Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Eyes Wide Shut?

I suppose, like quite a lot of blokes, I never much cared for ballet. I used to like the music of the Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev blockbusters.

But, truth to tell, when I was there I used to get bored with the goings on on stage and often closed my eyes for long periods of time, better to focus on the sounds.

That was until we started to go to see Birmingham Royal Ballet at the Hippodrome in Brum.

First there was their delightful and delicious Nutcracker. Charming Coppélia. Then their extraordinary, powerful Romeo and Juliet.

And at the weekend we went to a truly moving Cinderella.

Brilliant dancing, led by the superb Cinders of Australian Ballet School-trained Elisha Willis and Iain Mackay’s Prince. Wonderful choreography (and story-telling) from the company’s director, David Bintley. Dazzling design and lighting from John MacFarlane and David Finn.

And, of course, great music from the genius of Prokofiev.

Eyes wide open.  

Sunday, 25 November 2012

The Power of Silence

I was facilitating a creative workshop in Manila for a multinational group of senior managers. One of the head honchos came from New York to observe.

Mid-way through the second day, I asked him what he particularly noticed.

“What strikes me most is that you’re so unafraid of silence,” he said. “Sometimes you are prepared to just wait and wait till something emerges.”

That certainly was not the case when I started out as a facilitator. Nature abhors a vacuum. And, when there was silence, I would panic, worrying that the wheels were falling off, and I would fill the void with words.

But silence can be valuable in so many ways.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Learning how to practice

I’ve been studying the great Bohemian violin teacher, Otakar Ševčík. He taught some of the greatest players of the early twentieth century, including Jan Kubelík and Jaroslav Kocian.

But here’s the secret to his success. In an interview for Pall Mall Magazine in 1910, the writer reports this:

"The professor not only teaches how to play, he teaches, above all, how to practice. This he considers all important."

Where there are new skills to be learned, isn’t that the secret to all teaching, all learning?

I wonder why it’s not more widely known?

Monday, 19 November 2012

Premature rejection

Thinking about the premature rejection of new ideas, I’ve been imagining how the management of Motorola may have greeted Martin Cooper’s new-fangled mobile phone in the early 1970s – on the telephone:

“So, Mr Cooper, the market for these things is how big…?”

“Oh, there is no market. Well, what is market research telling us?”

“That people don’t think they need them. I see. And how would they fit with our business?”

“They’d need completely new manufacturing plant and new routes to market. Hmmm.”

“I must tell you that I showed your new gadget to my wife and she thought it was just too clunky. It really wouldn’t fit in her purse.”

“Too be honest, Martin, maybe your time would be better directed at more promising areas, no?”
Maybe that's what happened? Certainly Motorola missed the boat.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Strong leadership

I’ve been thinking about the interviews on the TV news with the newly-appointed interim director-general of the BBC, Tim Davie, on the day that he got the job.

What I heard him say was that the BBC needed “strong leadership” and that he was going to provide it.

I have a couple of concerns that arise from this:

Strong leadership is something you do on a day-by-day basis, not something you announce up-front.

If it’s said at all, it’s best said by someone else – ie “He/She will bring strong leadership to the organisation.”

Hope it doesn’t come back and bite him. After all, it is exactly what the BBC needs.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Switching to INTRIGUE

An elephant trap in innovation is judging new ideas too early.

Indeed one of my clients introduced a scheme whereby all the company’s thousands of employees were encouraged to submit ideas, which were then each immediately submitted to some basic screening questions.

Is the idea likely to sell over $x million? Is it a practical, implementable idea? Will it fit with existing systems and capabilities?

The consequence was efficiently to kill off at birth all the most exciting and ground-breaking ideas suggested. For, in the earliest stages, anything radical is highly likely to fall short when subjected to those innocent and sensible-sounding questions. .

A much better approach to ask is this question:

Is the idea INTRIGUING? If we were to devote time and attention to it, using our best creative problem-solving and design skills, might it turn into a real humdinger?

