Friday, 26 April 2013

Smart practice involves four steps: here is the first

A young student of composition went to a famous composer and asked for some lessons. The famous composer listened to her music and came to the conclusion that the young composer’s approach needed to be more rigorous and disciplined. He advised the young woman to take lessons from a colleague of his, a very well respected composer, because he had a reputation for encouraging the technical discipline required.

The young composer took the famous composer’s advice and went to the well respected composer. She told him what the famous composer had said and then played him some of her music and showed him some of her scores.
The well respected composer listened to the music and studied the scores. He then thought carefully for quite some time. He turned to the young composer and said, ‘Your strength as a composer is in your intuitive, natural approach, we need to work together to develop this aspect and help you make the most of it, not suppress and cover it over with unnecessary discipline and rigour.'
The young composer agreed to this approach and went on to become a famous and well respected composer.

Step 1. Identify, focus upon and develop your strengths
The above example emphasises the importance of identifying, valuing and developing existing strengths as a foundation for future development. Focusing upon your strengths and encouraging their development helps you develop your own unique style and approach and make your own unique contributions. It also, importantly, enables you to develop from a position of strength, so providing the confidence you will need to focus upon weaker areas and develop new and personally challenging skills.

The process of identifying and developing existing strengths, as with the other three components of smart practice, must be done in a deliberate and systematic way.
The key questions to ask when identifying existing strengths are: 

  • What strengths have you exhibited and how do you know they are strengths? What evidence do you have to confirm they are strengths?
  • What feedback have you gained from others about your strengths?
  • Have you tested your existing strengths? Have you knowingly used them and gained good results and feedback?
  • Have you recorded when you used your strengths and the results you achieved? 
For example, if you were seeking to identify your existing strengths in terms of presentation skills you could review your performance during presentations and analyse any feedback obtained. What comments indicate a pattern of positive performance and in what specific areas does this take place? In addition, what personal feedback have you obtained from audience members, co-presenters, colleagues or managers to confirm these areas of strength?

Once you have identified feedback about the strengths of your presentational approach you are then in a position to test them. You can make a point of using and exploiting them during your next few presentations. If you have been told you have an open and engaging style that encourages participation, you can make sure that you continue to use it. You can also make a note of when you used it and the results it achieved for you.

This process of knowingly playing to your strengths and explicitly noting the effects of doing so is a corner stone of personal development. It not only reinforces the strength but also encourages feelings of competence and confidence that will support you through future developmental challenges.  
Once, with the help of others, you have accurately identified and tested your strengths, you need to work at developing and enhancing them. The key questions to ask when developing existing strengths are:

  • What specific aspects of your strengths do you want to concentrate upon so that you can make even better use of them?
  • How can you make sure that you give your strengths the space and time they need to develop and be even more effective?
  • What opportunities are you going to give yourself to expand and exploit your strengths and value and enjoy them?
  • How will you know that you have succeeded in enhancing your existing strengths?
For example, if you are seeking to maximise the strengths of your existing presentational approach you could focus upon the body language elements of your ability to engage effectively with your audience. How could you make your posture even more open and inviting of participation? How could you soften or firm up your hand movements to encourage or manage audience participation? How could you better use your facial expressions to encourage empathy with and participation from your audience? How could you improve and better use your eye connection with an audience?

Lastly, you can check that you have succeeded in enhancing and exploiting your strengths. You can analyse any feedback obtained about your performance to find out if your use of your strengths is having an even greater positive effect upon the quality of your presentations. You can also gain face to face feedback from audience members, co-presenters, colleagues and managers to find out if they have noticed any improvements.

Look out for future posts that will describe steps 2 to 4.

Friday, 19 April 2013

Try colouring up your ideas

Pictures at an exhibition, a major piano piece by Modest Mussorgsky, is much better known as an orchestral piece arranged by Maurice Ravel. Ravel uses a large orchestra to imbue the music with rich and colourful sounds that the ear can luxuriate in and enjoy. The laborious plodding of low strings brings the painfully slow progress of a heavily burdened ox to vivid, sweaty life. The bright, glowing, long-arching phrases of the brass create the grandness of a noble procession through the Great Gate of Kiev. The melancholy, slowly floating melody of a bassoon brings a medieval castle into misty, nostalgic view.

How, like Ravel’s depiction of the ox, can you bring your ideas to vivid, steaming life? What memorable colour can you add to them? What powerful images, phrases, stories or models would add to their impact?

Colour up your ideas and increase their power and influence.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Repeat, adjust and improve

When I was a music student I remember watching a musical master class. What struck me most was the intense focus upon the details of the music and its technical and interpretive challenges.

A student would play through a piece once. Then the Maestro would make some introductory comments about the music overall. She would then quickly focus upon one or two sections, discussing the best way to play and interpret them and asking the student to play and then replay a passage, trying out different techniques and ways of interpreting it.
This process was repetitive but also generative. Each time you heard the same passage but slightly changed and, over time, you could hear how each adjustment added to the overall quality of the music.
The above process can be likened to a golfer repeatedly practising a particular type of shot, making slight adjustments each time, until eventually it is not only perfected but also consistently executed.
When working on an idea or solution focus upon its key aspects and the areas you need to polish or improve. Adjust and if necessary rehearse these until you are happy that your idea or solution will consistently deliver the quality and results you require.
Remember the mantra ‘repeat, adjust, improve’. Conduct your own 'solutions' master class and generate truly exceptional ideas.

Friday, 5 April 2013

Listen carefully to all feedback

Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony is commonly subtitled ‘A soviet artist’s reply to just criticism'. Many of his earlier works had been subject to harsh criticism from the communist regime for their modernist, dissonant style. As well as putting him in personal danger, the negative reaction of the Stalinist authorities also put him at risk of losing his audience and livelihood as a composer and musician. Things became so bad that his Fourth Symphony was withdrawn from rehearsal.

So, having received this feedback, justified or otherwise, it was important for Shostakovich to respond to it in a clear and positive way. This he did with his Fifth Symphony. Its style is simpler than his earlier works; there is less orchestral colour and it has less breadth and scope. This change of style, however, enhanced the emotional immediacy of the music and its ability to engage and move an audience.

Whether Shostakovich had wanted it or not he had been given what turned out to be valuable feedback. It was valuable because to ignore it would have had disastrous consequences for him personally and professionally and because it led directly to a change of musical style that was more accessible to his listeners. His music also gained an 'ironic simplicity' that, given the context within which it was composed and performed, could be interpreted as very subversive.

Be prepared to consider and (if helpful to you) act on all the feedback you receive about your work and ideas, even if it is initially unwelcome because you disagree with it or think it unjustified (or dislike its source). Remember that whatever the merits of the feedback it will always provide you with valuable information about those giving it and their intentions towards you.

Develop the habit of asking yourself what the consequences of ignoring the feedback are. If you think they are justifiable or manageable then ignoring it is an option, but if you think the consequences of ignoring the feedback could cause significant problems for you, find ways to respond to it that will not endanger your professional integrity. You may even find, like Shostakovich, that the changes you make will enhance not only your standing with others but also the quality of your work and ideas.