Category Archives: About Dorothy

Meditations on a butternut squash

Photo: Just eying up my supper in the garden. ..
Yesterday I harvested this butternut squash from my garden before going to my local supermarket to buy chorizo and red pepper.
My plan was to make risotto for supper and to enjoy my “free” butternut squash (the truth is, I grew the plant from the seeds of a squash I bought a few months back) but somehow, by the time I got to the checkout, I knew I wasn’t going to make risotto.  Instead, I consigned my prize crop (in my mind at least) to the fridge for another day and ate soup.

Stretching the elastic to breaking point

Five weeks ago, my friend Sarah went to hospital and I went with her.  I went with her once.  I went with her twice.  I went with her a third time.  Finally, she was admitted.  That first week, I made it my priority to support her at a time of crisis knowing that, with her family living several hours away, I was the person who was best placed to help her.  Once she was admitted, I continued to make a priority of visiting her.

I visited Sarah because I wanted to support her and without knowing how long she would be in hospital.  It was a high priority for me and, at the same time, I knew I was stretching the elastic about as far as it would stretch and still ping back.  I kept up a regime of visiting most days until Sarah moved on Monday to receive specialist treatment some distance away…

…and I confess, that once she’d moved to get the treatment she really needed, I discovered just how exhausted I was.

Feeling exhausted?

Have you ever felt totally exhausted at the end of a project, or after handling a crisis, or simply, because you just are?  The minute your project, or crisis, is over you look at the spaces opening up in your diary and think of all the things you’ve been putting on hold.  Now you can catch up!
Somehow, though, when the time comes, your body refuses to cooperate.  At least, you could push through (isn’t that what you’ve been doing so successfully for the last few weeks, months or even years?) but only if you ignore the signals that your body is giving you… signals that are getting louder and louder and louder…
There is an alternative to “pushing through”
Janice Chapman, the distinguished Australian-born soprano and voice coach, teaches a method of breathing she calls “splat”.  The essence of the method is this:  before you take in a new breath, you need to release what remains of the breath you have just taken.  When I learnt this method, it seemed rather counter-intuitive – isn’t it more efficient to top up the breath before singing again?
Topping up the breath is a good metaphor for what we do when we push through, ignoring the body’s signals to rest before getting stuck into whatever comes next.  Releasing the breath allows us to fill up our lungs with oxygen, rather than seeking to extract the last bit of oxygen from our depleted lungs.
The same principle applies when we take a rest – be it a day or a week or even a “power nap” before we continue.  If we don’t rest and instead push through, we’re into the law of diminishing returns.  For the want of rest, we risk taking our elastic to the point at which it won’t ping back.  We start the next thing exhausted.
We need to remember this for ourselves.  We need to remember it for those we lead.
Taking a moment to check in
If you’ve read this far you may be wondering, “how should I respond to this posting?”  My message to you is…
Breathe.  Take five minutes just to breathe.  Breathe in gently and release the breath, trusting your body’s natural rhythms.
And as you breathe, notice what stage you are at in the various cycles of your life.  Where are you resting?  Where are you pushing through?  What is your body asking of you right now?  Notice, in particular, any messages you’re giving yourself about the need to push through… really?  Sometimes, it helps to recognise your need for rest and to adjust your schedule, knowing that there will be a time – but it doesn’t always need to be now – for you galvanise your energy and to get stuck in.
Everything’s working perfectly
 Yesterday, it wasn’t only that I failed to make the butternut squash and chorizo risotto.  In truth, I pretty much took the day off.  Yes, I got up with the intention of working.  I checked my e-mails.  I had my first (and only) appointment.  Soon, though, I realised that I had a choice and I decided to rest.
Sarah is in hospital now, and getting the care she needs.  I’ll be sharing more of her journey in a future posting, and I’ll be providing support when she comes back to her home nearby.  I have work to do in the meantime – lots of work, as it happens.  But it didn’t need to be done yesterday.
Yesterday I felt exhausted, torn between the need to rest and the awareness of just how much catching up I need to do.  Still, I chose rest and notice how much more energy I have today.  The morning has already been productive.  I’m looking forward to making risotto.  Everything’s working perfectly. 

When asking for feedback fills you with fear

There’s no failure, only feedback

Recently, I found myself talking with a friend about my life as a singer.  Specifically, I was remembering a performance of Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast in which I had made a very lusty entry – in the wrong place.

