the power of the pause

They know that if all they do is play the notes all they do is lose their audience, confusing them, boring them, irritating them all at once!

They know how even the slightest of pauses can highlight a phrase, helping listeners to reflect upon it, comprehend its meaning and enjoy it.

They know how pausing can bring music to life, making its meaning clear and its beauty radiate.

There are different types of pause

There is the pause of anticipation, the pause of reflection, the pause that comes before a change and the pause before an ending.

There is also the pause that comes before the moment of understanding, the pause that allows our thoughts and emotions to converge and bloom into something new and exciting.   

The silence of the pause is truly golden and we can all realise its value

When you need to do some careful and creative thinking make sure you pause:

Pause - to gather your thoughts before starting.
Pause - to reflect before moving on.
Pause - to assimilate and understand what is happening.
Pause - to check your position before changing tack.
Pause - to take stock before ending.

Above all, pause to enjoy!

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Tap into the power of multiplication

Enthusiasm and joy etched upon her face the conductor raises her baton; she brings it down to create a massive, solid wall of sound.

The orchestra sees the conductor's instant, shining enthusiasm and mirrors and magnifies it a hundred fold: each player's enthusiasm building upon that of the conductor's, creating and projecting wave after wave of glorious sound.

The audience, seeing and hearing this rich harmony of enthusiasm, responds with attention, then growing excitement that eventually erupts into cheering, clapping, bravos and stamping - demands for more.

The conductor turns to receive the acclaim and sees, hears and feels her own passion reflected back at her - one thousand fold.

The audience receives its encore. 

Never under-estimate the power of your enthusiasm. Show it and watch it shine in other people's eyes. Watch it magnify and gain power within those around you. Then tap into it to create something extra, something valuable, that unexpected encore of a shared idea that will make all the difference.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Compose Collaboration

One way of defining a piece of music is as a vehicle created to encourage and exploit collaboration between people. Even a solo piano piece usually involves collaboration between the pianist and the person who put the notes down on paper; the composer creates the structure with directions and indications about how he or she feels it should be performed and the pianist interprets these through the perceptual filter of his or her knowledge, experience, preferences and emotional reactions to the music. Even if the pianist also wrote the piano piece there has still been collaboration with the piano maker, who has created the medium through which the composer/performer expresses his or her self.

It is this fusion between performer, composer, instrument maker and indeed many others (venue managers, lighting engineers, etc.) that creates the collaborative magic of performance. The composer’s notes on the page are dry and dead without the rich interpretive juices of the performer and the specialist knowledge, experience and skills of those who create and manage the mediums within and through which they are brought to life.  

Perceiving composition in this way, as the creation of collaborative structures that people can contribute to, help develop and bring to life, has led to the creation of new and inclusive forms of music that maximise the roles of everyone involved, including the listeners (an excellent example is the Toronto Symphony).
This innovative approach to composition demonstrates that focusing upon and valuing not only the act of collaboration but also the design of its mechanics and dynamics (the all important intricacies of when it will work, where it will work, how it will work and with what it will achieve things) can enhance the quality and effectiveness of the work people do together.   

When working with your partners how much attention do you give to the structures and processes that need to be built within, around and between your collaborations to ensure their success? Have you and your collaborators become composers of collaboration, giving as much thought, care and attention to when, where, how and with what you will collaborate as to the act of collaboration itself?
Ask yourself whether you have:

Provided easily recognisable cues or signposts that will prompt people towards interesting and significant areas and helpful people and resources? Have you made the entrances and pathways to and within your collaboration easy for people to find, enter and follow?

Decided upon the instruments you will use for your collaboration, the tools that will make your collaboration possible? Will these be physical (e.g. providing accessible and suitable accommodation where people can meet), virtual (e.g. creating online communities such as Wikipedia), human (e.g. recruiting people skilled in collaboration), or a specific mix of all three (as is the case with ground-breaking and innovative collaborative learning approaches, a good example being the Collaborative Contract Programme of the Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne, Australia)?
Ensured your collaborative structure can be re-arranged for the forces that are available or needed? Is it flexible and modular enough to be easily dismantled and reconstructed, allowing different partners to link up, share ideas and cooperate in a wide variety of stimulating and innovative ways?
Enabled partners to go solo when they need to? Do they have the private spaces to relax, consider and work on things on their own before discussing, sharing and developing ideas with others (as is the case for those contributing to Wikipedia)? Additionally, can different partners take the lead part as and when needed? Have you created ‘cadenza points’ within the structure of your collaboration that provide individual partners with the opportunities to demonstrate and use their virtuoso skills and expert knowledge to their own and others’ advantage (as is the case when a collaboration embraces the emergent expertise and experience of its collaborators and gives them the time, space and authority they need to influence its work and direction and enhance its outcomes).
Constructed the collaboration’s rules of 'harmony and counterpoint' and ensured that everybody understands them? Are there structures in place that help people consolidate agreements? Do you have processes that enable people to disagree in acceptable and constructive ways? Have you put in place conventions or ‘rules of performance’ that allow and encourage people to work together safely, share their ideas and create new and valuable things?

