Pay it forward to St John’s Smith Square and give 500 free tickets to NHS staff

St John’s Smith Square are a nimble bunch. At least they always seem to be. They respond to the community that surrounds them, reach out to the people who visit them. They appeal to people’s good nature and generous pocket with a firm handshake and a warm smile.

I say that with certainty. That’s partly because of the people I know who work for them: generous of spirit themselves. The warmest of arts administrators. Salt of the earth types.

One such person – senior, important, knowledgable, well-loved – sought out my hand and shook it when we passed at an event a year or so ago. To be clear: I’m a nobody. At least that’s what I think of myself. The people who make things actually happen are the people with the contacts and the budgets. They’re the important people.

So I frequently look on St John’s Smith Square with that memory and other similar social experiences in mind. That’s why not being able to go to concerts is so very difficult now. They’re more than just venues: they’re the site of communities and personalities and connections.

St John’s Smith Square’s latest scheme is characteristically modest in scale, perhaps more realistic than most. It might even more about appealing to its core audience than positioning itself as a destination. Either way, the more I think about the idea the more I warm to St John’s Smith Square.

I think about the NHS friend of mine who works in social care and the other one who treats dialysis patients at Kings. Neither of them have (to the best of my knowledge) set foot in a concert hall, would never consider going to a concert either.

But I love the idea of them both experiencing something new and unexpected as a modest gesture in return for the sacrifice they’ve made and the risk they’ve taken. I can’t guarantee they’d be converted, but I do know they’d appreciate the gesture. Especially if I knew they were heading into a place I call home.

For more info and to give to the campaign, please visit the Crowdfunder page.

Reinventing TV amid a global pandemic: Tenebrae

It’s been ages since I’ve felt motivated to write.

I know that seems incredible given that the most recent posts have ostensibly been about sharing advice on how to tackle some of the current challenges we’re all facing.

That writing differs from this. That’s writing that seemed like a good idea to post.

This post is writing is something I’ve wanted to note down. This is journalling. This is documenting. This is writing when you’re ‘back in the saddle’.

I watched Tenebrae on BBC Four this evening. I had been aware of their isolation performance – 19 singers and conductor Nigel Short all performing in separate video feeds sync’ed together and presented as one on a composite background.

It is a remarkable thing to see. Something to marvel at. Wizardry, in a way. As though television itself is being reinvented right before our eyes. We have no choice but to accept an entirely different visual grammar. How quickly we adjust. How grateful we are for the considerable effort involved. How we take technology for granted.

At the same time as enjoying it (and seeing the Other Half completely focussed during the Miserere), I also found it quite painful.

On the one hand, here was something that had been made because of the COVID19 crisis, and because of isolation. On the other hand, here was something that was reminding us what we didn’t have because of COVID19: live performance.

Earlier today I spoke to an old friend who had read The Economist. He started talking about how there wasn’t a plan for how mass gatherings would be re-introduced because there wasn’t an exit strategy. At least there isn’t one being talked about. And until there was how could any ensemble motivate themselves to plan for a future season – to plan work for their staff.

Three weeks ago I thought I might step back in the Southbank Centre in the summer. Today I’m catastrophising and finding it difficult to imagine that will be possible this side of Christmas.

I appreciated hearing from my pal and for the reality check he offered. But seeing a visual reminder of what I didn’t have the freedom to experience in the same physical space (and no sense of when that freedom might be reinstated) made things almost unbearable in my particular bubble.

Isolation productions are double-edged experiences in this way. And I freely admit to finding the latter experience linger. I just hope the sense of urgency and momentum continues amongst performers and administrators alike. I cannot tell you how much the idea I can’t hear my favourite performers perform is a heartbreaking thing.

There was another unexpected twist to the Tenebrae broadcast. The production behind the programme were the same people behind last year’s Proms coverage. Remember that? It seems like a distant memory now.

So too the unnecessary contretemps that occurred on the blog and on Twitter as a result. Being able to articulate thoughts and responses to something I care about remains as vital to me now as it was then. I’m wondering whether our capacity to hold dissonant thoughts has changed at all in the meantime. I do hope so.

Digital musicians in an isolated world

Some tips for classical musicians about how to maximise their digital presence during COVID19

Picture credit: Fenella Humphreys

Nearly four weeks after lockdown in the UK, classical music in the digital space has taken on a range of different appearances, and prompted a range of responses about its success, its value, and its pitfalls.

