Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Lessons from Wagner about innovation: 1. let others name it

The term 'leitmotiv' describes a theme or motif, either melodic or harmonic, which is associated with a particular character, feeling or event within a Wagner music drama. Interestingly and significantly, this term was not promoted by Wagner but primarily by one of his supporters, Hans von Wolzogen.

Wolzogen's contribution was small but not insignificant. He has been remembered over the centuries for this one influential word, which has enabled Wagner's music and ideas to poke through into people's everyday language: 'leitmotiv' has become a widely used term for describing anything of significance that recognisably recurs over time.

When people can take hold of an idea, analyse it and then give names to the things they find there, they begin to gain some feeling of investment in and ownership of it, which motivates them to explain, champion and support it using their own words, labels and terminology. This enables them to communicate their meaning in a committed, clear, accurate and understandable way: a way that those on the receiving end can easily appreciate and assimilate into their thinking and practice.

So, allow others to analyse your idea on their own terms and use their own terms to describe what they find. 

And watch your idea recur, spread and develop amongst them.

(To read more posts in this series go to the July, August and September 2016 Blog Archive.)

Monday, 1 August 2016

Lessons from Wagner about innovation: 13. encourage people to identify with the vision and motivations of the innovator

Previously, I described how transforming Wagner's music from a perceived life-threatening toxin into an invigorating tonic encouraged people to listen to and support it. 

The success of this transformation owed much to the fact that people were encouraged to get to know the creator of the tonic and personally identify with him: a case of trust and admire the man and trust and admire the music.

This was achieved through the written word. Wagner wrote about not only his own works but also his wider vision for the future of art and music. (Click here to see a list of Wagner's writings.)

From today's perspective, some of the things he has to say are at best dubious and at worst racist. At the time they where written, however, their overall effect was to encourage curiosity which led to interest which, for some, gradually became an identification with and attraction to the man himself.

This effect was very marked within late 19th century America, where many aspiring business leaders began to see Wagner as 'the embodiment of the American Dream' and therefore a person to identify with and emulate within their own spheres of influence.

More recently, Steve Jobs created a similar effect with his globally broadcast and distributed Apple presentations. During these presentations Steve Jobs not only talked about his company's innovations and inventions but also shared his personal vision for the future of technology and the impact it should have upon the world.

Many aspiring business leaders, seeing Steve Jobs up close and somewhat personal through his widely available videos, began to identify with and be inspired by the man, and this encouraged ever-increasing support for Apple's innovations and inventions: as with Wagner, it was a case of trust and admire the man and trust and admire the innovations. 

So, like Wagner and Steve Jobs, make a point of writing and talking not only about your innovations but also more widely about the personal visions, beliefs and values which drive you on and influence your wider thinking and actions.

Give people the opportunity to identify with the motivations of the innovator and watch it make the popularity of the innovation grow.

(To read more posts in this series go to the July, August and September 2016 Blog Archive.)


Thursday, 28 July 2016

Lessons from Wagner about innovation: 12. personally, physically and directly pass the ownership of your unique knowledge and insights to others eager to take it

The 19th century conductor Leopold Damrosch was an ardent supporter and promoter of Wagner's works. He invested his entire professional life into developing a deep and practical knowledge of Wagner's music and how to conduct it.

Then, as he was struck down by pneumonia and his life was fading away, he used his remaining strength and last breaths to pass on the personal, and at the time unrecordable, details of his approach to conducting Wagner's works.

Like the steps of a ballet, the moment to moment movement and techniques of Damrosch's conducting could not be completely captured by written words or sketches. If they were to be taken and owned by someone else Damrosch would have to pass them on personally, physically and directly.

More than this, they would have to be passed on to someone eager to receive and use them.

Walter Damrosch, Leopold's son and also a conductor committed to Wagner's works, fitted the bill. During the last days of his father's life Walter sat by his father's bedside and eagerly took ownership of the personal knowledge and insights gained from a life time of being up close and personal with Wagner's music.     
Ideas and innovations cannot stand alone; they do not have an independent, self-sufficient life. They need people to understand and support them in countless subtle, often not easy to capture or define ways. If these people and their support become scarce or disappear so too will the idea or innovation.

During our lives most of us will gather and own uniquely valuable knowledge and insights which help us get to grips with and sometimes support new ideas, innovations and ways of doing things. Often, our most valuable insights are the most difficult to capture or record formally.

If we feel it is important for new ideas and innovations to survive and thrive, we must be willing to sacrifice ownership of our unique insights and knowledge about them. We must also realise that our most valuable insights and knowledge, because they are often difficult to capture or record, can be the most difficult and challenging to give away. They require that we make a determined effort to pass them on personally, physically and directly to those whom we feel are most eager to take and use them.          

(To read more posts in this series go to the July, August and September 2016 Blog Archive.)

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Lessons from Wagner about innovation: 11. eine handlung!

Wagner did not call his music drama Tristan und Isolde an opera: he called it 'eine handlung', which is German for a drama, a plot or, most significantly, an action.

