Is it ‘selfish’ to be unmasked at a classical concert?

In an opinion piece on Bachtrack Mark Pullinger says that “the government could – should – decree that audiences have to remain masked or, even better, that they have to prove vaccination status/ immunity/ negative test. But they won’t. They’re afraid of being seen as the “nanny state” and would prefer to devolve difficult decisions.”

Of audience’s responsibility he writes “don’t jeopardise the recovery through your own selfish behaviour. Test yourself on the day of a performance and… mask up!”

I’ve been to a range of concerts over the summer where different mitigations have been required, mandated or advised.

At the Proms in particular (you need only to look at the Last Night) the wearing of masks wasn’t consistent. Sometimes I wore mine, sometimes I didn’t. Quite how much more risk there is sitting amid a largely silent seated audience without a mask on I remain unconvinced about, nor the actual effectiveness of a mask anyway.

In Dubai, the experience at the InClassica festival was entirely (and even outside at the fountain display). Security and front of house staff were quick to tap you on the shoulder even mid-performance to remind you to apply your mask, even if it was slipping down your nose. This in an auditorium with restricted seat sales.

In Scotland, at Lammermuir the instruction was clear – masks on all the time for the distanced audience, plus staggered entry to the venue. The hotel I stayed in made a point of completely clearing down a table I absent-mindedly moved away from at breakfast because I wanted to sit someplace else, but told me not to worry about having forgotten to don my mask to enter the breakfast room. In Dubai at the chain hotel I stayed at, breakfast was a fairly laid back affair with distancing a thing of the past in the relatively cramped canteen – a stark contrast to the Downtown Dubai where zealous police kept a keen eye on everything.

These inconsistencies don’t bother me as perhaps they might do for Mark Pullinger at Bachtrack.

I recognise that the opening up of live events presents an opportunity to build new audiences, a chance for the existing audiences – the genres advocates – to bang a different drum, tell a different story and project a different image.

The Government has consistently utilised the Populist Playbook throughout the pandemic just as it is right now with the lorry driver shortage.

If you tell people not to do something they will do it. If they do it, then the Government can blame the population it told not to do something when tighter restrictions are subsequently deemed necessary. If the government doesn’t mandate mitigations then that plays to the Governments advantage in the future.

That’s called gaslighting.

But what results is the population or audience squabbling, finger-pointing and blaming one another. Turn the population on itself in order to deflect attention from a hopeless Government.

Which is why the line about indicating that non-mask wearers in the auditorium are somehow ‘selfish’ is unhelpful. Those are people who are exercising their right to choose based on their own judgment of risk.

The only thing that is achieved by pointing the finger at some members of the audience is establishing what the perceived classical music cognoscenti regard as the unwritten expectations of the audience. That’s a short step from a clique. And cliques are what some arts managers, audience members and commentators regard as one of classical music’s biggest challenges.

Two o’clock diary

I estimate I must have been snoring at 1.55am. I was awake at 2.00am. I’m now sat downstairs in the kitchen looking hopefully at a small mug of camomile tea in the hope that the contents combined with the process of writing will clear my head and ready myself (for the second time tonight) for much-needed sleep.

My mind is buzzing with thoughts, words and pictures, buffeting around like the rough-cut of a second-rate TV drama. They are relentless. This combined with the human brain’s incessant need for certainty means unless action of some kind is taken, I am doomed to lay next to my snoring partner until the sun comes up.

Outside the wind is all pompous and blustery. Leafless branches sway and bounce. Gusts pass through the cat-flap. The kitchen clock regimentally does its thing.

This feeling I have right now is unbearable. It’s familiar too.

First, the intense disappointment of being even wake at this hour feels like a dead weight. Next, the thought that the world we are experiencing right now looks set to continue for what feels like a lifetime. There’s a bland kind of horror associated with this feeling – a sort of middle-class banal-looking doom. A GP’s waiting room kind of inevitability to it, complete with well-fingered magazines and page-turners that go unread.

Our understanding of the world around us is shaped by that which we see on the television. Additionally, our perception is also shaped by the now commonplace video communication. The idiosyncratic behaviours of our immediate network are displayed in a series of thumbnail shots brought into our daily lives through video communication.

The outside world is forced down an imaginary pipe into our homes. Nobody invited that world in – it just arrived with an insistent look on its face as though it was look for a spare hot-desk and somewhere to plug in its laptop. It never told us how long it would be sticking around either. And its still here, strewing good stuff and bad stuff around.

The immediacy of video communication and its on-demand nature makes its a highly intrusive medium. And as it comes and goes it leaves unhelpful deposits on our mental cognition that would normally be washed away by the everyday distractions of a commute home. Now, the lack of distractions embed them. They’re not far below the surface. It only takes a partner to ask you to roll over on your back because you’re snoring for the eyes to suddenly open, the thought patterns to start up and the deposits from yesterday to pop up once more.