I’m of the mind that this period of time is a useful opportunity for individual performers, small-scale organisations and ensembles, and sundry other creatives.

This is not to downplay the catastrophic impact COVID19 lockdown has had on the livelihoods of musicians. Nor is it to suggest that everyone should now be being using this time to be creative. Different people respond in different ways.

But multiple conversations with different people have reminded me of something I had overlooked – something me and a pal laughed about earlier on: how classical musicians choose to explore this moment in time in the digital space is something I have an opinion on (and its one based on some professional experience too – always a boon).

So with that, and the fact that ACE are currently inviting applications for its Emergency Fund both in mind (and without wishing to limit my own chances for future consultancy work), I figured it might be worth sharing some observations, thoughts and insights about the digital musician in an isolated world.

Note, if you’re looking for technical assistance, be sure to read over David Taylor’s blog posts on kit.

Digital endeavours are good for purpose, brand awareness, and building a network

I’ve seen a lot of negative talk about musicians and organisations giving away content for free right now. I’ve even seen one defend their decision to provide live streams. This seems contrary to what this period really represents to people like me and to the musicians and their output I celebrate and advocate.

At this challenging time we need a sense of purpose. That purpose may necessarily come without a revenue stream. In freelance terms that’s the equivalent of a marketing opportunity. Traditionally, marketing has sucked all the figures out of budgets, and its been phenomenally difficult to measure a tangible return on that investment.

The reason for producing digital content right now is to maintain brand awareness of yourself or your ensemble, build a network (which might in time be something you can monetise). The happy(ish) consequence of that is to provide the individual with purpose and therefore motivation.

None of it is easy. And there’s no quick-way to a revenue stream in the digital space. But if you look at it as a marketing strategy, then that should be enough to justify dabbling at the very least.

Isolated musicians need to think of themselves as content producers

Not only is a performer providing the core content (ie the music), they’re making the entire package – presence ‘on stage’, curator, presenter, performer and self-publisher.

If you’re a performer embarking on a digital strategy for the first time, you’re best thinking of yourself like a blogger (see below). You’re no longer the talent who just turns up to play. You’re responsible for all of it – from having the idea to, realising it, and getting the finished product distributed to as far and wide as you can.

(Well, in truth there are some of us who can help with most stages of that creative workflow. Do get in touch if so at thoroughlygood@gmail.com).

Isolated musicians need think of themselves like bloggers

Any blogger worth their salt – the ones who’ve done it for years – will tell you that they don’t create for traffic nor money. They aren’t bothered by the number of likes. They create because it provides them with a sense of purpose.

And, contrary to what you might think, blogging isn’t an overnight thing. It’s a very slow burn. It’s the same with creating video content. Creating video content is no different from writing a regular blog. You need to be consistent, regular, reasonably frequent. Keep plugging away.

This is a marathon not a sprint.

Be distinctive

There’s a lot of solo performances at the moment – that’s not in itself a bad thing, but it does put a greater emphasis on making something distinctive. Being distinctive makes it more possible to gain cut-through in a very noisy digital space.

And as digital is a visual medium first, one way to be distinctive is to look for ways to make the view in your video distinctive – an outdoor location perhaps, a strong backdrop with shelves, ornaments or plants etc. Or it might be about making sure your content is carefully curated, themed, or topical content which builds over time.

By aligning your name or your ensembles name with something distinctive, you’ll gain cut through, raise awareness and build a network.

Worth stressing again: this is a marathon, not a sprint.

Editorial decisions about what to play need to come from the self

Don’t play something on camera because someone else has told you to. It will be obvious (because digital exposes contrivance) to all that your heart’s not in it just as a live performance sometimes doesn’t connect with the audience.

So, curate your digital programme according to your emotional need at that moment in time. Something you’ve agreed with a digital marketer on a Tuesday may not feel quite right for a Wednesday. We live in moments in time which shift at an alarming rate. So play what feels right for you. That connection with the self in the moment will make any introduction, you give for it and the subsequent performance of it, all the more authentic and compelling.

Tell a story about the music you play that is authentic

Now is not the time to regurgitate programme notes – tell us why this music is important to you and pull in any personal stories you can in order to do so. Put this music in your own personal context.

Digital is a medium that enhances personal authenticity. Be genuine, sincere and authentic.

Be confident on camera

This is a biggy because viewers see before they hear.

