UK orchestras in a post-lockdown world: a warning shot from The Guardian, and a hint of resilience and determination from The Times

Charlotte Higgin’s article in The Guardian “‘We could go to the wall in 12 weeks’ – are we just going to let classical music die?” makes for grim if not entirely unsurprising reading. It also makes the prospect of any series of concerts broadcast from the Royal Albert Hall in late summer look a little like the UK orchestral’s scene a macabre kind of last hurrah, especially if as the Royal Albert Hall and the Southbank Centre have signalled recently, their days are numbered if action isn’t taken soon.

Higgins lays it on the line:

“There is a deep contrast beginning to open up between the UK and much of continental Europe. For our neighbours, public investment in culture is much greater, and organisations are less reliant on box-office income, so the Covid-19 crisis is not an existential one, as it is in the UK. And there has been silence from the upper echelons of government.” 

There is an irony to the timing to the piece (or maybe in reality it was in reaction to last week’s much-needed circling around DCMS Secretary of State tweet quoting a rather meaningless statistic about young people listening to orchestral music).

Dowden said: “Our culture and creativity are Britain’s greatest strengths so I want them to be open to all. Really encouraging stat from @BBCArts. #CultureinQuarantine about how younger people are turning to orchestral music during lockdown.”

You’d think that someone with a portfolio like Dowden’s would think twice before putting a tweet out like that (or that whoever is running his social media for him would make sure both they and him are across his brief). Quite apart from the fact that the figure appears not to be attributed to anything or anybody, the story that isn’t told by the spectacular grandstanding here is that orchestras can’t perform if the venues where they can drive revenue can’t open.

But of course, they can’t because no one in government really gives a shit.

Elsewhere in the press, Neil Fisher from The Times reports on Grange Opera and highlights a finer point which may be overlooked by a lot of people, the challenge presented by venues being in the locations they are and the impact that has on the willingness of audience in a post-lockdown world to travel there.

“Concert halls may have the infrastructure, and the BBC the players, but their very location in city centres works against them. “How are people going to get to a theatre in the middle of London?” asks Brabbins, thinking of the Coliseum, the home of English National Opera (ENO). Which is why the Theatre in the Woods may present at least an interim solution. There are no public foyers for dangerous mingling, there are ample car-parking spaces and it’s only about an hour’s drive from central London.”

The article confirms what I’d thought a few months back that there will be a critical point in the narrative when classical has a different story to tell – the struggle to get back to their normal – and the opportunities that offers for various different ensembles (and their PR staff) to tell a story and raise awareness. Abbey Road Studios were first out of the traps last week with a strangely uplifting selection of social media posts which gave a little hope for the future.

Grange Opera’s coverage from Fisher essentially promos a video production of a performance for streaming on the internet later in the month – part of its ‘Found Season’ substituting its postponed 2020 season (similar then to Aldeburgh’s endeavour announced yeserday).

But The Times article leads on arresting visuals of a socially-distanced orchestra and an isolated audience member. It’s evocative and perhaps even gives a false sense of hope. It’s intended to communicate a sense that the classical music world has a hard-edged kind of resilience with a spirited determination – a view reminiscent of the war-related tropes handed out like candy when Boris Johnson was in hospital with coronavirus.  

Both remind me that advocates like me need to be in this for the long game, looking out for the innovation, as well as supporting the artists, ensembles and organisations which are having to adopt a long-range strategy and cling-on in the meantime. I’m veering more on the negative side like John Gilhooly in Higgin’s Guardian article: between now and the end of September, we’re going to start hearing about venues and ensembles completely shutting down. That’s going to be a painful series of posts to write.

The (kind of) 2020 Aldeburgh Festival

If memory serves me correctly, 2020 is the first time the 72-year-old Aldeburgh Festival won’t be going ahead. No surprises why. COVID.

This is notable because of the oft-told story of Benjamin Britten’s annual jamboree.

Fire at Snape Maltings Concert Hall back in 1967 on the eve of that year’s festival might have threatened proceedings. It didn’t. Triumph over adversity, etc.

Given the Maltings proximity to the North Sea there were countless occasions when flood could have brought things to an unceremonious end. It didn’t either.

