Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Reverse your usual expectations

Most music is written in 'keys'. Keys are specific groups or 'scales' of notes that a composer can choose from when writing music. There are two main types of keys: major and minor.

Think of weddings, celebrations and Christmas: much of the music written for these will be in major keys.

Think of remembrance services, funerals and Halloween: much of the music written for these will be in minor keys.

Arguably, the association of major keys with lively occasions and joyous feelings (and minor keys with sombre occasions and sorrowful feelings) is almost as much about cultural expectations and conditioning as about the characteristics of the keys themselves.

For example, in Russia and Eastern Europe lively and energetic pop songs (and even advertising jingles) are written in minor keys. Indeed, when asked why this was the case, a Russian musician said that the major keys were reserved for 'inexpressible sadness': a very dramatic reversal of Western European expectations indeed!  

Antonin Dvořák, one of the most accomplished and popular musicians of the 19th century (and, as a Czech, heavily influenced by Eastern European musical traditions and practices), also challenged Western European expectations concerning the use of keys.

In the Third Movement of his 4th Piano Trio in E minor, Op. 90 the slow and sadly reflective opening and closing sections are in a major key and the lively and energetic middle section is in a minor key. This, at least to Western ears, reversal of the usual use of keys not only adds an exotic richness to the sound and texture of the music but also (given the subtly dissonant emotional undertones of the minor key) weaves a melancholic thread into the otherwise brightly dancing liveliness of the movement's middle section.

Dvořák was able to add subtle but telling emotional depth to his Trio by simply reversing the expected order and function of his music's keys. This straightforward but not always emulated musical "slight of hand" provides a small but telling hint as to why many people consider Dvořák a particularly accomplished and creative composer.

We can uncover significant insights and (like Dvořák) gain superior solutions by reversing our usual expectations (be these perceptual, cultural or social, or bound-up with traditional practices and ways of doing things).

Here are some questions to consider:
  • What would be the outcome if you reversed the expected order of your actions or methods and techniques? 
  • What would be the outcome if you travelled in the reverse direction to that expected? 
  • What would be the outcome if you focused on the past rather than the future (or vice versa)?
  • What would be the outcome if you reversed your expectations of an individual or a group?
  • What would be the outcome if you chose to be optimistic where you were usually pessimistic (or vice versa)?
  • What would be the outcome if you reversed your expectations of yourself?

Friday, 24 November 2017

Look beyond the habitual and immediately obvious

Ravel once commented that the snare drum rhythm running through his orchestral piece Bolero mimicked the sound of the machinery in his father's factory. He also said that the piece's melody was inspired by a song his mother sung to him at bedtime. These two memories and the way Ravel combined them in his mind and music hint at how the contrasting qualities of his parents became melded within Ravel's consciousness, helping mould the person and composer he was to become: not only precise, correct and logical but also sensitive, intuitive and artistic.        
Mark Elder (conductor of the Hallé Orchestra), speaking in purely musical terms about Bolero, has described a similar melding: he talks of the 'snake charm' melody and repetitive snare drum rhythm of Bolero as being not in opposition but intimately and interdependently linked; he describes them as growing and evolving equally and as creating an emotional tension between themselves that significantly contributes to a unique and compelling musical experience. 

This melding of contrasting or opposing ideas to create something uniquely powerful is made possible by Ravel's ability to look beyond the habitual and obvious ways of perceiving things.

When thinking about a side-drum, many if not all of us will immediately imagine a loud dry rapid-fire cracking sound produced by a drum being played by someone in uniform taking part in a parade or ceremony (or, if they are unlucky, marching into battle at the front of an army).
This imagining is almost instinctive given the strong martial history and associations of the snare drum. This instinct has, with understandable justification, been reinforced over the years by those who have played and taught the snare drum. For example, one such teacher (Sanford A. Moeller) wrote the following: "To acquire a knowledge of the true nature of the [snare] drum, it is absolutely necessary to study military drumming, for it is essentially a military instrument and its true character cannot be brought out with an incorrect method. When a composer wants a martial effect, he instinctively turns to the drums."

When writing Bolero, however, Ravel did not use the snare drum in this militarily influenced and compositionally traditional way. He looked to the snare drum's use in dance music, where the contrast of precise rhythm against flowing melody defines and enhances the beat and lilt of the music: drum and melody meld to create an enjoyably foot-tapping whole.

