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Friday 31 March 2017

This is how a collaborative person works: 5. context, context, context

(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. To read more posts in this series go to the March to August 2017 Blog Archive on your right.)

'In the cycle of endless correcting of mistakes, we nailed down one, and another popped up. We thought this had something to do with pushing the players' concentration to the limits. However, it was often difficult for them to come from a small group rehearsal and hold onto the learning when they sat down in the next room with the full orchestra. The context, and how closely they felt they were being watched, changed the way they retained learning.'

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

Paul is describing the process of rehearsing with his players. There is a crucial insight here: rather than continuing to assume that the players were struggling because they were being pushed to the limits of their concentration, Paul and his colleagues soon realised that it was the context within which they were rehearsing which was affecting their ability to learn and improve. A small group setting enhanced the players learning and a large group setting eroded it.

As Paul says, one of the reasons for this was the perceived level of scrutiny: how closely the players felt they were being watched. Other likely factors would have been the increased pressure players felt when rehearsing in front many people, the potentially intimidating size of the orchestral rehearsal room, and the necessary formality required for managing and rehearsing a large number of people within a large space.

The crucial word here is 'felt'. It is the players' perceived level of scrutiny and pressure which affected their ability to learn within different contexts.

The crucial questions are as follows:
  • Why did the players feel this way?
  • What was/could have been done to make the players feel more comfortable within the large group context?

Arguably, there are three main reasons why the players felt the way they did:
  1. Because the attitude towards western music in Iraq was often at best ambivalent and at worst very hostile, the players were accustomed to practising alone and in secret (perhaps even muting their instruments with blankets so neighbours would not be able to hear). Therefore practising in a small group, let alone a large one, was very unfamiliar to them and probably felt very uncomfortable and risky. This would have been an almost conditioned response.
  2. There was a cultural element at play which meant players were very reluctant to lose face by being seen to make mistakes and having to admit to them. This tendency understandably increased as the amount of people watching and listening increased.
  3. The Western/European approach to classical music involved methods of rehearsal and performance which were new and alien to many of the players. This added to the discomfort players were already feeling as a result of the two previously described aspects.      
Paul and his colleagues did the following to address the above aspects:
  • They encouraged their musicians to play together in small groups as much as possible, rehearsing chamber music. This not only helped players develop the ability to listen to and respond to each other but also provided a reassuring stepping stone towards playing within a large orchestra.
  • They arranged informal fun activities for the whole orchestra which encouraged the players to interact and perform for and with each other. This not only acclimatised the players to doing things with and in front of a large group but also began to break down any barriers caused by any sense of embarrassment or 'losing face'. This approach was particularly valuable when, as was normal during NYOI's summer courses and tours, young musicians from other youth orchestras joined the orchestra to rehearse and perform with it and share their experiences and expertise.
  • They offered repeated opportunities to rehearse and perform with a large orchestra and to give concerts to large audiences. This gradually sensitised the players to the feel, challenges and demands of these situations.
  • They boosted confidence by ensuring players possessed the key technical and performance skills necessary to play their instruments consistently well and communicate the music clearly to their audiences. This enhanced confidence underpinned and supported the actions described above.               

It is not uncommon for some people and organisations to struggle with transferring their knowledge, skills and learning from their own context and situation to that of an unfamiliar and challenging collaborative initiative which is high profile and/or has a large number of partners. Adopting and adapting the above questions to their needs and challenges and those of the collaboration they are part of can help address this issue.

When members of a collaboration are struggling to apply their experience, expertise and learning to their new context try the following:
  • Do not assume that you know why they are struggling to apply their experience, expertise and knowledge to their new collaborative context. Ask why they are having difficulties. What evidence do you have that the answers you receive are correct? What specifically have they told you? What else have you heard them saying and what have you seen them doing?
  • Encourage them to take part in small but meaningful projects and activities with a small number of other partners. (As mentioned above, this will not only develop their ability to listen and respond to others but also provide them with a reassuring stepping stone to larger projects and activities involving more of the collaboration's partners.)
  • Offer them opportunities to mix informally with all the collaboration's partners and stakeholders. Make sure the opportunities have a clear goal or purpose in mind and that everybody is required to do, present or contribute something whilst attending. Also make sure these opportunities are provided frequently enough to ensure new partners can attend and participate soon after they join the collaboration. (Doing these things will acclimatise people to 'performing' in front of others and begin to break down any sense of hesitancy caused through fear of embarrassment. It will also help existing partners feel comfortable about interacting and working with new partners.)
  • Ensure they are invited, welcomed and encouraged to contribute to formal meetings and events involving all the collaboration's partners and stakeholders. (This will gradually sensitise them to the feel, challenges and demands of the situation.)
  • Help them develop skills which will increase their confidence in contributing to the wider collaboration. Do they need to develop skills in the fundamental areas of contributing to meetings and making presentations? Would developing any other skills enhance their confidence in making contributions? For example, would it be helpful and confidence boosting for them to develop data-gathering and analysis skills or any other technical skills essential to the collaboration's work? (This increased confidence will underpin and support all the actions described above.)

