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.