Sunday, 26 January 2014

See what is in front of you

Many years ago I was a student of composition. I remember the first time one of my pieces was played through. It was a brass band piece that I had been slaving over for many months.

The conductor tapped his music stand for attention, indicated the speed the band would play at and then, after a slight pause, gave the downbeat to begin the piece.

Cacophonous Chaos ensued! I had lived with this piece of music for over six months. I knew it intimately, every note and phrase, and what was being played bore little resemblance to what I had created. Had I written out the parts correctly? Had I suddenly become tone deaf? The sound created by the band was so dissonant and strange that one of the band members stopped playing, turned to me with disbelieving eyes and asked, 'Is this what you actually wrote?’

I just looked back at him, probably with the same look of disbelief etched upon my face, and shook my head sadly. No, it most definitely was not what I had written! I was bewildered by the sounds I was hearing. I carefully rechecked the score; it all seemed in perfect order. Then the penny very gradually began to drop.

I was a student composer and student composers were perceived, especially among other music students, as writing dissonant and strange sounding music. So when my hand written, different looking manuscripts were placed in front of my peers their eyes saw the dissonant scribblings of a young ‘trainee’ composer and their fingers and mouths responded by creating sounds consistent with this perception. It was a like a form of mass delusion and the longer the band played the more deluded the sounds became.

As you can imagine, I was not happy.

After what seemed an age of agony the conductor stopped the tortuous noise. He paused and looked around the band and then at me, a slight smile on his face. He then said, ‘Shall we play what is actually written now? Please focus upon the notes in front of you.’ The band did and, with some relief, I began to recognise the piece I had taken so long to write.

Sometimes preconceptions and assumptions can drastically distort what is seen, heard and felt. Seek to minimise this ‘funfair mirror’ distortion by working hard at comprehending what is in front of you rather than judging it according to your expectations. What happens when you resist the temptation of giving an idea ‘the benefit of your experience’? What direction does an idea take when you allow it to develop in its own natural and logical way?

Just 'read the notes on the page' and be open to whatever they may reveal.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Toscanini's challenge

Arturo Toscanini, the acclaimed Italian conductor, started a whole new adventure at the age of 70. When most people are retired and looking back over their lives, Toscanini was looking forward.

He left Italy, the land of his birth, to become the inaugural conductor of the NBC Symphony Orchestra in New York. Not only did he play a leading role in the establishment of this orchestra, he also made classical music more accessible to people by touring extensively across America. At the age of 83 he undertook a major transcontinental tour of America, travelling with his orchestra by train and conducting performances in large cities and small towns alike.

Being open to new challenges and the new perspectives and opportunities they bring with them, however late on they present themselves to us, keeps our thinking flexible and helps us maintain our ability to be innovative in our problem solving.

Great opportunities can tend to come to us late on, either during the latter part of our lives or towards the tail end of our undertakings and projects. This is to be expected, because as we gain knowledge and experience we become more insightful and more keenly aware of the many areas to which our expertise could contribute. Also, those around us begin to notice our expertise and offer us additional and perhaps unexpected opportunities.

There is a danger, however, that as our lives or undertakings progress we become too set in our ways to recognise the insights, take advantage of the opportunities or realise the enhanced contributions our hard gained knowledge and experience could make possible. Indeed, our knowledge and experience can sometimes blinker our perception or, even worse, rein us back, pulling us in the direction of past achievements rather than spurring us forwards towards new and exciting challenges.

Welcome new opportunities and challenges that arrive late like interesting and stimulating people that turn up towards the end of a party. Engage with them and find out more about them. Enjoy them and encourage them to stay a while. The party may then continue for longer than expected and your new friends may offer to broaden your horizons in ways that were previously impossible for you to imagine.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Amy's attic

Amy Beach was a very talented young woman. From a very early age she demonstrated a great gift for music and it was very clear that her potential as a composer was immense.

The only problem was that Amy was born in 1867. Men dominated the serious work of musical composition and the writing of anything of significance was considered far too taxing for the female mind.

It was clear that Amy would need support in her quest to become a composer, but where could this support come from? The networks and support groups that existed were effectively ‘old boys’ networks’, founded, run and entirely populated by men. There would be no help or support coming from these.

The answer was found in an attic. A local poet offered an attic where young women could meet, discuss areas of mutual interest and offer each other support.

The safe, supportive and exclusive space of this ‘attic club’ provided invaluable encouragement to Amy in her quest to become a composer, and throughout her life she would continue to seek out safe and exclusive spaces within which to discuss her work and gain valuable feedback and support.

As Amy’s success as a composer grew so did the size of her support network. An idea that had begun as a small attic club for a few curious and ambitious young women grew out of the attic and flowered into the open and public spaces of the musical establishment. Its prize blossom was the creation of the Society of American Women Composers, of which Amy was the first president.

Doing anything that is new and different requires support, and the more unique the endeavour the less likely it is that any support will be available. Sometimes we need to plant the seeds of our own support networks, to start our own safe and exclusive attic clubs. Then as the support and encouragement they offer helps feed our success our success can in turn feed back into them, until eventually they are strong enough to branch out into the world and provide support to those who need it.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Find that first champion

Prokofiev’s 1st Violin Concerto in D major (Opus 19) is somewhat different to many other concertos. It is not overtly virtuosic and it ends quietly rather than with a bright and brilliant flourish. Its goal is the expression of feeling rather than the demonstration of virtuosity. This makes it romantic rather than modernistic in style, so going against the trend that was being set by most other music composed during the early 20th century.

These differences meant that the concerto did not conform to the expectations and assumptions of concert-goers, critics, or even many virtuoso violinists of the time, and consequently it was not immediately recognised as a major addition to the concerto repertoire.

It was only when the violinist Joseph Szigeti began to champion the work that the concerto gradually began to be appreciated and accepted as a major work.

Almost all new and innovative ideas and approaches need support and some of the most effective support comes from those who are willing to champion them. The most important of these champions is the 1st champion. This is the person who is willing to be first in demonstrating their support for something through meaningful and significant action, as Szigeti did by repeatedly playing and promoting Prokofiev’s concerto.

Gaining the 1st champion will encourage others to follow suit and start supporting an idea. It will also encourage the person who had the idea to belief in it more keenly and to work harder at finding ways to improve it.

So, the next time you come up with a good, worthwhile and innovative idea search for its 1st champion. Find the pioneering spirit that will take the lead in convincing others of the merits of your idea and provide the initial support and encouragement you need.

One last thought – occasionally it might be more valuable for you to be the 1st champion rather than the person with the new ideas. Sometimes the most innovative thing you can do is adopt and adapt to someone else’s great idea!