This straightforward, practical choice of words provides us with a glimpse of how Wagner viewed the creative process. To him, being creative was about not merely thinking and reflecting but also making and testing: creating a physical impact upon the world (or at least his audience), looking at the results and making changes and refinements.

He wanted to change musical and dramatic practice so built a theatre, Bayreuth, within which he modelled, tried and tested his ideas. He wanted to write a major work based on the story of Tristan and Isolde so composed fully realised and performable songs, the Wesendonck Lieder, to capture and refine his thoughts.

So, like Wagner, remember that innovation is about not only thinking and reflecting but also doing, trying, testing and refining.

It is 'eine handlung': an action

(To read more posts in this series go to the July, August and September 2016 Blog Archive.)

Monday, 25 July 2016

Lessons from Wagner about innovation: 10. continuously introduce and adapt

It is often overlooked that innovations and creations recognised as valuable or even great can fade from popular consciousness over time.

Paradoxically, it is some of the most high profile and awe inspiring innovations and creations that can be most prone to fade: their almost mystical or legendary status giving them a rarefied aspect that distances and then wipes them from the everyday person's everyday thoughts. Think about the Apollo moon landings (that these days elicits a mere nod of appreciation); consider the supersonic airplane Concorde (that most people only ever appreciated fleetingly, from a distance); reflect upon the ground breaking skyscrapers within the elite business districts of the world (that no one looks up at any more).  

Supporters of Wagner and his music were certainly aware of this danger, and they took steps to address it. They continuously introduced Wagner's music to new generations of audiences and found ways to adapt it to changing habits and needs.

For example, during the early 1930's (long after the initial introduction of Wagner's works) Leopold Stokowski arranged, conducted and recorded what he called 'Symphonic Syntheses' of many of Wagner's operas. These came at a time when performances of Wagner's operas were on the wane and there was a danger they might fade into the mists of half-remembered musical history or, at the very best, become a high class side-show for a self-styled Central European musical elite.

These Symphonic Syntheses could be performed in the average local concert hall. They usually gave the vocal lines to the strings or some other instrument and, importantly, their self-contained and carefully structured nature provided a satisfying listening experience that could be broadcast far and wide over the radio and distributed through recordings.

Leopold Stokowski successfully introduced Wagner's music to new audiences by effectively adapting it to people's lives and listening habits, including those habits encouraged by new technology.

Wagner's works did not retreat into a half-remembered golden age of music but gradually caught up with and came within reach of people's daily lives (or at least their radios and gramophones).

Today, Wagner's operas (and Leopold Stokowski's Syntheses) are performed and broadcast around the globe.

So, like Wagner' supporters, be aware that valuable or even great innovations can easily fade and be forgotten. Plan for the long-haul and work at continuously introducing your innovations to new people, and find ways to adapt your innovations to the circumstances and technologies that are changing the way people use and interact with them.

(To read more posts in this series go to the July, August and September 2016 Blog Archive.) 

Friday, 22 July 2016

Lessons from Wagner about innovation: 9. do something concrete and obvious that gets a reaction and eventually encourages change

Wagner put the action and narrative of his music dramas above all else; an audience was not to be distracted from the action unfolding upon the stage.

How best to make this happen? How best to make sure audiences and performers got the message?

Wagner did something concrete and obvious: he redesigned and rebuilt the orchestral pit, hiding the conductor and orchestra from view.

This caused some extreme reactions. On seeing the newly constructed pit which would hide him and his orchestra from view, Auguste Vianesi (the first Music Director and Conductor of the Metropolitan Opera, New York) demanded that it be demolished and replaced with a traditional space which put his conducting front and centre of the action.

This was duly done, but merely one year later Vianesi was gone and a pro-Wagner conductor (Anton Seidl) had replaced him.

And the hidden orchestral pit had been reconstructed!

Doing something concrete and obvious that initially caused a negative reaction eventually resulted in, what was for Wagner and his supporters, a positive change.

What concrete and obvious things can you do to ensure people 'get the message' about your idea or innovation? If what you do is concrete and obvious enough it will get an initial 'knee-jerk' reaction, which is likely to be negative. Be prepared to wait a while. If your idea is a good and useful one, initially unfavourable reactions may well transform into lasting and positive change.

(To read more posts in this series go to the July, August and September 2016 Blog Archive.)

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Lessons from Wagner about innovation: 8. turn a toxin into a tonic

For many concert goers and music critics of the later 19th century, Wagner's music was considered toxic. 

The complexity of his works, their extreme emotional intensity and their long duration were thought dangerous to both body and mind. 

For those looking for the toxic qualities of Wagner's music there seemed to be convincing 'evidence'. The first tenor to sing Tristan in the music drama Tristan und Isolde died after only 4 performances. His opera singer wife, who was cast as Isolde opposite him, was distraught. In fact, she was so psychologically scared by the experience that she never sang again and was mentally unstable for the rest of her life.

Then, the American conductor Theodore Thomas realised that these apparent toxins could, if given to the right people, become tonics for body and soul.

Anyone needing to feed off emotional intensity; anyone needing to cope with complexity and enhance endurance: surely these people would benefit from a properly administered dose of pure Wagner?

