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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.)

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