Pestilence? Well. That’s a different story.

It’s easy to focus on the venues and events and the people I know who bring the thing I love to life in London. But when you receive a press release about your second home (I can’t afford a property there – I’d just like to think that at some point I might be able to) telling you what’s planned in the gaping hole created by its festival’s absence, then you’re going to stop, pause and reflect a bit.

Aldeburgh has like a good many other festivals this year, opened up its archive, reached for its digital platform and called upon its friends, associates and former colleagues to help keep the flame alight this year. There are programmes on BBC TV including, finally, a broadcast of Grimes on the Beach from a few years back (if you’ve not seen it YOU MUST), a trawl through the BBC archives for Britten on camera narrated by James Naughtie, and an intriguing invitation to recreate an artwork by John Cage from a few years back where visitors to the town got to hear multiple pieces of music all played at the same time. How delightfully John Cage.  There’s even the opportunity to submit your own memories of the festival for inclusion in a special digital timeline.

That these things are on offer is a lovely thing because they only serve to emphasise how important East Suffolk is to me. The yearning is way too much to bear (without a car to my name I can’t even justify to myself visiting my parents in their garden in West Suffolk, let alone heading to Aldeburgh Beach).

So, these warm gestures, alongside six broadcasts from yesteryear festivals, as well as the epic 1997 Radio 3 broadcast of the Britten-Pears Orchestra conducted by Kent Nagano I have on cassette in my office, will have to suffice.

The Aldeburgh Festival 2020 begins in the hearts and minds of those who miss it on 12 June and runs until 28. Highlights include an ‘Opening Night’ broadcast of Britten on Camera on BBC Four followed by Struan Leslie’s Illuminations – a staging including circus performers of Britten’s Les Illuminations – seen for the first time on Britten Pears Arts’ YouTube Channel, Peter Grimes on Aldeburgh Beach will be available on BBC iPlayer later this month, and BBC Radio 3 will broadcast six archive performances from Aldeburgh Festival between 19 – 26 June.

More about the Lockdown Wigmore Hall Concerts

I was originally going to write at length (again) about the Wigmore Hall concerts this week. But, you’ll be relieved to read that I won’t.

There isn’t too much more to say, other than how the mere experience of them as a viewer after an extended period of time denied access to high quality live performance virtually, digitally or in person triggers all sorts of thoughts and feelings in response.

The elegant simplicity of Wigmore Hall’s live stream video presentation makes the story that emerges from the gaps in the concert experience electrifying. This week I’ve been obsessed with the things I can’t experience first-hand and the way my imagination leaps in to fill the resulting vacuum.  

I’ve spent most of this week watching the YouTube stream wondering about how WH Chieftain John Gilhooly, presenter Andrew McGregor and the assembled musicians say to one another on arrival at Wigmore Hall. Nobody hugs, I’m sure. But how do they greet each other? Do they smile apologetically? Do they jump up and down with excitement? Do they, like I think I’d probably do, sob in front of one another? Or do they just shrug their shoulders and resolve to just get on with it?

The theatre of the visuals only adds to the pathos. Concert producer, concert presenter and performers appear ‘in vision’ – without an audience what we see is a sort of laboratory version of music-making.

As an audience member I find that difficult, on the one hand, though not necessarily for the reasons you might at first think.

Classical music actually does poignancy really well. We can create an unifying event with music, especially when it’s been denied for a while. You only have to look at Menuhin and Britten in the aftermath of the Second World War, or Barenboim and du Pre in the sixties and seventies to see that classical musicians have an enviable range of repertoire at their disposal to help heal wounds and map out a path.  

So, when I see an empty auditorium I don’t think that me and others like me should be there. I see a narrative in flow: that those on stage are keeping everything warm for us the audience member.

There was a sense watching Nicholas Daniel, and pianists Pavel and Sampson that they and others like them would continue to play for as long as they needed or wanted to. That they would play – patiently, resolutely – until we the audience returned.

Musicians right now whether it’s in locked-down concert halls or playing live from their front rooms and giving us the audience a call to arms. The rest of us are waiting for the barriers to be dismantled. And they will. Eventually.