From here, for a composer as talented and deep thinking as Ravel, it was only a short step or two towards making imaginative personal associations between contrasting or opposing memories and experiences (as the opening paragraph illustrates). 

Through the genius of Ravel, these memories and experiences and their associations (at once opposed but also mutually supportive) flow into the unique music of Bolero. They enhance its artistic richness and enhance the enjoyment of listeners who (just like Mark Elder) sense a tension and then growing energy between the father's rhythm and the mother's melody. 

By the end of Bolero, rhythm and melody (father and mother) have become transformed into one loud writhing mass of purposeful sound and feeling that penetrates deep into the bodies and souls of listeners; once heard, Bolero is never forgotten.

When seeking to solve problems, especially difficult and complex ones, we are often confronted by apparently contrasting or even opposing ideas and options. These contrasts and oppositions are reinforced or even created by how we habitually perceive the ideas and options, which is greatly influenced by their most well-known history and how they are commonly (and perhaps most easily) applied.

Seek the alternative histories and uses of the ideas and options before you. Once found, do they uncover creative and useful ways to combine the ideas and options? Do they reveal how contrasts, oppositions and differences can be combined to create generative tensions: tensions which will power the growth of unique solutions and approaches?

More than this, do the alternative histories and uses you uncover (together with the creative associations and combinations they suggest) trigger even more associations with and between your personal experiences, knowledge and memories?

To start this process, ask (and persevere) with the following questions:
  • In what other ways have the ideas been used?
  • Could you adopt, adapt and combine some of the other ways the ideas have been used?
  • In what other situations and contexts have the ideas been used? 
  • Do some of the other situations and contexts offer you additional ways to use and combine the ideas?
  • Do these additional uses and combinations of ideas trigger new associations with and between your personal experiences, knowledge and memories? What personal experiences, knowledge and memories do they bring to mind? 
  • Does what you remember further change your perception of the ideas and how they may be used and combined?     

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Create a prelude to your creative thinking

During the Renaissance Age of music (1400 to 1600) and the following Baroque Age (1600 to 1750), composers gradually developed and refined pieces of music that became known as preludes. As their name suggests, these pieces were usually played before more complex and demanding music. Initially, during the Renaissance, they enabled a player to 'test the strings' and warm up his or her fingers. Later, during the Baroque, preludes provided a free-flowing intuitively structured contrast to the more logically rigorous and tightly constructed music (most often fugues) that followed. (J.S Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, a set of 48 Preludes and Fugues, is one of the most well-known examples of this.)

Bach's 48 preludes are notated in detail, but not all preludes were notated this way. Often, the pitches of notes were indicated but notes' durations and combinations were suggested by flowing lines rather than precise placing. This practice balanced direction and intention with intuition and improvisation; preludes were freely structured and improvisatory in style, but they were not chaotic.  

The use and the nature of preludes provide important insights into how we can enhance our approach to creative thinking and problem solving. Before immediately diving into the intricacies of a problem (and quickly becoming lost within a complex fugue of ideas and possible solutions) take the time to warm-up your mind and tune into and play intuitively, but also purposefully, with your thoughts.

Try the following: 
  • Loosely sketch your key issues and ideas.
  • Allow your mind the time to become familiar and comfortable with the look and feel of the issues and ideas in front of it.
  • Do not judge the issues and ideas in front of you; resist the temptation of placing differing values upon them.
  • Let your mind intuitively play with the issues and ideas. How do they look and feel when you nudge them in different directions and put them in new and different places?
  • Which issues and ideas seem to be related? Which ones seem to naturally connect, flow into and develop from each other?
  • Draw-out and sketch your thinking as it develops: capture the flow of your ideas and the connections you make. You can use your own approach, a rich picture or mind map to do this.
  • Lastly, look at your work. You have created a prelude to your creative thinking. What insights has it given you? Where are they leading you? What do you need to think about more deeply?

Saturday, 26 August 2017

This is how a collaborative person works: 30. search for and find your first influential champions

(This post draws heavily upon the experiences of Paul Macalindin as described in his book Upbeat, which chronicles his inspiring work with the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq.)