The young nation of America had just such people: the up-and-coming business entrepreneurs (mainly men), who provided the vision, vitality, commitment and determination that was powering America into the forefront of the latter 19th century and the century to follow.

Wagner's music was transformed into a tonic which could 'saturate the human system, stimulating and revitalising weary entrepreneurs'.

So, like Theodore Thomas, seek to turn toxic ideas into tonics. How could their apparently poisonous traits result in benefits for a specific group of people?

(To read more posts in this series go to the July, August and September 2016 Blog Archive.) 

Monday, 18 July 2016

Search for UK maestro to help create an orchestra in Iraq

Paul Macalindin's book Upbeat (its most powerful message encapsulated in this one well-chosen word) is published on the 18th of August.

If you have a passion for music and music education; if you need to bring people together to collaborate, learn from each other, perform and achieve; if you are simply searching for an engaging, thought provoking and inspiring read: read this book.

Paul takes us on a journey from Europe to Iraq and back again, and on the way he tells us a story that, quite frankly, could not be made up.

Who would think of creating a national youth orchestra in a country which most of us associate with the words 'war zone'? Who would think of championing a national youth orchestra in a country where playing western classical music is often frowned upon and sometimes severely punished?

Paul and the young musicians of Iraq not only thought about it, they did it!

Paul tells us about his journey, both actual and metaphorical, as he banded together with young Iraqi musicians to create an improbable oasis of collaboration and shared purpose amid a desert storm of conflict and everyday violence.

He gives us a front line and vivid account of his set backs and successes, the dark that (eventually) was followed by the light, and as he does so he provides us with a route map, complete with indispensable landmarks and compass headings, that can guide us through the tricky, complex and sometimes dangerous terrain of collaborative working. 

And during the journey we hear the travellers' personal stories: their tears and their laughter; their hopes and dreams and sometimes brutal realities; their sacrifices and their successes. Paul gives a very human face to the enduring beauty within the painful tragedies of Iraq.


Thursday, 14 July 2016

Lessons from Wagner about innovation: 7. spread memes of style and flavour

Wagner's music blended into and spread easily within people's surroundings and everyday existence. It was broken down into short digestible snippets and arranged for popular bands and ensembles, making it suitable for performances at the popular events woven into the social fabric of people's lives. It was flexibly packaged so it could be performed with or without singers, making it easy to include within a broad range of concert programmes.

As a result of all this, much of the original context and meaning (and power) of Wagner's music was inevitably lost. It became detached from its artistic roots and floated into people's minds to anchor and settle with whatever notions and perceptions it found there.

But the advantages of this process far outweighed the disadvantages. Over time, these insistent snippets or 'memes' of musical style and flavour insinuated themselves into people's thoughts and awareness. They then awaited the opportunity (perhaps a local premier of one of Wagner's complete operas) to ignite people's curiosity and enthusiasm and generate the power to launch into yet more minds and lives.

As Wagner's 'memes of style and flavour' demonstrate, strong ideas will not only survive the process of fragmentation and distortion but also significantly benefit from it. Do not worry unduly if your ideas are sliced, diced and variously 'adjusted to fit' within people's lives. The odds are that the seeds of your idea's future success are being sown far and wide.

(To read more posts in this series go to the July, August and September 2016 Blog Archive.) 

Monday, 11 July 2016

Lessons from Wagner about innovation: 6. first introduce your innovation to a welcoming, well-resourced, influential and passionate audience

The American premiere of one of Wagner's most influential music dramas, Tristan und Isolde, took place in New York at the Metropolitan Opera during 1886.

Its staging in New York is significant. From the mid 19th century onwards there had been a massive influx of German immigrants to New York and other American cities. Many of these immigrants were from a well-educated, relatively well-resourced professional class: writers, doctors, lawyers, artists and musicians, etc.

It was within and through this welcoming, informed and supportive immigrant population that Wagner's music was first introduced to the USA, firmly taking root there before steadily growing out into the wider musical life of America and its cities.

These well-educated professionals could not only advocate effectively for Wagner's works but also arrange and commission good quality performances of them, both within the German immigrant community and outside of it. They could also afford to go to the opera, becoming significant and increasingly influential members of the audience.      

And importantly, they did all this with passion; Wagner was their hero and his music their gift to America if not the world!

It was only a matter of time, and insistent support and advocacy, before Wagner's music dramas made it into the previously Italian opera dominated opera houses of America. The New York Metropolitan Opera produced six seasons of exclusively German language operas between 1884/85 and 1890/91, which included the 1886 Tristan und Isolde premiere mentioned above.

Seeking out communities which are not only welcoming and supportive of an innovation but also well-resourced, informed and passionate enough to advocate for it effectively can make the difference between an innovation that successfully premieres upon the world stage and one which does not.

(To read more posts in this series go to the July, August and September 2016 Blog Archive.) 

Friday, 8 July 2016

Lessons from Wagner about innovation: 5. dim the lights on the noisy box holders

Before Wagner, people preferred to do it with the lights on: listen to and watch opera that is.

Going to the opera, especially for those who were well-off enough to reserve a box for a season, was mostly if not exclusively about socialising: catching up with friends; buttering up influential and useful people; climbing up the social ladder through being seen with the "in-crowd" and the great and good.