Amid all of the noise, and the faces of the people I feel I know but don’t all seemingly partying in my head with so much as a mask or any concept of the two metre rule between them, I look on an a frustrating incongruity in the world right now.

We are people who need contact with other human beings in order to function. Even if we don’t speak to them, we need to sense their contact in the same physical space as ours. We can see loved ones in a two dimensional form whenever we like, in the same way we can pull up mostly anything from an archive of on-demand TV whenever the need arises. But it is the physical presence of others that is missing.

This seems odd on the face of it. I live with someone I couldn’t be without. My rock. But it is others I also need to be able to be sense (if not actually touch) in order to reassure me that the world is OK, that reality is around the corner, and importantly that the world will be returning to a kind of normality sometime soon.

But, as my friend Becky has pointed out to me, the odd thing about the fact that we can if we so wish step out into our roads and see others. Yet this lockdown and the winter months builds a perception of distance. On the one hand we recall we’ve ‘done this’ a year ago, On the other hand, its difficult determine when we ever had a let up in the lockdown restrictions. This is worse in the small hours of the morning when the wind gusts through the cat flap. In these lonely fearful moments, unwelcome thoughts and feelings give oxygen to the unhelpful deposits electronic communication left behind.

There is a darkness to this experience. It’s lonely, for one thing. The early hours of the morning are the best time for panic to set in I find. Panic is such a loud insistent thing. Not unruly in its use of language. It doesn’t holler. It is instead pressing. Urgent. Strong. Wilful. It is liable to leave an impression if the pressure isn’t released.

Awareness is the double-edged sword here: a great skill to possess (and one to develop too), but it’s only as good as your ability to channel it in such a way you can observe and describe what’s going on in your head, and calm the party down a bit. Such a process demands the individual takes his or her own responsibility for identifying what’s going on and what needs to be done. With greater awareness comes a greater need to deploy ‘corrective’ behaviour.

I don’t remember anybody telling me this stuff (aside from the basic principles around self-awareness in coaching conversations for example). There seems to be no manual to help us get acquainted with the mind and manage in the way that sustains us as self-determined individuals. There is still shame, I think, in even talking about it (which is perhaps why I feel the need to write about it even more).

We are instead introduced to the joys of various activities designed to distract the mind (wellbeing and ‘wellness’) in the belief that distraction subdues and extinguishes. It doesn’t. I know this as a middle-aged homosexual when I recall the period of time I was in denial about my identity. Distraction doesn’t change things, it only delays change. Delay increases the pressure on the mind. It is only by observing a situation and confronting it that we’re able to move on from it taking ourselves to a place where we need to be.

Light

News from 10 Downing Street last night about post-national lockdown tier rules provide a little bit of hope pre-Christmas for classical music venues, groups and organisations. Just so long as you’re in Tiers 1 or 2.

Reports document the three-tiered approach will return to England, allowing sports and live performance venues to accommodate 50% of their capacity audience or (in the case of live performance) 1000 people whichever is smaller. Numbers vary for sports according to whether the sport is played outside (maximum of 2000 spectators) or inside (maximum of 1000 spectators).

I see some leaping on the headlines which drove the story – sport – as a trigger for highlighting the apparent inconsistency or lack of consideration for the arts. Whilst I’m not about to sign up to the Conservative party as a fully-fledged member or start defending the government’s poor record in responding to COVID, not seeking out the information on live performance does skew perspectives on this change.

Speaking for myself, I experienced an unexpected rush when I discovered the news. Maximum capacity of 1000 is not 80% of the house (which is what is said to be the level at which a classical music venue breaks even on a concert) by any stretch of the imagination. In some cases it will be significantly less than 50%.

But it’s a step in the right direction, and presumably means that the two metre mitigation has been reduced to one metre now. If that’s the case, its both a success for those membership and trade organisations who have been working with DCMS on the latest measures.

Of course, all of this is dependent on one key thing: what parts of the country are in Tiers 1 and 2, and which parts of the country are in Tier 3. Some areas of the UK (and presumably its going to be a lot) are going to end up in the toughest of tiers. We’ll know how bright the light is, nationally speaking, come Thursday.

Arts Council England announces Round 2 (over £1m) recipients of Culture Recovery Fund

Arts Council England and DCMS have today announced the latest tranche of grants given to arts and culture organisations across the country.