Tuesday 28 March 2017

This is how a collaborative person works: 4. introduce partners to their new selves

(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. To read more posts in this series go to the March to August 2017 Blog Archive on your right.)

'The most ironic culture shock for them was the prevalence of new music, especially from Gordon Mcpherson and Peter Maxwell Davies. It took the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq for young Edinburgh musicians to play (new) Scottish orchestral music.'

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

Paul is describing how, during its tour of the UK, the NYOI was able to introduce young Scottish musicians to new Scottish music. The somewhat conservative classical music scene in Scotland did not include such music in its programmes very often.

Those living within a community do not always have the opportunity to engage with and appreciate what is new and emerging within it. There are different and inter-related reasons for this: the prevalence of traditional and established practices and tastes; lack of awareness and knowledge of current developments (coupled with a lack of access to them); the comfort of the familiar and the ease of following habit as opposed to the discomfort of the unfamiliar and the difficulty and sometimes embarrassing awkwardness of learning something new.

Whatever the reasons, collaborative initiatives (especially those between partners from within and outside communities) offer the opportunity to introduce people to their communities' innovations and new ideas -- perhaps for the first time.

The eyes and actions of partners on the outside of a community are not so readily blinkered and restrained by the traditions and habits existing within it. Outsider partners are also more willing to explore not only what is traditional and established within a community but also what is innovative and new: if making the effort to find out about the former it is plain common sense to do the same for the latter.    

So, if you find yourself working as an outsider with partners from inside communities, recognise that you may have the opportunity to introduce your partners to their new selves: to the new and emerging ideas and developments that are so close to them but with which they may have had little or no experience.

What is more, you can do this in the most collaborative and natural of ways: you can find and learn about the new things together (just like Paul, the NYOI and the young Scottish musicians).

Monday 27 March 2017

This is how a collaborative person works: 3. note the blind spot

(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. To read more posts in this series go to the March to August 2017 Blog Archive on your right.)

'......when I started filling out the Bank of America Foundation application and reached the page which asked me which of the following minorities would be in the audience, I saw no mention of Middle Eastern or Arab peoples at all. I couldn't even tick a box called 'other'. They weren't the only foundation to ignore this group. Were Arab Americans undesirable or just plain invisible to the needs of corporate socially responsible America?'

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

Above, Paul is describing a little of his experience as he applied for funding from American Institutions in support of NYOI's proposed tour of the USA.

It is a short but very telling quotation for the following reasons:
  • It is a clear example of a deeply embedded, institutionalised blind spot concerning a specific part of the American population.
  • It shows how negative assumptions are readily made about the presence of such a blind spot rather than it being accepted as a genuine oversight or error. (This likely happens because no one likes to be ignored.)
  • It shows how a blind spot can be not only perpetuated but also enlarged, spreading into surrounding institutions. (This is particularly the case, as the above quotation shows, when the institutions possessing the blind spot are high profile and influential members of their sector or well-established pillars of society. Taking their lead from these well-established and esteemed institutions, those interacting with them often see and not see the same things in the same ways. If they do perceive an ever-spreading blind spot, they almost unquestioningly assume that it is there for a good reason or is simply 'the way things are around here'.)
  • It shows how a blind spot, particularly one such as the above, is most likely perceived and questioned by those who have themselves been under-represented and marginalised (or even ignored). In this case, Paul is a member of the commonly marginalised gay community.          

So, take care to ensure your context and the institutions you are working with do not blunt your curiosity and dull your sensitivity to blind spots. Be careful to remember that blind spots are potentially dangerous because they tend to be perceived negatively by those sensitive enough to recognise them. Take a careful look at forms and documents; listen intently to conversations and presentations; take careful note of what is said at meetings. And if you sense the spreading presence of blind spots similar to that described above, make yourself ask the obvious question:

'Why are they there?'          
If you can, invite someone especially sensitive to being marginalised and ignored to help you discover and challenge blind spots. Indeed, extending this invitation may be all that is needed to make the blind spots shrink and disappear.

Sunday 26 March 2017

This is how a collaborative person works: 2. 'It's her choice.'

(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. To read more posts in this series go to the March to August 2017 Blog Archive on your right.)

"'It's her choice.'
What, was it really? How much choice did a 17-year-old Iraqi pianist from Baghdad really have? She was being led straight off a plane from Baghdad onto a media band wagon and given one of the top venues in London to platform her cause, but obliged to play while being filmed with virtually no rehearsal. These sounded like unreasonable demands to me."

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

Above, Paul is describing the reaction of the director of a reality television show in response to his concerns about the demands being placed on Zuhul Sultan, the young woman who played the central role in founding the NYOI. The director thought that what she was asking Zuhal to do was reasonable; Paul thought that her demands were unreasonable. 