An evening at the opera was a light and buzzing bright experience, and the music and acting was a pleasant backdrop to audience members' social lives. It was all very enjoyable (but artistically moribund). 

Then Wagner and his music dramas happened and everything, quite literally, got that little bit darker (but artistically more vital). 

Wagner's music dramas demanded an audience's complete attention; they did not make good background music. If relegated to such, they quickly became intrusive noise rather than unobtrusive ambient wavelets of sound.

Wagner directed that the lights should be dimmed during performances of his works so people would concentrate on the music and drama rather than each other. The noisy and influential box holders complained as one would expect: noisily. They even succeeded in getting German language operas banned from the New York Metropolitan Opera for a year or two.

But Wagner eventually thundered back, and he still insisted on dimming the lights on the noisy box holders. Eventually, after much flickering on and off, the lights dimmed permanently and the minds of many if not all of the noisy box holders were gradually lit up by Wagner's works.

For a new idea or innovation to be accepted, it often needs to be accompanied by a change of practice that encourages different behaviour. (Dimming the lights led, eventually, to quiet and attentive audiences.)              

This is not easy to achieve, people resist the change and persist with their comfortable and familiar habits, but being clear about the change of practice and persistent in encouraging people to accept it will (as Wagner proved) eventually enable a new idea to access and light up people's minds.              

(To read more posts in this series go to the July, August and September 2016 Blog Archive.) 

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Lessons from Wagner about innovation: 4. apply enlightened self-interest and find and develop champions

Anton Seidl, an acclaimed orchestral and opera conductor of the late 19th century, showed great musical talent from a very early age.

This talent did not go unnoticed. In 1872, at the age of 22, he was offered a position at Bayreuth as a copyist of Wagner's works. The title copyist is misleading. In fact, Wagner treated Seidl as 'one of the chosen few': he involved Seidl in the first Bayreuth festival of 1876; trusted him to assist in making the first authorised copy of Der Ring des Nibelungen; and sent him to Vienna to stage its last two music dramas (Siegfried and Gotterdammerung). 

Wagner's support did not end there. In 1879, at the tender age of 29 and on the great composer's recommendation, Seidl was appointed conductor of the Leipzig State Opera.

This was the springboard for Seidl's career and during the following years he conducted throughout Europe, Wagner's works taking pride of place within his repertoire.

Now established in his own right, Seidl began to gain attention from beyond Europe and in 1885 was appointed 'Conductor of German Opera' at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where he was able to play a lead role in establishing Wagner's works firmly within the USA.

The enlightened self-interest Wagner had displayed in supporting Seidl (offering him what turned out to be an influential post at Bayreuth, giving him opportunities to develop his musical talent and kick starting his conducting career through personal recommendation) had paid handsome and long-lasting dividends. 

Wagner had found and helped develop a skilled, influential and trusted champion for his new and innovative music dramas.

All new innovations and innovators need skilled, influential and trusted champions. These do not usually appear out of thin air. If we want our new ideas and innovations to be successful and embed themselves within people's minds and lives we need, like Wagner, to not only seek out potential champions but also unswervingly support their long-term growth and development.

Applying enlightened self-interest will help you gain interest and enlighten.

(To read more posts in this series go to the July, August and September 2016 Blog Archive.) 


Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Lessons from Wagner about innovation: 3. allow life and living to transform your ideas into the unexpected

When (around 1850) Wagner started thinking about writing an opera based on the story of Tristan und Isolde, he saw it as nothing more than a quick money spinner: something to keep him solvent whilst he worked on bigger, more ambitious projects.

By 1854, however, his perception of the work forming in his mind had changed radically: now he was calling Tristan und Isolde a full on 'monument to love'.

By the time Tristan und Isolde had been completed and was being performed across Europe, some 15 years later, Wagner's perception of it had transformed into a dramatic revelation. When looking upon what he had created he became convinced that he had introduced 'something fearful upon the world' and that 'only mediocre performances' could save him as 'completely good ones (were) bound to drive people mad'.

Wagner's revelatory view of Tristan und Isolde has been borne out down the years: listeners have been stunned, baffled, repelled and inspired by its bold and unique world of sound and drama.  

What caused Wagner's radical changes of perception? How did they eventually culminate in the creation of such a revelatory work?

What happened was that life and experience mingled with, influenced and matured Wagner's thinking.

In 1850 Wagner was a fugitive. He had taken part in the European revolts of 1848 and was on the run. He had first-hand experience of breaking rules, going against convention and experiencing the consequences, just like Tristan and Isolde.

Also, whilst the story of Tristan und Isolde was fermenting in his mind, Wagner was having an affair with the wife of one of his firmest friends and supporters. The parallel with the Tristan and Isolde story is unmistakable, and his intimate experience of illicit love surely must have strengthened his interest in and empathy for the Tristan and Isolde legend. 

And in and amongst all this Wagner continuously added to his knowledge and expertise, not only through challenging himself to write new and ambitious works but also through studying the works of the leading philosophers and thinkers of the day.

