Saturday, 21 March 2015

Institute for Women Conductors: New Residential Programme at the Dallas Opera

If you are a woman 40 years or younger who wants to conduct opera, take this opportunity from the Dallas Opera:

It's a chance to create your very own Attic Club that will support you in your career!

Go for it!

Best of luck!


Thursday, 19 March 2015

7 key traits of creative people

I have been studying Ann McCutchan's book 'The Muse That Sings: Composers Speak about the Creative Process'. It consists of a series of insightful interviews with leading American composers, each of whom share their thoughts, opinions and experiences of the creative process of composition.

Unsurprisingly, given that it is a series of interviews, the book is full of memorable quotes and, as part of my reflections upon the book, I decided to make a list of those that stood out to me as particularly significant and insightful about the creative process.

I then decided to analyse this list to see if any themes emerged about the traits necessary for not only effective musical creative thinking but also effective creative thinking generally.

I grouped together related quotes and then gave each group a heading that summed-up the trait or traits that were present in each case. (The headings, together with their relevant quotations, are given at the end of this post.)

I identified the following strong traits:
  1. Being patient, putting in the hard work and making gradual progress.
  2. Trusting, valuing and encouraging intuition.
  3. Balancing intuition with logic.
  4. Seeking and achieving a sense of flow.
  5. Being open to and willing to learn from everything.
  6. Collaborating with others.
  7. Challenging oneself to explore new ways of expressing and doing.
These traits are clearly applicable to the creative process in general, not only that of composers. Here are some ways we can all begin to develop them:

Being patient, putting in the hard work and making gradual progress   

There are three key things we can do to develop this trait:
  • Explore our subjects extensively and become expert in them. 
  • Create our own daily work routines that we find attractive, are comfortable with and are motivated to use over the long-term.
  • Mark and celebrate our gradual progress by periodically reflecting upon our work so far and creating an uncluttered 'clean record' of our current positions, outputs and achievements. (This can then be used as a launch-pad for our further progress and the development of our ideas.)  

Trusting, valuing and encouraging intuition and balancing intuition with logic 

To develop these traits we need to expand our thinking, to think in a quadruple rather than binary way. We habitually think about what is good or bad about something. To break out of this limiting duality we need to start accessing our intuition, identifying and exploring those things we cannot easily judge as good or bad, those things we find interesting, intriguing or for some unknown reason concerning. The 'PINC Filter' can help us do this. When thinking about a subject or issue identify those things that are:

  • Positive about it and how they can be maximised.
  • Intriguing about it, why this might be and how they can be exploited.
  • Negative about it and how they can be minimised.
  • Concerning about it, why this might be and how they can be taken into account.         
By thinking about not only those things that are positive or negative but also those things that are intriguing or concerning, we are widening our thinking to include our intuitive hunches and emotional reactions. We are beginning to balance our intuition and emotions with our logic and rationality.          

Seeking and achieving a sense of flow

By investing time in and working hard at developing the first three traits we will increase our chances of achieving a sense of flow. This is a natural coming together of conscious thoughts and subconscious feelings that enhances our creative thinking and problem solving. It is not easy to achieve; it takes time and hard work. It is, however, worth the effort, as the following short quote makes clear:

'One way of describing it is the feeling of the conscious and the subconscious both being present, with no line dividing them. It feels like a completely elevated state when you're like this, because everything's available, without interfering with each other at all.'
Bruce Adolphe       

Being open to and willing to learn from everything

To develop this trait apply the 'Force-Back Principle'. When presented with or experiencing something, especially if it is new or unexpected, we immediately need to react by asking how we can 'force-back' or adopt and adapt its principles and aspects to our lives or work or a problem we need to solve. If we do this we may be surprised by the insights and occasional benefits we gain. (If we don't we won't.)       

Collaborating with others

By sharing our ideas and acting upon the feedback we gain about them we will instantly begin taking our first steps towards developing this trait. So, if not already doing these things, we need to start now. We can develop the trait further by planning our collaboration with others and adopting a methodical approach towards it. Start doing this by selecting and using some readily available creative problem solving tools to structure discussions and interactions with others. As we become familiar with the tools and their use, our ability to creatively collaborate and problem solve will steadily grow.   

Challenging oneself to explore new ways of expressing and doing

We can develop this trait by challenging ourselves to:
  • Mix and work with new and different people in new and different ways and places. 
  • Create things and solve problems using new and different tools.
  • Describe issues and problems using different words/other people's words.
  • Express ideas, problems and solutions through different media, e.g., pictures, video, songs, music, poetry, sculpture, cartoon strip, story, personal story, mime, role-play, documentary, news cast, newspaper headline and article, poster, software application, online wiki, blog, etc.            