Stephen Hough at Wigmore Hall during COVID19

I can’t remember the last time the words ‘a live stream’ had been quite so an exciting prospect. In the run up to it I wasn’t entirely sure why, but it was exciting enough to insist of moving my laptop, phone and notebook to the sofa to watch on the ‘Big Screen’ downstairs in the lounge.

I sat in considerable anticipation, staring at the screen, leaning in to what I thought I heard as someone bashing at a laptop keyboard. Had there been some kind of technical error? Was there someone there? Was this all just another pre-recorded YouTube premiere, or were we going to see Stephen Hough on stage at Wigmore Hall playing something or other?

When the shot did change to reveal an empty Wigmore Hall I admit, for no reason I can immediate explain, I cried a bit. I miss the sense of occasion. I miss the people. I miss the escape. As lovely as it is to experience something ‘sort of live’, it all seems cruel. Here, a gift from the classical musical world to those who feel most at home in it, we’re reminded of the ineptitude, double talk, lies, and deceit that means the thing we love will remain out of our reach for all too many months to come.

Look at it this way. Hough’s Wigmore recital was the present-day digital manifestation of the Tristan chord: yearned for but ultimately destructive.

Hough’s performance was both electrifying and crushing. Uplifting and cruel. The wait is too long.

I miss the people who make this kind of magic come to life. I miss the peers who clap excitedly in response to it in the same way I do.

But we have (effectively) a month of daily performances like this to follow. Thank fuck for that.

Southbank Centre announces closure risk until at least April 2021

I cannot remember the last time I’ve scrolled through my emails all bleary-eyed in bed only to discover in a split second, reading the header for one incoming press release, that I need to get up immediately, reach for the laptop and start typing furiously.

The top-line messages make for stark and depressing reading. The Southbank Centre has announced it is at risk of closure until at least April 2021, noting that since its closure on 17 March (my that seems like a life away) and despite furloughing the majority of its staff, its reserves have run dry as a result of the economic impact of COVID-19. They expect to face a deficit of £5.1 million at the end of the financial year in 2021.

The Southbank Centre estimates hosting 3,500 events a year, a significant number of which are staged in the Royal Festival Hall – the last remaining iconic symbol of hope from 1951 Festival of Britain, the post-second world war celebration for the nation.

It’s home to eight orchestras, an extensive creative learning programme that reaches young people and families, and supports a variety of communities in need in the surrounding area.

It gets 37% of its income from the Arts Council. The mandatory closure of its revenue stream – the venues, bars and restaurants – has resulted in a loss of 60% of its income. 

The timing of the press release is quite something coming hard on the heels of the most spectacular car crash of a press briefing given by the Prime Minister last night.

Despite calls (even from Brexit Fanboy Steve Baker) for Johnson’s special adviser Lord Voldemort Dominic Cummings to be fired, the Prime Minister doubled-down saying that in driving up to Durham with his family whilst his wife was infected with Coronavirus Cummings was doing his bit to stop the virus spreading.

The event confirmed for nearly everyone in the country with half a brain cell that the instruction to stay home, save lives and save the NHS, didn’t apply to all of us after all, and that despite flagrantly breaking the rules, Boris’ crutch could still stick around and the guidance doesn’t need to change.

We have a leader who is a leader only in name, unable to take decisive action, who is himself being led by a complete fool.

What hope for the arts? The Southbank Centre’s call for urgent government support depressing because of the stark reality that is now before our eyes.

Because if the Prime Minister can’t fire a man whose arrogance and entitlement looks set to undermine a public health campaign at a moment in time when the economy is screwed and shows little sign of recovering anytime soon, then what hope does an arts organisation (and the rest of the UK’s arts economy) have?

None.

The writing is on the wall. Our cultural economy is over, its rapid decline presided over by people who have no clue what they’re doing.  

Returning to writing, content fatigue, self-care in isolation, Vaughan Williams and Benedetti’s Elgar

It’s the first time in a long time I’ve wanted to write. So, please treat this post as a way of breaking myself back into the process. An attempt to order a jumble of thoughts. The first in a pre-paid programme of self-facilitated therapy sessions.