Wagner allowed the above rich and heady mix of life and living and knowledge and experience to flow into every aspect of his existence, including his work. It was this that enabled a quick money spinning idea to transform into one of the most influential musical and dramatic works ever written.

So, if you need to come up with new and innovative ideas, allow life and living and your developing knowledge and experience to permeate your thinking and ferment within it. You may well end up with something unexpected, but it may also be much more than you expected (even if your mix of life and living, knowledge and experience is a little less heady than Wagner's).

(To read more posts in this series go to the July, August and September 2016 Blog Archive.) 

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Lessons from Wagner about innovation: 2. welcome strange adaptions

In the 1890's the New York Metropolitan Opera presented Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nurnbeg as I Maestri Cantori Norimberga.

In response to noisy and influential box holders, the Met had decided to ban German language operas. No one, however, had said anything about banning Wagner's music, so a German opera was converted into an Italian one.

Now to us, glancing casually back down the years, this seems an odd or even strange adaption. If Die Meistersinger was going to be translated into anything why not English, the language spoken by the majority of people?

But a more careful look at the context of the times begins to make sense of what initially seems strange and a little laughable.

The noisy, influential (and wealthy) box holders were nostalgic for their past Italian pleasures: Italian, the voice of song (English was purely for the down market screeching of the music hall); prima donna coloratura sopranos; set piece arias sung upon expensive sets; the freedom to talk during the performance when and with whom one liked; and to applaud when the moment took one.

By successfully calling for a ban on German language operas the noisy box holders could perhaps get some of the above things back. At the very least they would be granted a rest from the rich diet of symphonic, never pausing for breath narrative driven operas that demanded their full attention and left them exhausted by the evening's end.

However, the music of these German operas was very good indeed, even some of the noisy box holders agreed on that, and the majority of those making up the Met's wider audience (many of whom were well-educated German immigrants) lapped it up. In fact, it was Wagner's German operas that had enabled the Met to turn a profit during the preceding years.

So, given that Wagner's new, symphonic operas were gaining popularity and signalling the artistic and musical way forward, but doing so at the risk of alienating and losing an influential, high profile and wealthy segment of the audience, the Met decided upon a simple but clever adaption that would help reassure and appease the noisy box holders and dampen down most if not all of the resentments of the wider, German immigrant seeded audience: I Maestri Cantori Norimberga was born.

So remember that what at first glance looks like a strange or even absurd adaption to an idea or innovation can often, on closer inspection, make perfect sense given the context and situation. Do not let its strangeness mask its value; remove the mask of its apparent absurdity; seek to reveal how it will support the introduction and adoption of your new idea. 

Do not be afraid to adopt the adaption.

(To read more posts in this series go to the July, August and September 2016 Blog Archive.) 

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Enrich your ideas with memories

'To explore remembering is to explore being creative.'
Bruce Adolphe from The Muse That Sings: Composers Speak about the Creative Process by Ann McCutchan

Music which is attractive and memorable is rich with memories that its composers and performers weave intimately into its fabric. Memories of past works, past performances, past experiences (both musical and otherwise), influence the flow and direction of the composer's writing and the performer's singing or playing, imbuing the music with subtleties, insights and delightful cross-references that add to its quality and make it exciting.

A glorious example of music imbued with memory is Richard Strauss's 'Metamorphosen'. It was written towards the end of his long and eventful life and is enriched with his many musical and non-musical memories. To me, the music seems to travel along the time-line of a life, gathering up the memories it finds there and, very gradually, transforming them into something both nostalgic and new.

Significantly, the piece was written during the closing months of the Second World War, and Strauss's memories of this tragedy seem to form an elegiac mist around the shimmering string sounds.

But perhaps most poignantly, it is one of Strauss's most long-held musical memories that provides the piece with its last, understated but haunting transformation. During the final few phrases Strauss quotes the funeral march from the slow movement of Beethoven's 3rd Symphony. All at once all the previously heard memories in sound flow into this one moment of memory, imbuing its quiet rendering with a richness of meaning which shines towards the listener: a last ember of transformation before the end.

Enrich your ideas with memories. When working on something new take the time to look back along the progress of your life and work, and take note of the memories that rise and reach towards you. Let them flow through you onwards and into the work before you. Watch them transform your ideas into something rich: something more than merely new.

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Explore and exploit your full potential

Many years ago I played the cornet in a brass band. I remember a time when we gained a new conductor. At the beginning of his first rehearsal with the band he asked us which piece we felt most comfortable performing. I cannot remember which piece it was exactly, but it would have been something like the Academic Overture by Brahms.

We played this piece through from beginning to end. Then the conductor took us back to the quietest section of the music. We played this section through and once we had finished the conductor said, ‘Not quiet enough’. So we played the section through again and again the conductor said, ‘Not quiet enough’. This went on until the conductor seemed fairly content with the level of extreme quietness achieved.

The conductor then took us to the loudest section of the music. We played this through for him and once we had finished he said, ‘Not loud enough’. So we played the section through again and again he said, ‘Not loud enough’. This went on until the conductor seemed fairly content with the level of loudness achieved. Once we had reached this point the band was somewhat relieved, as the extra effort had made us all a bit red faced!