The organisations who have received over £1 million in the second round are:

Sheffield City Trust£2,243,000
The Lowry Centre Trust£3,000,000
North York Moors Historical Railway Trust£1,904,902
Academy Music Group Ltd£2,981,431
London Venue Group£2,358,902
Palmglen Ltd (Ronnie Scott’s)£1,272,631
Opera North Limited£2,000,000
The Marlowe Theatre£2,999,999

Note: Sage Gateshead received £1,800,000 in Round 1

The total awarded in today’s announcement amounts to £18 million of the total £500 million grants available.

Organisations who applied for the over £1m category could apply for up to £3m, and had to meet a range of criteria, including demonstrating what their activity would be between 1 October 2020 and 31 March 2021,

They needed to provide independently audited accounts covering at least one financial year, and an income and expenditure/proposed budget spend for October to March.

Following the Government’s recent announcement regarding lockdown in England from Thursday 5 November to Wednesday 2 December, Secretary for State for Arts and Culture Oliver Dowden clarified that workplaces would still be open for people to work in, for example, concert halls, theatres etc, but public access to these venues wasn’t permitted due to lockdown laws. Arts and cultural activities can only effectively behind closed doors via digital platforms.

The Culture Recovery Fund Grants can also be used to fund redundancies.

For more information, visit the Culture Recovery Fund Grants FAQ.

Recipients of under £1 million can be found on the Round 1 and Round 2 posts.

Live music, pilot events and hopes dashed

I’ve had an inkling of what it’s like to be a political journalist this week. Or at least what i think it might be like, starting the week thinking the angle on live performance was documenting the first tentative post-COVID steps and the hope that emanates from attending DCMS ‘pilot events’ at St John’s Smith Square or invitation recordings at Hatfield House. A few days later, ending the week feeling oddly crushed that venues I hold dear having to shelve plans for socially-distanced concerts in August because of Boris Johnson’s surprise announcement pausing the easing of lockdown restrictions. It’s difficult to pinpoint what the angle is when the target keeps shifting.

I started the day with a press release about Snape Maltings innovative response to managing the demand of a socially-distanced audience by offering ‘pay what you want’ for access to a 45 minute programme of live music. A pragmatic response, I thought. A vision of the future. Maybe the start of a new path. Could I combine a weekend trip to East Suffolk on the 7th or 8th or 9th with a parental visit in West Suffolk too, I pondered. Could I justify that expense? And if I could, why was I doing it? Was it for me? Was it for a blog post? Was it for the venue? That’s what it’s come to. In case you’re wondering: it’s a little from columns a, b, and c.

A radical shake up is what’s coming. I’ve heard three different PRs (not this week I hasten to add) say that to me as being the opportunity for the industry presented by COVID19. The most obvious example of that opportunity already being grasped is digital. Some organisations get it and have responded editorially in an authentic and relevant way. Others have been a little twee. Some have even dared to take the plunge with paywalled concert performances. One starts this weekend – the Live from London Festival.

That such projects have sprung up without the slavish deference paid to the likes of Medici TV (until they truly offer a casting facility that supports actual video their £14.99 a month subscription is an extortionate amount of money to spend chained to your laptop or mobile) highlights the next step U.K. arts organisations might as well take in the twelve months: daring to ask its audience to actually pay for its content. Those organisations who do so first will rightly take the glory. Because in the absence of a viable independent live-streaming platform that serves U.K. musicians, they might as well give it a go. According to the FT for example, Live from London secured 2000 subscribers a week before the first stream too. Even accounting for over-inflation of figures, to have secured revenue at all right now is a story worth shouting about.

As far as I’ve witnessed this week there are three possibly four people in the game – Stagecast, a chap from Cambridge, Apple and Biscuit and Barney Smith (plus the producers the ensembles have kept on). They all have the business acumen, strategic vision and the kit to offer the infrastructure which could create a platform for organisations to serve up their content and, importantly, get a fair cut. It won’t substitute ticket sales and album sales (I don’t think) but it would be a start.

I like too the nimble responses of organisations – the resourcefulness and pragmatism – to make something of this, to dare (as far as I can make out) to press on regardless anyway. To do the very best they can. The idea of a 45 minute concert does seem crushingly short. But then, what’s more important? That groups of up to 25 can hear a Mendelssohn Cello Sonata in an intimate setting or than we wait until more financially viable audience groups can hear a longer concert performance and in the meantime there be silence? I’d go for the former. And if I got used to that maybe shorter concerts would be something I just got used to anyway. It’s what the New Music Biennial we’re doing a few years ago. I remember quite appreciating that format.

Is it heartbreaking or is it all in my imagination?

One thing that did surprise me interviewing people this week at St John’s Smith Square was the extent to which the shutdown of live events had prompted me to project a lot of my own sense of disappointment onto performers and arts administrators. Neither Richard Heason nor Gesualdo Six Director Owain Park bit on the emotive question in the way I thought they would. That’s either because I’ve assumed their heartbreak to be the same as mine and completely misjudged things or they’re utterly professional. Let’s go with the latter (because they are actually professional anyway).