Quotations grouped under themed headings

Being patient, putting in the hard work and making gradual progress

'Sketching and throwing away, sketching and throwing away...'
John Adams

'Ideas do not just happen - constantly working in mind - visible crest of the wave.'
Shulamit Ran

'Work a lot - think a lot - write a little bit down - sometimes throw it away.'
Shulamit Ran'

'I kept trying things that wouldn't work, but none of that work was wasted.'
Steven Stucky

'You have to create the conditions for inspiration by working really hard at ideas that might at first seem unpromising. Maybe you have to prepare the synapses for something to happen - without work it doesn't just happen.'
Steven Stucky

'It's a really good piece, it just floats, and it is effortless, but it is far from effortless to make it.'
Steve Reich

'I think the best thing to do if you are creating something is just to keep doing it no matter what. Just continue.'

'Take a minute to come up with an idea, then six months to execute.'
James Mobberley

'Trusting yourself is a function of experience.'
James Mobberley

'Sometimes the bad work has to come out and manifest itself before the good stuff.'
Richard Danielpour

'I have learned to wait like an insect.'
Igor Stravinsky

'For me, more and more, writing is about listening and waiting. It's about receiving rather than willing something into being.'
Richard Danielpour

'What you do just after the beginning of the creative process, after the creation or discovery of the initial idea, is the most challenging.'
Sebastian Currier

'An opening gesture leads to something else, which leads to something else, which leads to something else...'
John Adams

'Have it in my hands, like a sculptor - hear and feel the sound as I 'make' the piece.'
John Adams

Trusting, valuing and encouraging intuition

'If I stop to think about it, the flow stops. I don't analyse the impulse; I just let it keep coming.'
Claude Baker

'Beauty lies in the ability to trust the unresolved.'
Libby Larson

'It is mystical, it is special, it is unique, it is unexplainable. Sometimes I look at a piece I have written and wonder, how in the world did I do this? How did that even come to pass? I just don't understand! And the memory of all the hard work is completely gone.'
Claude Baker

This last quote highlights the importance of environment to accessing intuition: 

'There are physical settings where the inner state pushes itself up into the right place more easily.'
John Harbison

Balancing intuition and logic

'There's some elusive and yet absolutely necessary balance between fantasy and rigour. It's a constant back and forth thing.'
Shulamit Ran

'When I am working on something everyday, day after day, it seems to become a conscious and an unconscious expression at the same time.'
Lois V. Vierk

'I can write without (logically) thinking about it, and go back to it later to see if it is what I wanted.'
Lois V. Vierk

'It seems to me our critical faculties are best put into play in the interstices, when we've made large scale decisions about the kind of thing we want.'
John Harbison

'As a piece becomes more tangible, inevitably something is lost.'
Claude Baker

'Many times I've gone through this elaborate process of making diagrams and graphs and realised as I've gotten into the piece that its just not going to happen that way, while at the same time something even better is suggesting itself.'
Claude Baker

'I usually succeed in the larger sense, but when it comes to working out details, I often get much pickier than I need to be.'
Daniel S. Godfrey

'I deal with infinity, so I need pressure to help me put some kind of structure into infinity.'
Libby Larson

'I'll tell you what keeps me composing. It uses all my brain, at least all the brain that I can get in touch with, to try to understand how to communicate.'
Libby Larson

'I realised that a sound might undergo a certain rhythmic development or get louder and louder or become more and more ornamented, while another might gradually fade out and disappear, because that was what was called for to strengthen the piece as a whole.'
Lois V. Vierk

Achieving flow

'One way of describing it is the feeling of the conscious and the subconscious both being present, with no line dividing them. It feels like a completely elevated state when you're like this, because everything's available, without interfering with each other at all.'
Bruce Adolphe

'The way to achieve this perfect integration of everything present in a piece is to be in touch with feelings and write when you have powerful feelings.'
Bruce Adolphe

'It is a state that brings together everything I know about music and about my real life, so that music seems like the perfect language for saying what I'm thinking.'
Bruce Adolphe

'The experience of composing is akin to a waking dream.'
Richard Danielpour

Being open and willing to learn from everything

'Everything I do is practising.'
John Zorn

'Whatever I do, I'm going to get an idea from something, because I am open to it.'
John Zorn

'Everything I have learned has gone into everything I have written.'
John Zorn

Collaborating with others

'I can sculpt with sound, using musicians' personal languages to create a composition that could never exist in any other situation.'
John Zorn

'Performance of the piece was also the composition of the piece.'
Libby Larson

'Composers and certain kinds of performers are capable of a strange sort of creative symbiosis.'
James Mobberley

'It's about putting it out and having it come back.'
Richard Danielpour

'You can find out how people get along, or how ideas move, by creating pieces that are big models of these social functions.'