The conductor paused for a moment and then explained why he had made us play the two contrasting sections. He said that average brass bands always played within their comfort zone, never really playing as quietly or as loudly as they could. This resulted in them producing an unexceptionally monochrome, boring type of sound. Excellent bands, however, made a point of stretching themselves to the limits of their abilities to produce extremely quiet or extremely loud playing that maintained its control and musicality. This resulted in them producing an exciting sound that realised and exploited the whole potential of music’s contrasting volumes.

This simple lesson has always stayed with me and its principles can, I believe, be applied within many differing contexts. Most of us tend to address issues and problems from well inside the comfort zone of our well-worn habits, utilising those approaches we prefer or find easiest to use. This is probably fine when what we need to achieve is routine or unexceptional, but if we need to address particularly challenging issues in innovative and creative ways our comfortable and habitual ways of doing things are likely to prove unequal to the task.

To identify innovative solutions to complex issues we need to push at the limits of our skills and potential, and this involves working in ways counter to our ingrained preferences for doing things. This requires additional focus and effort, but the dynamic swathe of creative approaches gained is well worth the labour.

The next time you are presented with a particularly challenging issue that requires some new thinking, seek to fulfil your creative problem solving potential by trying some of the following:
  • Think not only about what is clearly possible but also about those things that are just possible and those things that at first glance seem impossible. Are there any aspects within the latter two areas that, with some effort, could be utilised to your advantage?
  • Challenge your assumptions about the amount of time and other resources you need to address the problem. Do you really need all that is at your disposal? Or are you unnecessarily limiting the resources you can use?
  • Identify the problem solving approaches you habitually tend to avoid and invest effort in trying them out.
  • Identify your problem solving strengths and look for ways to maximise the value you gain from them.
  • Seek out people you are not so familiar or comfortable with and make an effort to work with them.
  • Question your assumptions about whether an approach or solution is too insignificant and simple or too extravagant and complex.
  • Explore the wider context of the issue or drill down hard into its detail.
  • Ask yourself whether you have consulted with people too much and too widely or too little and too narrowly.
  • Challenge others and their ideas a lot more or a lot less.
  • Ask for help a lot more or a lot less.
  • Contribute to discussions and offer ideas a lot more or a lot less.

If you step out of your comfort zone from time to time to explore areas and approaches that you find challenging and stretching, you may be surprised and even delighted by what you discover and achieve.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Make space for your inner voices

Frederic Mompau's solo piano pieces are small, delicate, seemingly spontaneous and intimately expressive gems.

They contain an inner glow: a glow which emanates from inner voices that Mompau gives the space to be heard.

Sometimes, as with the 'Nocturne' from Tres Variacions, he places them on their own line; he gifts them their own musical stave.

The pianist sees the space given to these voices on the page and translates it into added significance in sound (just enough for the voices to cast their unique patterns of light and shade upon the sounds flowing above and below).

And Mompau's piece is transformed into more than the sum of its small parts: full of rich, warm and unexpected feeling.

Give your inner voices space to be heard. It does not, as Mompau shows us, need to take much time.

To find out more about Mompau's piano music click here.

Tuesday, 26 April 2016


Back in October of last year I wrote the following post:

Mix, place and (above all) space
It explores how choir conductors experiment with the mixing, placing and spacing of their singers to achieve different effects and encourage their choirs to give of their best. It also shows how the approaches and techniques the conductors use can be applied more generally to encourage creativity and enhance personal and team effectiveness.

Recently, I was reminded of the above post (and my eyes opened to yet another dimension of experimentation) when I attended a children's concert at St Martins-in-the-Fields, London.

The conductor, John Landor and the London Musical Arts Orchestra were exploring and performing Mozart's 40th Symphony. The orchestra played excerpts from the symphony, and John explained the characteristics of the music and how it was all put together. He did this in a very energetic and engaging way: just perfect for the young audience.

At the end of the concert John stopped conducting and talking and the orchestra was left to play alone. More accurately, the players were left to play and move alone. As the orchestra played the symphony the musicians, who had been standing rather than sitting during the concert, began to move around and between each other and back, forth, toward and away from the audience.

One might think that all this toing and froing and general moving about would be distracting, but it was not; indeed, it was illuminating. This was because the movement was purposeful: designed to bring out key aspects of the music. Where players were sharing a theme they moved towards each other and literally 'played together'. Where players had solo parts to play, or a section of the orchestra took the lead, they moved front and centre stage.

The movement of the players delineated and illuminated the flow of the music and the young audience loved it.

They loved it because movement breaks down barriers; movement focuses attention; movement stimulates the brain and body; movement encourages engagement and participation. The movement of the players added a physical, three dimensional aspect to the music which heightened the experience of the audience, enhancing both their enjoyment and their appreciation of Mozart's symphony.

Almost any type of creative process can be enhanced by movement. Rather than mapping a new process walk through it. Rather than designing a new product build a prototype of it and move it around: play with it and experience it. Rather than sitting behind a desk and exchanging ideas through email seek out the people with ideas and do stuff with them.