If you are interested in finding out more about collaboration please see my other blog: 

Monday, 2 September 2013

Music and collaboration come together again

Music and collaboration come together again.

Nothing else need be said!

(Although I will not be able to resist in a future post.)

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Integrate diverse ideas

For Sibelius and Elgar, the creation and linking of diverse ideas was the very foundation of their compositional style. Listening to a Sibelius symphony is like listening to a jigsaw in sound. Musical fragments are introduced, developed and then gradually combined, so that by the end of the symphony ideas that were diverse and unconnected have become joined up and unified, part of a greater whole.

When listening to an Elgar symphony this process of fragmenting and then unifying is not so obviously apparent, but a description of his compositional process is very insightful. One of Elgar’s friends describes entering a music room and being greeted by the sight of musical fragments scattered all around: pinned to walls, placed on chairs, covering the floor. Amongst all this was Elgar, looking from one fragment to another, identifying links, making connections and creating novel ways to develop and combine his ideas. This short anecdote illustrates very clearly that creating a stimulating, unified whole from diverse, independent and fragmentary ideas was central to Elgar’s compositional style.

We can apply the above approach to problem solving in general. Firstly, we need to generate lots of diverse ideas for solving the problem. Then we need to explore how each idea could be combined with the others in order to create new, even better ideas.

Ultimately, we need to explore whether or not one holistic, joined up solution can be found that successfully incorporates the majority of ideas generated.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Tell stories

There are many examples of story telling and narrative drive in music, from the country and western song, to the tone poems of composers such as Liszt and Richard Strauss, but perhaps the grandest example of story telling in music is opera. And perhaps the grandest and most ambitious of all opera is Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

It is worth standing back from this gigantic monument of a work to appreciate its timeless, story telling characteristics. There are heroes and heroines and impossible undertakings. There are villains who seek to undermine the heroic progress and replace it with one of their own. There are endings and new beginnings. There are victories and defeats and countless reversals of fortune and through it all, intertwined with the story's narrative, there are essential truths about the nature and meaning of life. 

In terms of the music itself, significant ideas and characters are given their own musical themes and these rise out of the musical ocean accompanying the action when they are particularly significant or the onward narrative demands it. In Wagner's operas this background, boiling ocean of ideas is not only symbolic of the subconscious and conscious feelings of the individual characters, but also of the overall feel of the world depicted, its ‘background radiation’, the cultural and psychological atmosphere within which the characters live and breath.  

It can often be very effective to take the above principles and apply them creatively to our problems and issues. Who are the key players and are they positive or negative forces (heroes, heroines or villains)? What are or could be their roles? How powerful are they and how important are they to the situation or problem? What challenges, events or tasks are crucial to your success? Which ones need special (perhaps heroic) attention, the mastery of specialist skills or the application of expert knowledge? What is the overall story of the problem? Where were its beginnings? What is its history, its back-story? How has its narrative progressed so far? How many subplots (secondary problems) have formed? When will all the subplots or secondary problems come to a head? How is it all likely to end? What type of ending would you like? What are the alternative endings? If it looks likely that it will end tragically how can you alter this (or at least survive to fight another day)?

Lastly, what type of atmosphere or background radiation surrounds the problem? Within what ocean of culture, thoughts and emotions does the problem exist? How has this shaped the problem? Indeed, is it the very reason for the problem's existence?

Friday, 12 July 2013

Transform mediocre ideas

Schubert was an exceptional songwriter; he could conjure great songs from mediocre poetry.

He was able to see the seed hidden within a cliché ridden poetic phrase and make it flower in music: to focus upon the smallest spark of inspiration and kindle it into flames of creativity. For example, in "An Die Musik" Schubert transforms sentimental "candyfloss" verse into a song that beautifully expresses his love of music.

