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.

BBC Proms 2020 season unveiled – live performances late summer plus a treasure trove of archive delights

I have line of sight of the BBC Proms season for 2020. And you know what, as far as I’m concerned, I’m going to be quite happy: archive broadcasts on radio, and BBC iPlayer, plus a cut-down selection of live performances towards the end of the season.

The BBC Proms press release doesn’t reveal too much in writing. No great surprises because .. jeeze .. look what everyone’s grappling with right now. But some stops have been pulled out and in a strange kind of way that makes the summer seem less of a barren landscape than sometimes it does when I try and think beyond today, and tentatively into next week.

For the avoidance of doubt on the part of anyone at the BBC Proms: I’m saying thank you here. I appreciate your efforts.

Live concerts, pending Government direction (don’t hold your breath – that direction hasn’t been great to date), will start up for the end part of the season, including what is billed as a ‘poignant’ Last Night of the Proms to conclude proceedings. Marvellous.

Up until then, the Proms truly is a broadcast festival starting on Friday 17 July, and running until Saturday 12 September. The ‘First Night’ will include a commission by Iain Farrington for a BBC Grand Virtual Orchestra to mark the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth.

And given the news from the Southbank earlier this week, the Proms may well serve another more pressing need: to reiterate to the naysayers or those who don’t especially care about live music that it remains a critical force in our cultural life and the country’s economy.

It won’t be quite what we’re used to, but it will remind those who need it spelled out, that this cultural experience is not something we can afford to throw away.

Which, now I come to read the press release, is actually what David Pickard, Proms Director thinks too. Great minds think alike.

“These are challenging times for our nation and the rest of the world, but they show that we need music and the creative industries more than ever. This year it is not going to be the Proms as we know them, but the Proms as we need them. We will provide a stimulating and enriching musical summer for both loyal Proms audiences and people discovering the riches we have to offer for the first time.”

BBC Proms 2020 runs from Friday 17 July until Saturday 12 September.

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.

Shanghai Symphony Orchestra: first out of the traps

In years to come, the pictures capturing the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra’s first concert in front of a live audience will be something of an oddity.

The mask-clad safely-distant attendees will point to a time when things were odd. The pictures will either act as a signpost for when things in the classical music world took a dramatic change of direction, or they’ll act as a trigger for memories of a dark time when the thing we love reminded us how much we had taken it for granted.

Right now, images from that concert (live-streamed and seen by an audience of 2 million) offer a sense of hope: this will come to an end and classical music and opera will start on its road to live performance. It’s also a reminder of the amount of time its likely to take. The gig staged at the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra’s Symphony Hall was the first concert given to audience since lockdown began – that’s 110 days.

Just last week it was announced that cinemas, libraries, theatres and museums in China were permitted to reopen. That’s nearly four months wait, and even then its to a limited audience. That is how long this is all going to take.

On 23 May the Shanghai Symphony will hold its first concert with a larger ensemble and a conductor – 30-40 musicians playing works by Bartok, Barber and Piazzolla.

As with the marketing dividend of sharing free content during lockdown, so there will be opportunities to exploit being the first ensemble or arts organisation to stage a concert. Those who catch the moment right and anticipate the audience will secure the prize (such as it is). And at some point when social distancing is no longer a requirement, so too the return to live performance as we remember it.

For now, a moment in history. The first people emerging into the sunlight. Nice work, Shanghai Symphony.

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.

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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