As soon as you think of a new idea, do something with it and find someone with whom to do it.

Add action and movement to your thinking and enhance your creativity.                         

To find out more about John Landor and his 'Music in Motion' click here



Monday, 4 April 2016

Amy's Treat

Amy Beach was the first North American woman to succeed as a composer of serious large-scale musical works. These compositions include a mass, symphony and piano concerto.

When taking a break from composing her major works, Amy liked to give herself a treat: she enjoyed writing songs.

As well as being an enjoyable treat for Amy, these short songs were very important to her creative process; many of the ideas developed in her major works were initially sketched out in miniature within her songs.

Our best and most creative ideas often come to us as we do things we enjoy. What do you particularly enjoy? Which of your tasks and activities are a stimulating and enjoyable treat?

Now think about your job or profession. Which parts of your job or profession do you particularly enjoy? When you feel the need, treat yourself to doing them.

As you enjoy yourself, you may experience the added delight of discovering a spark of a bright new idea.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Opportunities for Women Conductors at the Dallas Opera

Dear Mr. Lines,

We would greatly appreciate if you could include this important announcement from The Dallas Opera in your Blog or website. Female conductors, as well as accomplished women singers, opera coaches and accompanists, and instrumentalists with established careers seeking a new career at the podium are encouraged to apply for our next Institute for Women Conductors. The application deadline is April 22, 2016!

Thank you so much!

Kind Regards,

Celeste Hart 

Contact: Suzanne Calvin 214.443.1014 Or Celeste Hart 214.443.1071                                                                                  

The Dallas Opera is Proud to Announce

Applications Are Now Being Accepted For


The Linda and Mitch Hart Institute for

Women Conductors at The Dallas Opera


Expanded 2016 Program: Nov. 26 – Dec. 11, 2016


TDO Seeks to Create New Opportunities for Talented Young Women Conductors Making Their Mark in the Field of Opera


Additional Support from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation,

TACA Bowden & Embrey Family Foundations Artist Residency Fund and the Richard and Enika Schulze Foundation


Cut out middling, middle of the road thinking

Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven did not use the middling indications of loudness and softness much, especially within their solo piano music. The majority of their written indications were either unequivocally loud or unequivocally soft. 

This was probably due, at the very least in part, to the nature of the instruments they had to hand.

However, not using such middling indicators had some very significant effects:
  • It emphasised contrast.
  • It emphasised the transition or transformation from loudness to softness and vice versa.
  • It demanded a keen awareness and appreciation of context and environment: what is perceived as loud or soft in one place may not be the same in another place.
  • It demanded clarity of purpose: certainty about what mood or sentiment needed to be conveyed to an audience and what nature or style of loudness or softness was required to achieve it. 
Emphasising contrast, emphasising transition and transformation, demanding enhanced awareness and appreciation, and demanding clarity of purpose: all these are essential to effective problem solving and can be encouraged by cutting out or reducing middling, middle of the road, middle range thinking.

The next time you need to generate and develop creative, innovative and ground breaking ideas cut out middling middle of the road thinking.

Don't say, 'That is a bit like or similar to.' Ask, 'What is different about this? How does it contrast with what we have done before?'  

Don't say, 'That is okay.'  Ask, 'How can we amplify its effectiveness and attractiveness?'    

Don't say, 'That will do.' Ask, 'How can we significantly dampen and shrink its drawbacks and consequences?'

Don't say, 'I'm comfortable with that.' Ask, 'How can we challenge ourselves to make it even better?'

Don't say, 'That fits well enough.' Ask, 'How can we tailor this to our own and others' needs?'

Don't say, 'That is sort of going in the right general direction.' Ask, 'Where precisely are we going with this?' and, very importantly, 'What stimulating new directions is it opening up for us?'

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Develop tiny details

"You hear something -- it may just be a tiny detail in someone else's piece, or even a pop song or a piece of ethnic music -- and you think, 'What an interesting connection that is. What if I took that one little idea, and turned it around, or expanded it, or took what is background and made it foreground?"'

Composer John Adams from The Muse That Sings: Composers Speak about the Creative Process by Ann McCutchan

As part of his compositional process John Adams sometimes takes a tiny seemingly insignificant detail from someone else's piece of music and works at developing it into a larger and more significant idea.

Beethoven did very much the same thing when composing the first movement of his 5th Symphony. He transformed a small rhythmic motif commonly used by other composers into an idea of immense power and significance which changed the course and nature of Western music: da da da dar! 

He often did the same with his own seemingly trivial material, taking a throw-away melody or phrase and developing it into a substantial section of a composition. He does this very effectively during the first movement of his 5th Piano Concerto (the Emperor): a very quiet unassuming little tune is stated early on and seemingly put to one side, only to return every so often in slightly altered guises which are delicately beautiful and increasingly memorable. Imagine seeing a small, finely crafted gem slowly turning and gradually revealing the rich spectrum and patterning of its glistening facets -- Beethoven gifts us his musical equivalent. 

Indeed, the feel and mood of this little idea does not fade away with the end of the first movement; it permeates and floats through the reflective, gently flowing second movement.