Most innovative ideas begin life as mediocre ones. At first, just like anything new-born, they seem capable of nothing except devouring time and resources. But, given care and attention, they can transform into mature and beautifully crafted solutions.

The next time you are confronted with a new-born mediocre idea, look beyond its half-baked appearance for that small sharp spark of inspiration.

Give this spark your care and attention; help it transform into something excellent.

Follow on Twitter @charles_lines


Friday, 5 July 2013

Introduce the new by way of the familiar

Whilst listening to Elgar’s 2nd Symphony for the first time, I remember experiencing a very surprising but not unpleasant sensation. The music started as expected, perhaps a little subdued in places compared to Elgar’s normal style, but still very much recognisable as Elgar. Then, well into the first movement, I felt that I was being ever so gently but persistently nudged into a parallel universe of sound: one that I definitely did not recognise as ‘Elgarian’. It was magical and fantastical: the sort of music you might hear whilst dreaming of a forest at nightfall.

These dreamlike sounds were very different from Elgar’s usual musical style, and if he had started his symphony with them his audience would likely have been baffled. They might even have thought that they were listening to music by some other more modernistic or impressionistic composer. Indeed, their bafflement could have become strong enough to diminish their willingness to listen.

Elgar carried his audience with him by starting with what was familiar and then gradually introducing something new and innovative. We too can apply this approach when introducing and implementing new ideas. It is especially effective for gaining support from within cultures that are very traditional in their thinking (like Elgar’s Edwardian audience!).

When you next need to introduce and gain acceptance for new and innovative ideas, think about the following:
  • The current context or situation and how your ideas are relevant to and grow out of it.
  • The specific steps you can take to help people relate your ideas to their personal experiences and current situations.
  • How you can present your ideas as additional options that complement and build upon existing approaches.

Friday, 28 June 2013

Think first and act a little later

The composer Benjamin Britten was renowned for working on his pieces intensely and completing them quickly. His ‘Cantata Misericordium’ was due to be performed at the centenary celebrations of the Red Cross on the 1st of September 1963, and Britten composed it in May that year. This was very fast going for a major and complex piece of music.

Britten had, however, received the request for the piece at least eighteen months previously. He was very grateful for this because it enabled him to work in his preferred way, which was to give plenty of time to thinking and reflecting upon his approach before actually putting pencil to manuscript.

This period of contemplation and reflection enabled him to compose fluently and quickly because, as he sat down to write, he already had a clear idea of the overall feel and form of the piece and the key effects he wanted to achieve.

Frequently when problem solving we can confuse activity with effectiveness. We can dive headlong into problem solving without first taking a few steps back and pausing to reflect upon the overall nature of the problem, its context, its interrelated aspects and the various options and techniques available for solving it. When we do this we do not allow our more intuitive, big picture thinking to have the space it needs to influence and guide our actions.

Most of us are very unlikely to have the amount of advance notice of our problems that Britten had for his commission. We should not, however, discount the importance of allocating a meaningful amount of the time that we do have to thinking and reflecting rather than activity and action.

Time spent in contemplation and reflection is time well spent, as it enhances our overall understanding of our problems, clarifies our options for addressing them and can help guide our decisions about the activities and actions we eventually undertake.

If you think first and act a little later you may be pleasantly surprised by how intensely you can work and how quickly and effectively you can address the problems before you.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Dissect your thought-worms

A while back a BBC Radio 3 presenter explored the concept of ear-worms. These are melodies and fragments of music that despite our best endeavours play in our minds over and over again, like an auditory itch that cannot be scratched. 

The melodies that become ear-worms vary from person to person. Some of my own ear-worms are the Imperial March from the film Star Wars and the opening of Elgar’s 1st Symphony. Sometimes I just cannot get these tunes out of my head! What ear-worms do you have? 

We suffer from thought-worms in a similar way. These are ideas, questions and intuitive feelings that burrow away noisily within our minds. 

The reason we become so distracted by both ear and thought-worms is their insistent, repetitive and unchanging nature. Over and over again we hear and experience the same things and the more we try not to hear or think about them the louder and more persistent they become. 

The Radio 3 presenter encouraged her listeners to embrace and celebrate their ear-worms: to find out more about them, to examine their characteristics and place them within the broader context of the music as a whole. 