On returning to writing

Writing now triggers all sorts of different thoughts and feelings, some of which make the practise almost impossible. A list of those thoughts presents itself.

  1. There’s nothing to say about classical music right now
  2. Your copy will ramble
  3. Your copy always rambles
  4. You bring way too much of yourself to your copy
  5. You make everything about you
  6. You take ages to get to the point
  7. There is no event everyone is coalescing around
  8. People don’t want to be reminded of what they don’t have
  9. You have an over-inflated idea of your own importance
  10. Shut the fuck up

There are some truisms in here. Even in the first two paragraphs points four, five and six are borne out. Watch the detractors rub their hands together with glee at that one.

Importantly, is the question of where these thoughts originate and what their effect is.

In coaching terms I know where those phrases originate. The effect is creative gas-lighting.

To bring oneself to ones writing – whether it’s literally using the first person in one’s copy, or drawing on first-hand experience or turns of phrase is for some a sign of weakness or exclusivity. I have over the past three or four weeks felt guilty for my go-to creative framework that is second-nature because of the very creative outlet – a blog – that helped develop my creativity.

One has to be robust. Rigorous. Recognise when the gas-lighting occurs and take steps to avoid it, so that what’s important is allowed the space it needs: advocacy whether it be in writing, audio, visual storytelling depends on knowledge, experience and emotional awareness. Bringing that to one’s creativity isn’t just a good thing, it’s a requirement. Otherwise, how do you connect with your audience?

Content fatigue? No, distractions

I read somewhere on social media that some considered classical music consumers were suffering content fatigue in response to the slew of digital endeavours embarked upon by various arts organisations amid COVID-19.

It’s true that there are a multitude of split screen lockdown performances which are very quickly blending into one another. One or two resonate more than others – the Rotterdam Philharmonic, Fairey Band’s Slane, and The Sixteen’s recent release.

These are successful not because they have cut-through, but because they have a narrative underpinning them or they anticipate and exploit an emotion experienced by a majority audience.

I remain convinced that offering free content like this is not detrimental to the music industry. It is a pragamatic and understandable reaction by a number of arts organisations and individual performers to unforeseen circumstances. This moment in time provides an excellent marketing opportunity and digital is king at raising awareness (even if it struggles to result in changed behaviours).

Raising awareness then is a baseline for arts organisations during this hiatus. But in doing this digital producers and artistic directors now (finally) appreciating what digital is for (even if they don’t understand its often contradictory complexities) need to remember that audiences (those that are lucky enough to work, as well as those interacting with family on handheld devices or over Zoom) are spending considerably more time at their laptops during this pandemic. Little wonder then that a bright blue sky, the warmth of the sun on your skin, or simple pleasures like plants, baking, or reading a book are compelling distractions over watching another video online.

It’s not that its content fatigue, it’s that there are bigger, more powerful and considerably more gratifying distractions right now. If you’re making content right now that content is competing with those distractions. That’s what you need to bear in mind.

Managing oneself in isolation

As the lockdown continues and will, let’s face it, for the rest of the year, some aspects of day to day life are coming more and more into focus.

Switching between tasks without the usual moving from location to location which marks out those different activities is, I think this week, as much a drain on energy reserves as being in receipt of a poorly phrased email, mean-spirited exchange on What’s App, or an extended video conference call.

My new personal canban – an experiment for managing a heavy workload

I was lucky enough to have lined up a month’s worth of project work for April which has now spilled into May. The to-do list is now getting reduced to a more manageable size which is a relief. At the same time I recognise I’ve been battling not only with the workload, but the intensity of it and the associated thought-processes (most of them negative) made more destructive by isolation-powered focus I’m working with.

Every-day now feels like a working day. There aren’t enough hours in the day. I never finish my day at the time I want to. I don’t really relax. I see how one could easily stumble into burn-out by continuing this way.

The C Major scale: bland as fuck

One of the solutions is to limit calls that interrupt the flow. My current bugbear is calls where things are just reported. It’s the meeting equivalent of listening to some playing a C Major scale – something I have to be present for but which doesn’t engage me as much as perhaps it does the person playing it. Isolation brings experiences like these into focus: our presence and participation in group experiences needs to be defined beforehand and ideally active too.