'During my phone call with Max in his Orkney home, I managed to declare myself the 'Musical Director of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq,' barely able to speak the words without choking. 'All my love goes out to you!' came his immediate response and then he blurted out, 'And I will be your Honorary Composer-in-Residence!'

From Upbeat: the Story of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq by Paul Macalindin

'Hello both,

I was on Twitter last night and I spotted Barham Salih (the government official we talked about -- did we talk about him?) on Twitter tweeting, I followed him and was amazed by his tweets. I wrote to him this:

@BarhamSalih As a young Iraqi living in Baghdad I am extremely happy to know that someone from our government tweets -- kudos to you!

And then it hit me, I didn't know he's going to response or not but I thought it didn't hurt to try:

@Barham Salih have you ever had a chance to read this? would you be interested in supporting this initiative?

http://tinyurl.com/ragfu2 (this link contains my article in the Times)

Now, I've spotted this message from him:

BarhamSalih@ZuhulSultan Thanks! You make us all proud. I definitely want to help with this amazing project send me your phone number to get in touch

I've sent him my phone number and e-mail... FINGERS CROSSED!


An  e- mail written by Zuhul Sultan from Upbeat: the Story of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq by Paul Macalindin

These two quotations (the first Paul's description of a phone conversation he had with the leading British composer Peter Maxwell Davies and the second Zuhul Sultan's email describing her discovery of and initial Twitter contact with Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih) emphasise how crucial it is to search for and reach out towards individuals who are willing and able to become your first influential champions: those who are eager to use their power and access to resources or credibility and standing within their professions to help fire-up and drive forward a young and innovative initiative; they catalyse progress and launch people towards success.

There are two types of first champion: 1. those who offer your initiative its first crucial and significant practical support (which Dr Barham Salih did by providing $50,000 to fund the NYOI's first summer school in Iraq); and 2. those who offer symbolic support which gives your initiative credibility in the eyes of key supporters and potential supporters and motivates those working within the initiative (which Peter Maxwell Davies did for the NYOI and its people).

Sometimes these two types of champion are combined in one individual. Often though, as was the case with the NYOI, they manifest within separate individuals. 

The above quotations also describe three fundamental ways in which to search for and reach out to these first champions:
  1. Be clear about the types of people and support you need; create a profile and have it to the front of your mind whilst you search. Ask yourself these two questions: 1. 'Who can unlock resources, support and good-will from within governments, communities and populations, etc.?'; and 2. 'Who has credibility and influence within communities, populations and professions crucial to your initiative?' (Both Paul and Zuhul, through either experience of their context or discussion of their requirements (or a mix of the two) had a well-defined idea of the types of champions and support for which they were searching.)
  2. Develop a healthily focused and outward looking social media habit which not only pushes your message out to people but also pulls people towards you. (Zuhul had obviously formed the habit of scanning her social media horizons for possible contacts and support which, once found, she instinctively sought to not only push information at but also attract towards her by engaging with them on a personal level.)
  3. Try, speculate, take the risk and 'have a go'. Be confident in reaching out to potential first champions. Often, we can be hesitant about reaching out to people who have great status or high profile reputations. Overcome this hesitancy! Make contact and ask the question, 'Is this something you would be interested in supporting?'. If you do not try you will never know and no first champions will emerge, but if you ask the question they may appear. (Paul and Zuhul easily overcame any initial misgivings they may have had and subsequently gained important first champions for their cause.)                                                    
Lastly, this final quotation from Paul's book offers one more particularly effective way to identify first champions: 

'... and when I had finished, triumphant that I'd won them over, the members sat in deafening silence. Here I was reaching out for feedback, enquiry, intelligent criticism, and all I got was a room full of middle-aged people, neither shaken nor stirred.

Out of this, however, two important musical allies arose from the midst. Renate Bock, President of the European Federation of National Youth Orchestras, listened deeply and compassionately while Oliver Khan, Director of the Singapore National Youth Orchestra, gave out the warmth and wisdom I had desperately sought.'

Those most likely to become influential first champions (or at least reassuring and morale boosting supporters) will stand out in some way from the crowd. This may be through their deep and quiet concentration upon what you are saying or through their positive reactions and words of support. At the very best, these reactions may signal that people are early adopters of new and innovative ideas and initiatives, making them prime 'first champion' material. Look out for these reactions and make sure you engage with the individuals from which they come.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

This is how a collaborative person works: 29. passionately weave in the familiar and traditional

(This post draws heavily upon the experiences of Paul Macalindin as described in his book Upbeat, which chronicles his inspiring work with the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq.)