You can do similar with your thought-worms. Rather than becoming trapped within a repeating loop of thoughts and feelings you can interrupt the process.
Dissect your thought-worms and examine them. From where did they originate? What makes them so fascinating and insistent? What is the bigger picture or context that surrounds them? What important feelings or messages underpin them? What new directions could they point out and what discoveries could they help you unearth? 

By uncovering the mysterious attractions of your thought-worms you will discover their true meanings and the resulting insights you gain will shake your thoughts out of their repetitive loops and help steer them in new and stimulating directions.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Using music to turn conflict into manageable and helpful paradoxes

The complex issues, problems and paradoxes at the heart of modern life cannot be solved without effective collaboration, and the musical world is very good at it!

Visualise a symphony orchestra. Now imagine the complex collaboration needed to form, maintain and develop it. Think about the additional and intense collaboration needed during its performances.

Now consider how much more difficult it would be to achieve all of this within an environment of extreme uncertainty, conflict and attrition.

Surely the lessons learnt whilst achieving this would be of immense value to all of us, whatever our walk of life.

My interests in music, creativity and collaborative working do not often come together so obviously and dramatically as they did when I viewed this short presentation by Paul MacAlindin, Music Director of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq:

Paul MacAlindin youtube presentation

He talks about his collaboration with others to form and develop the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq. At the heart of his talk is an exploration of the ability of musical collaboration to take conflicts and turn them into paradoxes that can be managed to create positive and valuable results.

It has given me plenty to reflect upon as I continue to develop my understanding of creativity and the complex world of collaborative working. I hope it does the same for you.

Stop press!

The National Youth Orchestra of Iraq is shortly to tour the USA! For more information and to find out how you can help click here:

Friday, 31 May 2013

Practise detachment to gain success

  1. Identify, perfect and repeat your winning habits.
  2. Use your winning habits knowing that over time they will bring you consistent and great success.
  3. Detach your winning habits from the specific results you achieve at any given instant.
  4. The evidence will tell you that repeating your winning habits gives you huge and consistent success over time. It is this that matters, not what might or might not happen at any give instant of any given day.

I was in my last year at music college. I had spent three years honing my trumpet playing skills, developing my technique and adopting good playing habits.

The day of my final recital was swiftly approaching and I decided to give a public performance in a local church, as a kind of dress rehearsal.

It did not go well. The pianist accompanying me could not play his part. Even the acoustics in the hall seemed to work against me, making my playing seem distant and thin in tone. In addition, it was a very hot day and the church doors had been left open to let in the fresh air -- and the sound of heavy traffic from the main road. Not unsurprisingly, my concentration was upset and my playing adversely affected. The experience was in no way a good preparation for my final recital, quite the reverse in fact!

I finished playing. A disconsolate blend of half-hearted applause and traffic noise accompanied me as I left the stage. I quickly left the church and went to the local pub to drown my sorrows.

The next day I described the experience to my trumpet teacher. He listened, expressed his sympathy and concern and then said, 'All your hard work and carefully developed technique and habits have obviously deserted you then, and you have become a bad player overnight! Might as well give up!'. Importantly, he said this with a smile on his face, and I immediately got the message.

Over the next week I focused upon consolidating and developing the good technique and habits that my teacher and I had been working on over the years. As the hours and days went by the unpleasant memories of my last recital began to fade from my mind, and as they became more distant I was able to view them with detachment. It was a bad experience, but there were specific reasons why it had happened, reasons I could learn from. 

And, importantly, my good playing technique and habits were still strong and intact.

The day of my final recital arrived. I trusted in my carefully developed skills and habits.
The performance went well. When it had counted, my winning habits had provided me with the success I sought.         

Sometimes, however hard we work, circumstances work against us and we do not achieve the results we want or need.

But if we concentrate on doing the right things and developing the right habits these situations will be the exception to the rule. We will tend to have more successes than failures. At the very least we will be able to get up more times than we are knocked down!

So, when developing a new skill or addressing a challenge that is important to you remember the four points given above. Develop your own set of winning habits. Detach them from the results you achieve at any given instant of any given day; focus on the bigger picture. Trust that your carefully developed habits will win through in the end.

Friday, 24 May 2013

Lose the piano

When Prokofiev wrote his ‘Classical Symphony’ it was the first time he had composed without the aid of a piano.

