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.