And the other thing that has become clearer for me in isolation is the need for empathy, praise and encouragement for others. Denied the serendipitous interactions with friends and associates, all of our exchanges are now pre-arranged, deliberate acts. If those are the only interactions you’re experiencing then the content of them needs to be well-intentioned, genuine, sincere, and long-lasting.

For the sake of everyone else’s mental wellbeing, we need to approach every interaction with positive intent. The great wave of compassion and empathy at the beginning of lockdown now feels like a distant memory. It feels as though we’re in danger of falling into the same habits we did before we were all locked away in our homes. Only the effect of some of those same habits is going to be more intensely felt by most of us because we have nowhere to escape to in response to them.

One undoubted and unexpected boon was participating in a coaching learning session with some peers Friday. Within minutes of the call starting it was as though all five of us were participating in a big collective breath. Space expanded all around. Implicit permission given to explore the imagination, to identify present needs. This kind of work is powerful. And needed. Especially in lockdown.

Where my musical tastes have rested recently

I began writing this section of the post listening to Vaughan Williams fifth symphony again – a work I’ve been returning to a lot this past week. The third movement largo with its opening call to prayer from the cor anglais: a reflection on those in need; a statement of hope that we will be there for them as we’d hope others will be for us. It, like the coaching learning session yesterday, has the power to release great waves of emotion whenever I hear it. Listening to it is like plunging into a very deep pool, not realising you needed to until your skin hits the water.

And Elgar’s Violin Concerto –  Nicky Benedetti’s release on Decca this week. An intimate recording of an epic statement. It’s an album I’ve had on preview for a few weeks now but haven’t (for the reasons I outlined at the top of the post) not got around to writing about. And yet returning to it again this week has reminded of one of the work’s most compelling characteristics: it’s complex and rewarding narrative. Reflecting on that now makes me almost regret the comparative cursory attention when discovering new music in the past. Giving attention seems like a nice thing to do right now. Space and attention to delve into detail.

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.

Having valuable conversations in a remote-working world

Like many people I’ve been having a lot more video conferencing and telephone calls over the the past two weeks.

Some thoughts have arisen about how they’re supporting me, how they might be supporting others, and how best to manage them and get the best out of them. I’ve listed them below.

Please get in touch at thoroughlygood@gmail.com if there are any others to add to the list.

1. Seeing is believing

I’ve benefited from the presence of others in my working day. The positive impact of actually seeing someone else when you’re in isolation cannot be underestimated. Merely seeing someone else in video jolts you out of your majority (and often negative) thinking space. If you’re thinking of emailing someone, then stop to consider whether a telephone call might be quicker first. Look for ways of using video calls to help others in their day.

2. Look for the everyday

Seeing other people’s bookshelves, curtains and light fittings reveals an everyday-ness about the perception of challenging people and helps take the sting out of situations.

3. Always communicate with positive intent

Heading into a video conference call has to be done with rigorous attention to maintaining a sense of positive intent.

This is our personal responsibility to one another now: to make sure our conversations are future-focussed, built with clean language, and ultimately ensuring that we want the best for the other party.

4. Don’t broadcast what you’re doing

Gone are the days of reciting what we’re doing to one another during a call. I’ve often seen this in meetings; I’ve become immune to it.

Things are a bit different now: we are actively striking up a conversation when we participate in a video call. We have to look for ways to actively engage in conversation for the benefit of the other party.

5. Avoid manufactured group fun

This may well be more of an introvert thing. I’m finding I’m benefitting more from one-to-one time with colleagues and peers. Group conversation tends to feel like a battle for attention. There also needs to be a clear purpose for the interaction. This doesn’t need to be explicitly stated so long as one party has a reason or a desired outcome for the conversation.

Video calls of more than 5 people are mostly but not exclusively a waste of time. Manufacturing group fun on a video call is enough to make me claw at the walls.

6. Be wary of the interruption to productivity

This new normal style of communication comes at a cost. The positive energy which stems as a result of such interactions can act as a distraction from the priorities of the day. Managing when to have those conversations during the day is key. I rate morning over afternoon.