'In the middle of the orchestral programme, the two lovely sisters on violin and cello, Sabat and Sawen from Erbil, sang a Kurdish song, Waku Nay Kunkuna Jargm by Adnan Karim, accompanied by one of our pianists, Zardasht. As few in Iraq had experience of an orchestral programme, I reckoned a sung duo in the middle of the first half proved just as valid a musical experience as anything else we offered.'

From Upbeat: the Story of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq by Paul Macalindin

The NYOI's Iraqi audience had little or no experience of listening to western classical music or attending concerts where such music was performed. It was important, therefore, for Paul to create a familiar cultural touchstone for his listeners within the orchestra's programme of otherwise western classical music. 

By giving his audience this oasis of familiar sounds sung by familiar people, Paul achieved at least two important things:
  1. The song provided the reassurance and familiarity that encouraged his audience to feel at home within the context of a western classical music concert (a context that to those not familiar with it can easily feel somewhat formal and at times intimidating).
  2. By placing traditional Iraqi music side-by-side with western classical music the point was clearly made that both traditions were equally valid and valuable and that they had the potential to complement rather than conflict with each other (a powerful message possessing wide social and cultural significance).
As well as creating this familiar point of contact for his audience and emphasising the worth of both types of music, Paul also used the traditional song to create an emotional bridge between the NYOI musicians and their audience: a bridge that enabled both groups to move towards each other and begin sharing their feelings and appreciating each other's perspectives. 

But to build this bridge effectively, it needed to be done with heart and a passionate willingness to reach out and share (and a welcoming openness to what was received in return):
'Both had wonderful voices but, like many, were too closed in their own worlds. In rehearsal, I'd encouraged both to sing through their eyes, and reach out to the public, so they could in turn reach back. As they poured their souls into the auditorium, the fundamental tones of sadness and loss darkened the hall. Listeners recognised their yearning and we, sitting in the orchestra, felt their epiphany.'

This passionate willingness to share and be open to what people give in return is how Paul and the NYOI avoided offensive tokenism that would have worked counter to the orchestra's aims and intentions by alienating rather than including the audience.

Sneaking in the authentic can be another credibility enhancing and support inducing way to weave in the familiar and traditional:

'We rounded off with Saween resplendent in Kurdish dress, singing a traditional song in her pure, non-vibrato voice, ornamenting with mesmerising glottal inflections, while Tuqa and Zana accompanied on cello and violin. This was the last thing the producers wanted for a morning magazine, but we were very chuffed to have sneaked in something authentic.' 

Publicly 'sneaking something authentic' into a situation where it is not especially welcome or expected can send a strong and positive message to existing supporters within specific populations and potential supporters within wider populations. It broadcasts your commitment to the needs and interests of those you are seeking to engage and work with and shows a determination to further the goals of your collaborative project (rather than chase the often spurious advantages gained by habitually putting others' goals first).

Lastly, do not allow your focus on the familiar and traditional to blind you to what is current and new within the societies and cultures with which you are working. (As well as including traditional Iraqi music in the NYOI's concert programmes, Paul made a point of including new works by Iraqi Arab and Kurd composers.) 

Sometimes, introducing new developments from within a society and culture can be surprising and educational for the people living in that society and culture. This aspect is dealt with here

So, do the following when seeking to collaborate with partners from different societies and cultures:
  • Create oases of reassuring familiarity for your partners within otherwise unfamiliar and perhaps intimidating contexts.
  • Where possible and appropriate, which will be in most cases, demonstrate that partners' traditions are as valid and valuable as your own and that each can complement the other.
  • Use what is familiar and traditional to build a bridge upon which partners can move towards each other and begin sharing feelings and perspectives.
  • Avoid tokenism when weaving in the familiar and traditional. Do this by demonstrating a heartfelt and passionate willingness to reach out and share (and do not forget to welcome what is received in return).
  • Do not allow your focus on the familiar and traditional to blind you to new developments within a society and culture. 
  • Remember that new developments within a society and culture are often surprising and educational to those living in that society and culture.