'Write - but also explain.'
John Zorn

Challenging yourself to exploring new ways of expressing and doing

'Force myself to sing another melody I have not sung before.'
David Lang

'It's very easy to write music that we all like. It's hard to write music that is fresh. But at some point, writing music that's fresh has diminishing returns.'
David Lang

'For me, the interesting ideas are where those happy tunes aren't. The interesting things are in the dark places, or in the ugliness, or in the noise or the grit.'
David Lang

'When I heard it, it was the most ugly, crunchy piece, and I had a revelation. I got tricked - and because I got tricked, I had a fresh experience. I heard the depth of that ugliness for the very first time, and I loved it.'
David Lang

'With each new piece I have to learn the art of composition again.'
Gustav Mahler

'Each environment is different - it's like I'm exploring another planet.'
James Mobberley

'Maybe you have to go through other people's worlds before you can get to your own.'
Michael Daugherty

'All gestures are now cliché, so it is how the gestures are put together that has meaning.'
Michael Daugherty

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Coffee at Zimmerman's

Gottfried Zimmerman was an enlightened and clever businessman, and he knew exactly how to encourage the aspirant middle classes of early 18th century Leipzig into his coffeehouse.

He knew that his educated and discerning clientele would be attracted not only by the excellent coffee he sold but also by performances from the top musical artists of the day, so he arranged for a regular series of informal concerts to take place at his establishment.

Zimmerman took these informal performances very seriously, regularly providing twice-weekly, two-hour slots and even going to the expense of buying expensive musical instruments for the musicians to play. Importantly, he encouraged top composers such as Telemann and J.S. Bach to compose and perform new works.

The informality of these gatherings encouraged people to relax and chat about the music being performed and enabled composers and performers to ‘compare notes’, learn from one another and gain immediate feedback from their audience.

In addition to being informal, these gathering also had the following very specific characteristics:

  • Refreshments were on hand to keep people happy and alert.
  • The gatherings were regular and frequent.
  • They were aimed at a particular type of clientele.
  • They took place in a fashionable and accessible part of town within which the target clientele felt comfortable.
  • They took place at a convenient time.
  • They took place within a defined time period.
  • The audience was encouraged and indeed expected to comment upon, discuss and no doubt sometimes play a part in the performance of the music.
  • They were well resourced. The accommodation was comfortable and good quality instruments were available to help ensure high-class performances.
  • The concerts offered a programme of music that was new, interesting and innovative.

The timeless principles contained within the above list form a useful checklist that we can still use today when planning and delivering problem solving workshops and networking events. The next time you need to arrange such a workshop consider the following questions:

  • How can you encourage informality and help people feel relaxed?
  • What refreshments and amenities will ensure people’s comfort and encourage them to feel positive about the workshop?
  • How are you and/or your organisation going to demonstrate your commitment to the workshop or workshops?
  • Who needs to attend for the workshop to be a success?
  • How are you going to make sure that the workshop is attractive and accessible to those people you really need to involve?
  • When is the best and most convenient time for the workshop?
  • What is the optimum duration for the workshop? For how long will participants be able to remain focused, alert and active?
  • How can you encourage people to discuss issues, share ideas and participate?
  • What equipment and resources do you need to ensure the workshop’s success?
  • What are the specific topics for discussion and exploration?
  • How are you going to ensure that the workshop’s topics stimulate participants’ interest?
  • What specifically do you need people to do for the workshop to be productive?

Monday, 2 March 2015

Never discount the importance of slight changes

A fairly long time ago I studied musical composition. I remember my first lesson: my composition teacher looked at some of my work, thought for a while, looked at me and said, ‘You need to vary things a little more; start a few more phrases off the beat now and again.’

A little later I was writing a choral piece and the words I was setting demanded a sudden change from a heroic, heraldic sound to one that was soft and intimate. I struggled with this for some time and then made the smallest of changes: I asked singers to sing harmonies four notes apart during the heroic section and three notes apart during the softer, more intimate section that immediately followed it. It was a slight difference that made an immediate and effective change to the atmosphere of the music.

On one other occasion, I was listening to a brass band play a piece of music I had written for them. When they played the final climactic section, I felt that it did not sound quite right. After thinking about it for a while, I asked the conductor if he could take the section just a fraction slower. He did, and the section gained the rhythmic weight it needed to bring the piece to a satisfying conclusion.

Slight changes in music (whether they are rhythmic, harmonic or about varying the tempi) can make the difference between a piece of music that fails to engage and stimulate an audience and one that does.

Similarly, slightly varying the way we perceive and approach our challenges and problems can enhance our effectiveness in dealing with them (sometimes in unexpectedly significant ways).  

When addressing problems ask:
·       What insights you gain by looking at a problem from a slightly different angle (say from the viewpoint of a colleague, mentor or client)?
·       What advantages you gain by slightly changing your opinions about what a problem is and how it should be addressed?
·       What improvements you gain by slightly altering the way you are tackling a problem? For example, do you enhance your progress if you change the order of the tasks in front of you?
·       What advantages you gain by slightly altering the environment or context within which a problem exists?
·      What benefits you gain by slightly lengthening or slightly tightening deadlines?
If you occasionally do things a little differently, you may be delighted by the benefits you gain.