When seeking innovative approaches and solutions remember that their seeds may exist within your own or others' apparently insignificant or seemingly trivial ideas, and ask yourself the following types of questions:
  • What small facets and little details of others' ideas have caught your attention and interest? Why have they caught your attention and interest?
  • How would your approach change if they were placed in the foreground of your thinking? 
  • How do they connect with and complement your own interests and ideas?
  • How do they connect with your current challenges?   
  • What would happen if you looked at them in different ways and experimented and played around with them?
  • How could they fit, operate and develop within a different environment?
  • How could they contribute to solving different problems?
  • What would happen if you gave them resources and invested time in developing and expanding them?
  • What benefits would you gain if you implemented and/or combined all of them? 

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Gergiev's toothpick

The Russian conductor Valery Gergiev sometimes conducts with a toothpick. The sight of him conducting dramatic large-scale works with this small, common-place item is extremely incongruous.

On watching him conduct, sharp toothpick in hand, a couple of seasoned professional musicians were heard to comment, ‘you better pay attention!’ Others he has conducted have noticed his ‘in the moment’ eye contact and facial expressions and how the slightest flutter of his fingers can be of incredible significance. Critics write about the detailed and brilliant sound he can coax out of an orchestra armed only with a toothpick. He certainly has everyone’s attention!

The rumour is that Gergiev started using a toothpick to conduct because his movements whilst conducting were so violent that he frequently lost his grip on the baton and it would go flying into the audience or the orchestra. Whatever the initial reason, the use of his trademark toothpick has since paid great dividends, enabling him to achieve outstanding performances with his orchestras.

Why is this?

By making his musicians concentrate upon the movement of such a small item he is sharpening perceptions and encouraging the thorough exploration of those moment-to-moment details that if tugged at and brought into clearer view will make the difference between a good performance and a truly great one.

The next time you have a gritty problem that refuses to budge take a perceptual toothpick to it. Sharpen your awareness of its details and explore them minutely. Define those small actions that will most effectively enable you to access the roots of the problem and tease out the best ways to resolve it.

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Develop a childlike curiosity

Recently, whilst clearing up around the house, I rediscovered one of the first music books I ever acquired. It was The Observer’s Book of Music by Freda Dinn and Paul Sharp (no humour intended I am sure), first published in 1953 and revised in 1959. For a 14-year-old just starting to learn about music it was a great primer for some of the basics. It described the main instruments played by orchestral musicians, the major musical terms you would most likely see on a concert programme and, towards its end, it provided a series of short paragraphs describing the major classical composers and their work.

Having rediscovered the book I could not resist having a quick flick through and one composer’s description made me do an instant double take. The entry was for Anton Bruckner and it read as follows:

‘Bruckner, Anton (1824 – 1896) Born in Upper Austria, and composed many large – scale works. Influenced by Wagner. There is a certain naivety in his work, and it is not popular outside Germany and Austria.’

The above entry made me do a double take because Bruckner is now considered by many to be a composer of the first rank who, along with the slightly later Mahler and Sibelius, took the orchestral symphony to previously unattained heights of expressiveness.

The dates of the book’s publication and revision perhaps provide a clue to the somewhat dismissive description of Bruckner and his work. The book was written within a decade of the end of the Second World War and its only revision undertaken a mere six years later. It is tempting to think that the memories evoked by the recent hostilities between Britain and Germany (and by association Austria) adversely influenced the authors’ opinions of anything remotely perceived as Germanic.

This is borne out by the entries for other composers influenced by the late romantic Germanic style. Gustav Mahler is said to be ‘more highly regarded in Holland and Germany than elsewhere’ and Richard Strauss, although described as ‘the most successful of Wagner’s successors’ is in the end damned with faint praise:

‘His orchestration is brilliant. Outstanding are his symphonic poems, which are of a passionate, emotional nature, sometimes excessively so.’

Sometimes our thinking and perceptions can be so influenced by the attitudes that pervade our times that we begin to look for and, not unsurprisingly, find those things that we have been conditioned to expect. As a consequence we can fail to appreciate the true worth of what is in front of us.

The next time you find yourself struggling with an issue or problem or trying to evaluate the worth of an idea or potential solution, do your best to filter out the prevailing attitudes that impinge upon your thinking.

You can do this best by following the example of Bruckner, who explored life and music with an open, childlike mind. It is this childlike quality that makes the authors of ‘The Observers’ Book of Music’ correct in their assertion that Bruckner’s music is naïve but wrong in the implied criticism that accompanies it. Bruckner’s music is naïve only in the sense that it communicates his innocent, wide – eyed wonder at the world and the universe that surrounds it. It is this immediacy of expression, unencumbered by convention and the accepted views of the time, which gives his music its unique power to move and inspire people.

Get into the habit of being curious and asking why. Look for what is intriguing, stimulating and fun. Play with the ideas and concepts put in front of you. Take a few things at face value and give them a chance to shine and sound out.

If you do this you might well begin to see more of what is really there, rather than an image distorted by the attitudes and assumptions that attach themselves to you as you go through life. In the process you may also gain one or two unique insights you can call your own.