Confident doesn’t mean being a TV host with an auto-cue. It means presence.

Playing (and speaking) on camera is phenomenally unnatural because it’s calling on the person in front of the camera to create a persona. This comes from practise and from a sense of self-belief (even if you’re standing in your kitchen and thinking you look like an idiot).

The quicker you become more comfortable with this bizarre set up the quicker the audience will believe in you too.

The audience is adjusting too

We’re all collectively in a process of adjusting to a new visual grammar. That’s why the likes of Have I Got News For You produced in isolation, or the Graham Norton Show appear clunky right now but will in a few weeks time appear quite normal. We’re all adjusting to a new way of consuming our favourite things. That means that in addition to getting comfortable ourselves with a lack of quality in the way we present ourselves, so too the audience is adjusting too. In time those two worlds will meet in the middle just as they do in the concert hall. Once the audience gets accustomed to your way of presenting your content, they’ll feel more at ease and will keep coming back. That’s why consistency in content production is really valuable.

Beginnings and Endings

There is an exception to the rule for me. In the slightly unnatural setup we’re all getting used to, beginnings and endings are really important. They are bookends to a performance – either bookends for the actual video (eg fades up and down) or within a video (pausing between finishing talking to prepare before performing, and pausing before shifting to a non-performance state at the end of playing a piece). These contrived beginnings and endings will feel like unnecessary detail or possibly even unnatural, but they will unwittingly guide the viewer and make them feel more at ease with what they’re watching.

Audio equipment is the way to go

To my mind, a decent stereo ambient recording (by which I don’t mean a studio recording) or a live performance will more than compensate for relatively shitty iPhone video. So, invest in a digital recorder like a Zoom with a directional mic, or a TASCAM (or an Zoom attachment for your iPhone).

If you go for a separate recording device like a Zoom, record a decent stereo capture of your performance at the same time as the video, then sync the two in Adobe Premiere or Adobe Rush (for iPhone/Android).

This will transform a home-shot video in an instant. Get in contact if you’d like me to do with the syncing for you – its a quick job – at thoroughlygood [at] gmail.com.

Now is the time to bring the audience closer to the classical music performer

I’ve spent years trying to reduce the gap between audience and performer in the stuff I talk about and the stuff I write. I totally understand that this is a shitty time for musicians because of the complete lack of income. But now is the time when classical musicians are able to advocate the genre. What we’re asking of your is counter-intuitive given what you actually need most right now. But I am of the mind that it could pay dividends further down the line when some kind of normality returns (whenever that is), or when technological solutions make a collective live music experience more of a content production possibliity.

If you think I can help with your digital content during the COVID19 crisis – advice, consultancy or production – be sure to get in touch for a no-obligation conversation. Email me at thoroughlygood [ at ] gmail.com.

On managing the empathy gland

Saying ‘there’s someone worse off’ isn’t helping you or them. It’s not empathy. It’s not being mindful. It’s just denying the permission you need to acknowledge the challenges of this situation. We’re all allowed to be finding this a struggle. And we should do that. By acknowledging our own situation we’re more likely to be help others with theirs.

I’ve been trying to work out why these past few weeks have drained my energy. It’s not that I’ve taken on more work necessarily. My ‘slate’ is the same it was two months ago. My working environment hasn’t changed either. I’m working at home just as I was last year and the year before that.

What has changed in the space of three weeks are the number of conversations I’m having with people on the phone. And, importantly, the number of people I’ve actively sought out to have a conversation with.

More real conversations more less energy

This is a marked change from a month ago, where most exchanges were conducted over WhatsApp messages, SMS, email or Messenger. I’ve gone from interacting with people via digital messaging (with all of the mental processing that demands) to shifting to an entirely different style of interacting: one far more real and present. And therefore exhausting.

Just last night, as I was texting a handful of pals to see how they were doing, I began to wonder whether my motivation was right: was I messaging those people for their benefit (so that those people knew I was thinking of them) or for mine? And if it was the latter, was that the right reason? After all, just because I’m wobbling a bit that doesn’t means the people I’m messaging are. Maybe they’re coping just fine without me fussing all around them.

Stop taking on so and start toughening up?

Was I just someone who wanted to ‘glom on’ to someone else’s troubles or challenges? Did I need to butt out? And, given my energy levels right now, did I need to just care a whole lot less? Was I just being a pain in the arse (even though I was trying to be thoughtful? Instead of ‘taking on so’, did I need to ‘toughen up’? I fell asleep on the sofa soon after.