Whilst writing, straight from head to page, he would have conceived the symphony in purely orchestral terms, unencumbered by the mediation of the piano and the constraints of its keyboard. It is highly likely that this change of compositional approach contributed significantly to the work’s immediacy of style and brilliantly colourful scoring. 

If you want to enhance your approach to problem solving, or indeed anything else that matters to you, practise doing it without the aid of the crutches you have formed the habit of relying upon for support. If preparing for a presentation forgo the pre-prepared script. If you are writing a report put your usual template aside for a while. If attempting to solve a problem loosen and then remove the shackles of your habitual problem solving approaches.

Explore how it feels to do things in a different, more immediate way. Allow your mind to engage directly with the task before you, rather than via the medium of your well-worn tools, methods and approaches.

Make your thinking quick and nimble and your ideas bright and sharp. Lose the piano. Identify those things that weigh heavily upon and constrict your thinking. Work at heaving them out of the way. It will feel difficult at first, but as you persevere you will gain the confidence and strength to grapple directly with the problem at hand and go straight from head to task.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Smart practice involves four steps: here is the fourth and last

Early on during my final year at music school I went to my weekly piano lesson. My teacher greeted me. I sat at the piano and took out the pieces I had been practising and put them on the music stand. She pushed them to one side and put another piece in front of me.

The piece seemed to go on forever; it was a very fast ‘dance study’ and every bar was packed full of notes. I gasped and said, ‘This is impossible, there is no way I can play this!’
My teacher smiled and said, ‘I know, but by the end of this year not only will you be able to play it, you will include it in your final graded recital.’

I did, eventually, learn to play it, and yes, I did include it in my final recital, where it made
quite an impression on my examiners. To this day I am amazed that I managed to perform it!

4. Set yourself initially unachievable goals

If you set yourself goals that you know you can achieve you are saying to yourself that you already have the skills and attributes needed to attain them. Therefore the possibility of you developing new skills or even enhancing existing ones is very limited. Also, it is very unlikely that you will produce any outstanding, memorable or ground breaking results.

When setting yourself goals for what you want to achieve and the skills you want to develop create ambitious goals that will demand that you learn to do new things and deliver what was previously impossible for you. This way, even if you fail to achieve your goal you will still make more progress, learn more things and gain more skills than you would have done if you had avoided risk and aimed at easier targets.

For example, if you set yourself a goal of presenting a subject that is new to you in a way that is different from your usual approach, say more participative rather than lecturing in style, you will have to learn new knowledge and new participative techniques. You will also need to do plenty of deliberate and focused practice in order to become familiar and comfortable with the techniques and implement them to a consistently acceptable standard.

Obviously the first few times you use the new knowledge and techniques it will feel somewhat strange, and perhaps the presentation will not be as polished as it would have been if you had played safe and presented in a way more familiar to you, but the gains to your development and the enrichment of your skills and abilities will far outweigh any initial difficulties or drawbacks experienced. It is also likely that the ambitious approach of your presentation will make it much more memorable and influential than would otherwise have been the case.            

Speaking personally, I was offered the opportunity to deliver a high profile presentation about creative problem solving to a very large audience made up of Civil Servants from all over the country and from very many different Departments.

The goal I set myself was to create a presentation that was engaging and participative even though the audience I was presenting to was very large, in excess of 300 people. I had to find new examples of creative problem solving that were very memorable, engaging and also relevant to the work and activities of my audience. In addition, I had to find new ways to demonstrate creative problem solving techniques that would make them clear and understandable to everybody in the audience. Lastly, I had to find new ways to get such a large number of people involved and participating in my presentation.

This all seemed very daunting. At the outset of my preparations I was not clear about how I could achieve any of it. However, as I did my research and my work progressed I did find additional examples, ideas and techniques that would enable me to gain participation, engagement and understanding from my audience.

I became familiar with the examples, ideas and techniques and thought carefully about how I would use them. I also carefully and repeatedly practised and rehearsed their use.

On the day, my delivery of the presentation went well. My preparation and rehearsal paid off, with the vast majority of the audience responding very positively.

There were areas, especially with regard to gaining participation and engaging with my audience, that I could have done better, but this was to be expected given that this was the first time I had presented to such a large number of people and I had not used some of the approaches and techniques in front of a live audience before.

Overall the positives far outweighed the negatives. Taking on the challenge and setting myself such an ambitious goal forced me to learn and do new things that I would not have learnt or done otherwise, and they will be of great use to me in the future when I deliver more presentations to large audiences.