That way, breakthrough ideas get selected, developed and implemented. And it’s the paltry, incremental, time-wasting ideas that get discarded.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Obbligato coughing

Last week I went to Wagner’s Siegfried at Covent Garden, all six hours of it.

(I say six hours – but in fact it’s just four and a quarter. The rest of the time is taken up with intervals. Wagnerians always stress the inordinate length of Wagner’s operas in order to impress.)

I was very pleasantly surprised by the experience. The singing was quite ok (contrary to expectation), Bryn Terfel (above) a massive presence and voice, and the orchestra really exceptionally good.

It’s an opera that I first saw some forty years ago – the legendary Sadler’s Wells production from the early 1970s with Rita Hunter an amazing Brünnhilde, Alberto Remedios as Siegfried and Norman Bailey as the Wanderer (Wotan in disguise), conducted by Reginald Goodall. Still hard to beat, although a bit slow for my taste now.

A major difference between then and now was in the audience. Hushed as before. But now constantly littered with coughing. Not the unavoidable muffled cough, handkerchief over mouth. But the unprotected, full volume, listen to me, I’m here, cough.

It was a very long time ago, but I still remember one of my old headmaster’s “lectures” to us all at school. It must have followed a concert where there had been lots of coughing, wheezing and general shuffling.

His theme was “the loud cough that betokens the empty mind”. His stern talk must have made quite an impact, because, in the hundreds of concerts and operas that I’ve been to in the intervening half century, I don’t think that I’ve coughed or sneezed out loud at a performance. If it happens to me, as it does, I find a way to suppress or smother it.

I realise that younger music-lovers prefer a more relaxed atmosphere at performances. In general I’m with them, but not, for me, including obbligato coughing.


Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Backing a winner

The running on Monday of the Melbourne Cup reminds me of the first year I was in Sydney, and had just been on my first trip to NZ (which I loved).

I discovered there was a horse in the race that day called Kiwi.

I gave everything in my pocket to our receptionist to back it and went out to lunch with some Aussie clients.

At the end of lunch we watched the race on TV. Kiwi was last until the final furlong. Then it raced around the lot of them and won easily. Legendary winner – at long enough odds. 

By the time I got back to my office the staff was already having a party (100 of them) on the basis of my winnings. 

Sunday, 4 November 2012


I love it when a sense of lineage emerges in any field. I know how much I owe to my own teachers – and theirs.

The pianist Adelina de Lara, who was still playing in her 80s in the 1950s, was a pupil of Robert Schumann’s wife, Clara. This is how she recalled one lesson in the 1880s:

"I had just finished playing part of Brahms's Scherzo in E flat minor, op 4, when the door opened and in walked a short stout man. He wore a beard and his hair was long, swept back from a magnificent brow...

"The unusual intrusion into one of my teacher's lessons caused me to glance at her. Would she be annoyed? But to my surprise she was smiling at the intruder, a smile I had rarely seen before. Without greeting him she told me to repeat what I had already played. By then the visitor was standing behind me and I began to play.

"Then, as I finished the opening phrase I heard his voice: 'No, no, it is too fast - you must draw it out like this.' His hands were already on the keyboard, and Clara Schumann was saying, 'Let Dr Brahms show you, Adelina’."

Here she is playing Schumann’s Kinderszenen:

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Academic writing sucks (too often)

Why is it that so many academics so often write in such a glutinous and pompous style?

Consider this:

“Within the wider literature, the causal status of culture varies from being a supremely independent variable, the superordinate power in society to, at the other extreme, a mere epiphenomenon, a powerless superstructure.”

It’s from a paper by Brendan McSweeney of the University of Essex. Might there be an intelligible version of that? Perhaps not. Maybe it means nothing at all. Or, worse, that it’s saying something perfectly obvious.

So what a pleasure it is to turn to Professor Kenneth Hamilton’s book After the Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance. Full of insight. Radical in its approach. Charming and witty.

It might be read with benefit by every musician and musicologist (and academics from all disciplines).