After a successful two weeks of classical music in the south of France, I now have a chance to step back, relax and think about lessons learned. It’s a habit I have used to good advantage throughout my business life, and personal life as well. Too many of us rush from one experience to anther, one meeting to the next, without taking the time to slow down and look for lessons learned, but good news and not so good. Taking the time for reflection often brings insights that can be used going forward to not only improve performance, but also avoid making the same mistakes over and over again.
So, what can be learned after spending two weeks with 14 young musicians, mostly strangers to me, and to each other?
First of all it became obvious fairly quickly that skills, and they have a very high level of technical skills on their instruments (violin, viola, cello, double bass, clarinet, oboe, piano, voice), there is more to a solo or an ensemble (trio, quartet, quintet, sextet, etc.) than just playing the individual notes perfectly.
“Music is the space between the notes” – Claude Debussy
A musical performance is akin to a dance, where everyone must move together, and the audience must be moved as well. What is interesting about ensemble and chamber music is that each player only has their music in front of them and don’t see the notes the other musicians will be playing. Therefore, understanding the piece of music in its entirety, how it flows, the story it tells, the colours and feelings it is intended to create in the mind of the audience, is critical to a successful performance. Second, all the players must not only play their parts, but listen to the others at the same time. Should the first soften her playing a little so the second violin and viola parts can be heard more clearly? When is time to emphasise a note or phrase and how does this fit in with the overall musical experience? Successful ensemble performance is about listening and feeling.
When a player is either unfamiliar with the music, or insecure about their own playing, most of this listening is cut off as they focus intently on the notes on the page instead of the whole musical experience. If a player is intent of showing off or being seen as the “star”, they can easily overpower the group and the audience receives a lopsided performance and misses the real collective magic of the music.
The second lesson learned is that what happens off the stage is equally as important as the actual performance, and in fact has a direct impact on the performance. Is someone getting on someone’s nerves? Has something been said that was taken wrongly? Is one player upset with another player? Does one musician act like a jerk or incessantly show off to gain attention? Does one bully the others? All these behaviours and more happen naturally when humans gather into groups. And it is exacerbated when the group is made up of teenagers and young adults who don’t know each other well.
Politeness is the poison of collaboration. —Edwin Land
In my experience, too often people try to be polite when in actuality they are really upset. And as group dynamics go, it is not unusual for one or more in the group to be upset with others. The real problem is, very few have been taught the skills of how to deal with upset or conflict in a way that resolves the issue. Most just ignore it, try to put on a brave face of “politeness” (in business it’s called political correctness). Which only makes things fester, like a boil.
So, one of the goals of the Young Virtuosi Summer Festival is to not only play great music, but develop the playing and people skills of these talented young musicians. As a result, throughout the 2 weeks we conducted a group seminar in personal and professional development. And one of the key issues we focused on was how to give and receive feedback and how to eliminate negative hidden agenda.
During several sessions we borrowed a technique that I have used repeatedly in my senior executive team alignment workshops. The process involves introducing the group to the importance of feedback through a demonstration of goal achievement using a blindfolded participant, a large bucket and a set of tennis balls. The object is simple, throw the tennis balls into the bucket. Something any child could do easily. However, when blindfolded it becomes difficult, if not impossible. That’s where feedback comes in. With good feedback and coaching, the blindfolded participant gets a high percentage of the balls in the bucket.
While this is instructive, what comes next is transformational. We then pair up the young musicians in groups of 2 to give and receive feedback from each other. And we do this multiple times, changing partners each time. As a result, issues that were below the surface and getting in the way of good performance dynamics are surfaced, talked about openly, and solutions quickly emerge. Then we have a group feedback session so all issues can be discussed openly. With these tools and the feedback experience, the group cohesion becomes tighter, and when problems do occur, they now have a methodology to resolve them.
The secret is to gang up on the problem, rather than each other. —Thomas Stallkamp
Written and Posted by: John R. Childress
Senior Executive Advisor on Leadership, Culture and Strategy Execution Issues,
Business Author and Advisor to CEOs
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid
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