7. Use contracting methods to manage challenging conversations

It is possible to have challenging conversations over a video call, though both parties will need to be up for it. The conversation also has to follow a basic formal structure, one that is probably more instinctive and therefore natural in style given the inherent latency issues with live video exchanges.

Contracting how those conversations are had is key.

One very effective method is both of you agreeing that each party talks for three minutes at a time uninterrupted. Listen intently, reflect what you’ve heard back to the other party, then proceed. Conclude the conversation with an exploration of what you both need to do to work more effectively in future.

8. Staring at the camera can be a little offputting

Being present on a video call doesn’t mean one has to look at the camera all the time. I often have to take my glasses off so that I avoid looking at the inset image of me all the time. I’m not sure how I feel about not looking straight at the camera (ie making it possible for the other party to know they being given attention); I suspect I’ll change my thinking in the next few weeks.

9. Zoom isn’t the best solution

WhatsApp is better for one-to-one video calls. I’m not 100% convinced about Zoom’s quality personally; WhatsApp has more of an immediate feel and a sharper image too. Such seemingly small points are important for conveying presence and solidity in remote conversation.

10. Ask open questions always

Asking open questions of the other party is vital in these troubled times. Open question-words like ‘what’, ‘who’ ‘when’, ‘how’ or ‘tell me more’, will trigger the other party into reflecting a little more deeply on their own thoughts such that they feel more engaged in the conversation. Avoid ‘why’ at all costs – in isolation the word why sounds even more judgmental and accusatory than it does in real life. Always make a point of summarising what you’ve heard back in conversation – that lets the other party know they’ve been listened to.

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Live streams, bespoke video, and archive content from arts organisations and performers during COVID19

London Philharmonic Orchestra

On Thursday 26 March the London Philharmonic Orchestra announced its digital response to the COVID-19 crisis – LPOnline – including unique performances filmed remotely in the homes of orchestra members, concert playlists, and a range of online resources for schools, home learning, and social care projects.

Fenella Humphreys

Fenella is combining live streams with pre-records via her YouTube Channel
https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC_JlM05leyWyMXxUjiZBn6w

UPDATE: Pending her reaching the magic 1000 subscribers (at the time of writing she’s 90 off the target), she’s planning a live stream on Sunday 29 March 2020.

London Symphony Orchestra

The London Symphony Orchestra have a nifty offer. Streams on YouTube with accompanying digital programme notes, plus spotlights on movies where they feature in the soundtrack. Everything commenced on Thursday 26.

Royal Overseas League at Home

The annual music competition is publishing a series of home-based videos – charming personal pieces to camera with a performance – on its YouTube channel. 2019 ROSL Finalist Kris Garfitt’s touching arrangement of Portugal’s winning Eurovision song (above) from a couple of years back is the perfect tonic.

Royal Opera House

ROH and Royal Ballet announced plans to stream performances late last week. The first wave of content is scheduled for streaming is detailed below.

Peter and the Wolf, The Royal Ballet, 2010 – 27 March 2020, 7pm GMT
Acis and Galatea, The Royal Opera, 2009 – 3 April 2020, 7pm BST
Così fan tutte, The Royal Opera, 2010 – 10 April 2020, 7pm BST
The Metamorphosis, The Royal Ballet, 2013 – 17 April 2020, 7pm BST

Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra

Posted on 20 March, this cumulative video sequence of the Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s 9th is a bit of a tear-jerker. Beautifully put together. Heartfelt.

London Mozart Players

LMP have announced their ‘At Home with LMP‘ series featuring YouTube Premieres and Live Facebook Watch Parties. First concert on 28th March at 7pm.

7pm, Saturday 28th March
Craig Ogden guitar

Barrios Vals op.8 no.4
Scarlatti Sonata in E major, K.380
Excerpts from Rodrigo Concierto de Aranjuez

Belle Voci

Recorded in an empty church last week, The Voice participants Belle Voci release a pre-recorded concert on YouTube sometime this week. Subscribe to their YouTube Channel and Facebook page for more details and alerts.