When people with different priorities, agendas and needs work together there can, of course, be tensions. When power dynamics are not equal within a collaboration, these tensions can quickly escalate into conflicts or solidify into barriers that put distance between people.   

Most damaging, however, is when there are different priorities, agendas and needs at play and the differing power dynamics between people are not perceived, especially by those holding the most power.

In the example above, Zuhal, through her musical talent and strength of will, was able to cope well with what was asked (or demanded) of her. As a result, the performances and interviews she gave at the Wigmore Hall, London's premiere chamber music venue, were successful.  

But think for a moment: what if those possessing the power associated with a high profile reality TV series made the same requests or demands of Zuhul day after day after day? What if they not only repeatedly ignored Zuhul's differing priorities, agenda and needs but also continually discounted the significance of the differing power dynamics between themselves and Zuhul? What if they consistently made the untested assumption that meeting their 'reasonable requests' was always and unequivocally 'her choice' when, in fact, Zuhal felt she was complying with 'non-negotiable demands' under ever-increasing duress?

Sooner or later something somewhere would likely blow-up and fail spectacularly and all involved, including the most powerful, would suffer the consequences.    

This is a scenario which can easily occur within long-running collaborations between partners possessing differing levels of power. If the more powerful always assume that those with less power always freely choose to meet their 'reasonable requests', and if the less powerful always assume that they must always meet the 'unreasonable demands' of the more powerful, then acrimony and recrimination will inevitably result.

This will then be followed by the less powerful retreating, exiting or even rebelling and the more powerful standing baffled amongst the ruins of a failed collaboration. 

So, keep in mind that one partner's reasonable request could be another partner's unreasonable demand. When you catch yourself justifying the requests you are making of your partners by saying 'It is their choice.', ask yourself how you know this for sure. When a partner tells you 'It is your choice.' to carry out a request do you agree with them? Are they correct? Checking out these assumptions straight away, as soon as they are made, will help you avoid significant collaboration threatening problems down the line.

Wednesday 22 March 2017

This is how a collaborative person works: 1. keep the camera rolling

(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. To read more posts in this series go to the March to August 2017 Blog Archive on your right.)

'Since 2010 Gill's presence had been constant. In making her documentary, she was following the golden rule: just keep it rolling. With enough patience, one never knew what one could capture.'

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

Gill Parry was the documentary maker who was making a film about the development, experiences and achievements of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq. Paul is describing her 'keeping the camera rolling' whilst the orchestra, exhausted after a long trip from Iraq to Edinburgh', is making the final coach trip from Edinburgh Airport to the college that would be their base for the majority of their 2012 UK tour.

Keeping the camera rolling not only increased Gill's chance of capturing an unexpected insight or happening but also contributed to the developing chronicle of the NYOI, which Paul and others were constantly updating and sharing through the traditional written word, websites and blogs and social media.

Maintaining such a chronicle, especially through the above diverse mix of media, obviously helped the orchestra publicise its aspirations and achievements and raise its profile. It also served another arguably even more important purpose: it helped the diverse mix of partners who were maintaining and developing the orchestra to capture and act upon comments, opinions, feelings and incidents that might otherwise have gone by unnoticed, enabling timely advantage to be taken of valuable insights and opportunities.

For example Paul, early on during his work with the NYOI, was careful to capture the ideas, opinions, hopes, dreams and desires of his young players. These were used as the foundations of an initial strategy which gave direction to the development of the orchestra and a focus for its ongoing story: it would be not only a safe place to learn about and perform music but also a vehicle to demonstrate the hopes and ambitions of its young people and their commitment to integrating Iraq firmly into the modern global community. 

This clear statement of intent, the core meaning gained from the mouths and minds of the players themselves and captured by diverse media, played a not insignificant part in defining what was unique about the NYOI and demonstrating why it merited a place alongside other more established and accomplished youth orchestras at prestigious music festivals. Festival and concert organisers took note and the NYOI was duly invited to perform at Beethovenfest in Germany and at a series of prestigious concerts by leading European national youth orchestras at the Grand Theatre de Provence. The Scottish Government were also persuaded to 'put their money where their mouth was' and fund an NYOI trip to Edinburgh.

If the players words had been spoken but unrecorded and unchronicled the passions and motivations of the players and the unique purpose of the NYOI would have lain latent and undiscovered; NYOI's invitations would have gone elsewhere.

So, make sure you keep a detailed, ongoing chronicle of the development and achievements of your collaboration; make notes and gather information as if preparing to write a book. Do not forget to gather and record the values, beliefs, dreams and desires that are driving and motivating your partners as they seek to develop and achieve; make these the preface to your chronicle. Then use the insights and opportunities you gain to realise your collaboration's potential.

Paul Macalindin did exactly this. The notes he made about his work with the NYOI and the huge amount of correspondence and other records he gathered and kept formed the basis of 'Upbeat', his definitive chronicle of the NYOI. They also enabled him to recognise and take advantage of insights and opportunities quickly, at the times and places they would have best impact.