Waking up this morning feeling flat, I immediately recalled two stories from my childhood.

The first was way back when I was in my pre-prep school. Park Croft School was based in Risby but regularly made use of the nearby Culford School’s swimming pool on a Wednesday afternoon. During one such session – lots of small blobs arm-banded up, looking nervously towards the water from the wooden bench at the side – what appeared like a medical emergency ensued.

Panic in the swimming pool

James Waters – by my recollections one of the tough boys in the pack – seemed to be thrashing around in the water. There was an agonised face. Two teachers bent over the side of the pool looking concerned.

Everyone around me seemed to be laughing. I wasn’t entirely sure what they were laughing at. I was curious. I watched as both teachers knelt down at the side of the pool, issued soothing words and a long arm out to James and plucked him out of the water. More laughing ensued as James shivered in a towel looking frightened but relieved.

I don’t really remember what I said out loud. It probably took everyone else by surprise. It usually does. Its usually at that point when I end up feeling guilty, remorseful or regretful. I often end up apologising at that point.

Weirdo

On this occasion, I remember feeling embarrassed afterwards. It must have been something like, “Why are you all laughing? He was in pain.” I can’t believe it would have been as eloquent as that, but the meaning was that. Undoubtedly. My memory is clear on one thing: at that one moment in time, I was consumed by being concerned about the kid in the pool. Once the shivering James had been attended to, the teacher then turned her attention to the laughing crowd of kids on the bench, and me. “It was nothing,” she said. “It’s just something called ‘a cramp’. Everyone gets it every now and again.” Cue more laughter.

Stupid angry maths teacher

The second story relates to something that happened six or seven years later. At Culford School. After a Maths lesson. I’ve written about this before on the blog (though that post has now succumbed to a database hack) so regular readers may remember this. It bears telling again.

The Upper Fifth C Set Maths had a new teacher leading them through towards their GCSE Maths exam. Mr Woodliffe. A man with a big nose, a receeding hairline, and a problem asserting authority. His methodology was to use the first lesson we had together to trash his predecessors achievements, and then outline how regular (and incessant) testing combined with uncompromising mid-term reports to our parents would, whether we liked it or not, increase our comprehension, retention and, ultimately, our grades.

Compared to the last teacher – affable, persuasive, compelling and utterly adorable – Mr Woodliffe lacked any kind of charisma whatsoever. There was even a question as to whether he wanted to teach at all.

Confronting the shouty-man

Whilst we were all obedient, it seemed pretty obvious to me that if you wanted us to engage with the product you were going to have go a whole lot further at building rapport with us, and doing that should start with not trashing what’s gone before. Also, that mid-term reporting thing? Was that actually allowed?

I and a pal hung around at his desk at the end of the lesson. “It’s not fair you talking about the previous teacher like that,” I piped up, “We all really liked him. He was really popular.” Mr Woodliffe said nothing. “And we’ve never had mid-term reports before and none of the other teachers are doing them. They would have said to us.”

Even writing it down now, my words (if I’ve recalled them correctly) seem perfectly reasonable. Bold, yes, but not rude. Mr Woodliffe didn’t agree. In fact, Mr Woodliffe went fucking wild. His face went red. His wirey hair appear to spark into life. His nose expanded. And he shouted loud. And pointed. In fact, he screamed in my face. I felt my legs wobble, then my shoulders. Then I turned to my pal standing next to me to discover that he seemed to have disappeared already. I left the room in a hurry, passing the sixth formers queuing up outside for the next lesson.

Later that same day when I was stood in the lunch queue, the Head of the Maths department impressed on me the need for respecting one’s elders, insisting that it would be in everybody’s best interests if I extended an apology and remembered what the teacher-pupil dynamic was really about. I did as I was told. The apology wasn’t especially heartfelt. I might as well have phoned it in. Mr Woodliffe left his post at the end of that term.

These stories now have different interpretations

On those occasions when I’ve revisited both of those events my interpretation of them has changed.

The first at the swimming pool is about me being concerned about what was happening to someone else. My peers obviously thought I was a bit weird to be so concerned and, to a certain extent, I’ve long thought that too. An early signal to every one that I was a bit weird, probably effeminate, almost certainly gay, and fair game for the rest of his schooldays. The die was caste early.