Matthew Sharp

The ridiculously multi-talented cellist, actor, and now cook Matthew Sharp is reaching out to Chris Martin to get advocacy for change in the self-employment market mid-COVID19, and he’s offering #DinnerKaraoke. A good egg.

Garsington Opera #MondayMotivation

10am every Monday via Garsington’s YouTube Channel. Session from 23 March captured via Zoom embedded above.

Sean Shibe

Sean has plans to live stream, dates and times to follow
https://www.youtube.com/user/seanstshibe

Voces 8

The choir signed to Signum and Decca are releasing YouTube Premieres at different times on their channel.
https://www.youtube.com/user/vocescantabilesmusic

Support musicians affected by cancellations

Direct links to recordings by musicians, artists and composers affected by cancellations, from spring 2020 curated by the brilliant Adrian_Specs on Twitter.

London Mozart Players go virtual, launching ‘At Home with LMP’ in response to the COVID-19 outbreak

One week on and orchestras, opera houses and freelance musicians are looking to digital to help maintain awareness of their role, contribution and impact to society, and highlight the risks they are facing in uncertain times.

Much of their successes in the months to come will undoubtedly come down to, not only infrastructure availability, but familiarity with tech, editorial risk-taking and nerve.

Live Experience is highly prized

There’s an argument for saying that the Digital Concert Hall’s generosity to extend free access to its live streams and archives until the end of March caused an overload on its systems. One week later its worth trying again to see whether their infrastructure can withstand multiple concurrent connections. I hope it can, because the live experience is highly prized (though presumably Germany’s most recent ban on gatherings above two people may make that a non-starter from now on).

The infrastructure challenge may well be met by third-party platforms like Facebook and YouTube combined with more nimble flexible organisations like the London Mozart Players whose marketing team have the generalist skills now increasingly in demand to bring live content to their audiences.

LMP will be broadcasting an illuminating introduction from Howard Shelley – filmed from his own home – which will unpack Franz Xaver Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in E flat in Shelley’s usual charming fashion, with excerpts performed to camera. The broadcast is planned to go live via LMP’s Facebook page at 1.05pm on Wednesday 1 April. 

Launching the first of LMP’s ‘Saturday Sessions’ is acclaimed classical guitarist Craig Ogden, who LMP are due to perform with in two concerts this Spring. Live-streamed from Craig’s home via the LMP’s Facebook page at 7pm on Saturday 28th March, Craig will bring the soothing sounds of the classical guitar right to your living room with a relaxing performance of much-loved classics from the guitar repertoire, including Scarlatti’s Sonata in E major and excerpts from Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez.

The full list of events this week and next are here on the LMP website and detailed below:

Monday 23rd March (Mozart Mondays)

LMP leader Simon Blendis gives an illuminating introduction to the first movement of Mozart’s Symphony No.40 in G minor.

Tuesday 24th March (Chamber Tuesdays) Bryony Gibson-Cornish introduces the Marmen Quartet and a performance of Schubert’s G Major Quartet (mvt I).

Thursday 26th March (Thursday Thoughts) ‘How Conductors Practice’ with LMP’s Associate Conductor Hilary Davan-Wetton.

Friday 27th March (Family Fridays) Musical treats for the kids with co-principal cellist Julia Desbruslais and violist Michael Posner.

Saturday 28th March (Saturday Sessions) Craig Ogden performs much-loved classics from the guitar repertoire, streamed live via LMP’s Facebook page.

As a charity with no core funding, the coming months of lockdown will have a huge impact on the orchestra and other arts organisations across the country. Freelance musicians and artists will struggle with no income sources for the foreseeable future. LMP’s initiative will work to combat some of the losses and help support its musicians through this difficult time. Viewers will be given the option to donate money towards the campaign so that the musicians involved are partially compensated for the loss of income they will inevitably face.

Over and above the technical requirements for live streaming (not as over-bearing as you might think), the greatest demand is the ability to move fast on digital ideas and commit. It’s great to see LMP doing this, along with a few others.

The next challenge is to create moments in the schedule which everyone in the audience coalesces around and which are also well-publicised.

Keep an eye on this blog later in the day for an update on who’s doing what when.