Still I think of those who have spent time building up to their own organisations moment of reemergence – orchestra managers, chief execs and musicians – and can’t help but think they must feel massively disappointed. Effort expended for a particular deadline, only to have hopes dashed. It won’t be a fortnights delay – this will surely go on for longer than that. And when I think like that I can’t help but think of this not as live performance stopped, but people struggling to do the right thing not for audiences but for their colleagues. Because the arts enables livelihoods.

In conclusion

The Johnson announcement was a blow. The conversations where one industry expert posited that orchestras wouldn’t play for a year was probably true but still too difficult to hear. Everybody should stop thinking describing their season as a ‘virtual festival’ is endearing or acceptable because it’s annoying the hell out of me: virtual isn’t a substitute for real, stop trying to make out it might be – at best it’s quaint, at worst it’s fascile.

On the plus side, Elder and Coote’s Sea Pictures, the Helen Grimes and Beethoven 3 that followed in the BBC Proms archive concert this week was a blissful treat – so full of energy, rasp and depth. I’m now wondering whether COVID19 was the best thing that could have happened to the Beethoven celebrations this year.

Onward. This blog has a revised editorial vision: keeping the flame alight for a year (or however long it takes).

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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A quick way to avoid panic and refocus attention on now

I panic a lot. Panic for me is an extreme kind of worry, or rumination. It’s unhelpful thinking in fifth gear with a unrelentingly tight grip on the steering wheel. It brings about a tightening of the stomach. Seemingly innocuous low-level acts of kindness can bring about a watering of the eye. Like the train guard (who knew we had any of them any more?) on the South Eastern train into Charing Cross yesterday.

There is for some quite a lot to panic about right now. Especially if you’re someone like me who’s habit for catastrophic thinking (baked in since childhood ever since I ended up watching ‘Threads’ as a kid) has gone largely unchecked until well into my forties.

That catastrophic thinking often starts up again first thing in the morning. That’s when my mind is at its most vulnerable. That’s when the most unhelpful thinking can infiltrate otherwise normal thinking processes.

Being aware of this habit – especially at heightened times like this – is the first step for me. So too a little trick I learned during coaching training.

Instructions

  • Take a piece of paper – A4 will do – and draw a large circle on it. Big enough so that the edge of the circle touches the edge of the page.
  • Inside the circle draw another circle – equidistant between the centre of the page and the first circle you drew. There will be two rings created. These should be big enough to write in them.
  • In the outer ring – henceforth known as ‘The Circle of Influence’ – scribble down words or phrases that illustrate the specific things you’re worried about right now. I’ve included mine in the image further down this page – they’re representative of my world but are not meant to be representative of anyone else’s.
  • Next, I read out the statements out loud and with a pen highlight those statements which elicit a yes to the following question: is this something which is in my control?
  • If a statement has a ‘yes’ it’s moved to the inner circle – henceforth known as ‘The Circle of Control’.

    To do that I’ve taken the statements I originally put in the ‘Circle of Influence’ and rephrased (or rather, reframed) them as statements of positive intent. I’ve then written those positive statements inside the ‘Circle of Control’.

    For example, “Will I get sick?” becomes “Stay(ing) healthy”. Repeat this for every statement you’ve identified as being something which is in your control.
  • Revisit the remaining statements in the ‘Circle of Influence’. Are there any you missed? If not, no prizes for guessing that everything else in the ‘Circle of Influence’ isn’t in your control and isn’t worth your time picking over – because there’s nothing you can do to bring about any change in those scenarios.

    For example, as I much as I would like to do all I can to protect the economy, it is a much more complicated thing than I will ever be able to understand and, I was quite shit at maths at school (and geography too).

Happy Consequences

An interesting thing happens for me when I focus my thinking on the ‘Circle of Control’.

First, the mere process of writing things down and saying them out loud takes the sting out of them. Similarly, reframing each concern into something positive has a reassuring effect.

Second, the ‘Circle of Control’ helps me prioritise what’s important now. And if I’m focusing in on what’s important right now, it should limit rumination and trigger other thinking too. So, added to the list is “Take each day as it comes” and “Be kind”.

And … now I come to write that down, the thought of ‘Being in the now’ immediately springs to mind too. And when other most positive thinking starts springing to mind, so it feels like the mind has been put back into the right way of thinking and the day can get underway.

A few minutes documenting the process for this post and I’m already feeling ‘back in the saddle’, with a recalibrated sense of purpose, drive and motivation. And I recognise that’s my preferred state to be in right now.

Give it a go. Best of luck. Remember: the circles don’t have to be perfectly drawn.