The second story – me confronting the teacher – I’ve long seen as uncharacteristic bravery. Foolhardiness. Idiocy. Perhaps even sport. As though I seek out those opportunities to be different from everyone else, opportunities when I can ‘poke the bear’. TV dramas would cast these individuals as troublemakers, desperate to get a reaction and giggling when they get it. But my reaction was fear. Though, interestingly not so much fear that it made me step back from such opportunities in the future.

Me me me

Both stories have long been interpreted by me as me obsessing about me. Evidence of my continued self-absorbedness. Yet more reasons of why I should stop thinking of myself and start thinking of others more. Start thinking of the team instead of responding to how you’ve experienced something.

But how I interpret both of those stories has changed in the past week. That’s partly because I’ve noticed I’ve spent a significant amount of time over the past three weeks speaking to people on the phone. I’ve wanted to see people in video. I’ve wanted to check in to see how they’re doing. And at the end of every day I’ve felt exhausted by that. And I’m beginning to wonder whether that is a bit strange.

Empathy – it’s a bastard

Here’s what I think now about those two incidents: they show empathy.

On both occasions, I was responding to how I perceived others to be feeling. The act of being mindful about them – the first about the kid with cramp, and the other about how everyone felt betrayed by the new teacher’s view of his predecessor’s effectiveness – wasn’t a weakness but a strength.

(Well, OK. You might also look at both stories as me perceiving or assuming the feelings of others, or worse projecting my feelings onto them. But, for the purposes of this, let’s press on as we were.)

And that same strength is what I and loads of other similarly minded people are drawing on right at this moment in time. And I write this not to big myself up (I quite understand if, like the kids on the bench at the swimming pool you think I really am bigging myself up), but to pose a question.

How do we manage ourselves at this moment in time? This question extends further than the obvious sources of stress like the health of a loved one, where one’s income is going to come from, or the state of the economy. It’s about the additional energy required to think about our own network.

What’s going on in your network?

My network extends across professional and personal contacts. It is about my work, their work, and their circumstances. It’s to do with the underlying health issues of the man who signs off my monthly invoices, just as it is about the lifelong pal whose sailing business is (excuse the pun) dead in the water because no one is allowed to go out. My network contains NHS workers (one of whom has contracted the virus), octogenarian relatives with significant health concerns, and a former music teacher who is currently undergoing chemotherapy for stage four cancer. And it contains people half my age grappling with the possibility of losing their jobs and their sense of purpose.

Thinking of all of those different stories across my network is enough to drag me down. It’s not my drama I’m thinking about, but theirs. And – feel free to throw spears at me for this – I can’t help but think of them and reach out to them so they know they’re in my thoughts.

At what point is it OK to say to yourself, “Enough with the empathy. Take the rest of the week off? They’re quite capable of looking after themselves. They don’t need you fussing around them?” Who knows.

It’s a marathon not a sprint

Not everybody demonstrates thoughtfulness. I see plenty of people trot out the ‘unprecedent times’ and ‘exceptional circumstances’ in emails, as though that’s sufficient to refer to the situation without getting in too deep. There’s a superficiality to that approach I find. A near insincerity. Lip service. Coldness.

Similarly, we are at a stage in this crisis when I’m already hearing people qualify their own feelings with “But there are people far worse off than me.” That’s saddening in itself – a reflection of the way society denies us the chance to truly acknowledge how all of this is making us feel, replacing the horror with a sense of guilt.

I would rather think about others and the situation they might be facing and have them know that I’m there for them, than think that value that has been with me for years – empathy – is something of a problem. What I need to do right now is find a way of managing the energy needed for empathy and the after effects.

Not everybody can cope with empathy – being on the receiving end of it, I mean. But I think we need to recognise its importance right now. And to find a way of sitting with it. For all of our sakes. By doing so we’ll develop our own levels of mental resilience in a meaningful and sustainable way both for ourselves and for others.

And by resilience – let’s knock this one on the head – I’m not saying we need to ‘toughen up’. Resilience is not mental ‘toughness’ like I’ve seen on one email.

Resilience is about being able to spring back from a situation: being able to identify what is going on in the mind at any given time and deploy the appropriate methodology to help get it back on track. And that in itself demands being able to acknowledge the challenges we face and others face without fear. Now seems exactly the right time to be empathetic. Or at least trying to be.