In my early days as a member of the London Symphony Chorus, I would never have made such a mistake.  The fear of making a mistake made me hold back;  my singing was (largely) correct but it lacked gusto.  With time, I have learnt that a mistake is just a mistake so that when I came in (with the men, as I recall) in the wrong place in Belshazzar’s Feast I found myself celebrating it as a sign of a growing sense of ease and self acceptance.

In my work with clients, I am constantly reminded of how vulnerable people can feel in receiving feedback.  At times, charged with giving feedback to people I have assessed for jobs, I meet strong resistance and defensiveness.  One client told me a while back that he thought I’d taken a dislike to him before the interview had even begun.  Another recently asked for chapter and verse of how I’d reached my conclusions.  Coaching clients are no different.  Recently, I invited a client to seek out feedback from three people she trusts about her core strengths.  Even though she was charged with asking for positive feedback, she found herself paralysed by the fear of what people might say.

Maybe you have your own experience of wanting to know how people see you and yet, finding it challenging to ask.  Perhaps you worry that your work falls short of the mark.  You want to know how your work is seen and still, you are afraid to ask.  You want to be seen – and seen fully – and yet you fear that you may be seen as “less than”.  Perhaps “less than” relates to your job or promotion prospects;  you fear you are not performing or lack what you need to make your next career steps.  Perhaps “less than” relates – oh, so personally! – to who you are;  you fear that in some way you are fatally flawed.  You are not alone in having such fears.

Let’s be clear, these are the kind of fears that hold you back.  This is true at any number of levels.  One client, for example, was investing a great deal of energy in guessing where his colleagues might be coming from and seeking to put himself beyond reproach, until he started to test his assumptions and realised that his fears were unwarranted.  Another client kept missing out on a promotion that was easily within her reach because she was not open to hearing feedback and adjusting her approach in one key area.

It can help to realise that your behaviour is not who you are.  We are all so much more than the sum of our behaviours.  Yes, our behaviours reflect who we are – our values and intentions, our feelings and needs.  Still, there are many ways in which they don’t reflect our essential self.  Perhaps, for example, you simply lack skill in a certain area.  Perhaps you have followed a poor example or even been taught to behave in a certain way and are doing so unconsciously.

Once you start to strip away old and unhelpful beliefs or to develop new skills your behaviour comes closer to reflecting who you are and may even leave you with an enriched sense of yourself.  Once you start to understand that you are not your behaviour, asking for feedback becomes easier.  In the discipline of neuro-linguistic programming (or NLP) this is reflected in a presupposition:  there’s no failure, only feedback.

Let me return to my client – the one I asked to seek out feedback about her core strengths.  If you’re anything like her, you may be wondering what steps you can take before asking for feedback to build your sense of ease.  Here’s just one thing you can do to begin to understand what stands in the way (which I learnt from Roger Schwarz, author of The Skilled Facilitator):

Step 1:  Identify a recent conversation in which you could have asked for feedback (and may even have wanted to) but didn’t.

Step 2:  Take some paper or open a document and create two columns.  In the right hand column, capture as much as you can of the actual conversation – what you said and what the other person said.

Step 3:  Write down any additional thoughts and feelings you had during the conversation in the left hand column alongside details of the actual conversation.

Capturing your thoughts in this way offers the opportunity to reflect on what beliefs and emotions you have about receiving feedback and opens up awareness and new possibilities.

Finding perspective and direction

photo from the album
The London Symphony Chorus in rehearsal

Over the years, many clients have come to me by referral.  Sometimes, they are referred by people who know me well.  Sometimes clients self-refer.  It is always a particular privilege when someone chooses to ask for help whom I know personally, including friends and family.

Recently, friends and family have been amongst those coming forward to support my new Sunday coaching clinic at 1, Harley Street.  One of them is my dear friend Clare Rowe.  Clare and I met through our membership of the London Symphony Chorus and she had this to say about the times we met in coaching partnership:

“I have made two professional visits only to Dorothy at a time in my life when looking deep into myself needed to be shared – to find perspective and direction –  they were life changing meetings. Dorothy’s gifts of empathy, intelligence and perception allow discovery of self within the context of being human, what more valuable kinship do we require as human beings on our journey together?”

I offer my special thanks to Clare for her willingness to share publicly what her experience of coaching meant to her.

When our parents leave the room

Nikolaj Znaider performs at the Barbican this evening
Siehe! Da weinen die Götter, es weinen die Göttinnen alle,
    Daß das Schöne vergeht, daß das Vollkommene stirbt.

From Nänie by Schiller
Written following the death of a friend

In childhood, the moments when we are out of sight of our parents offer an opportunity.  Games are played which might otherwise be off limits.  Sibling rivalries are given fuller rein.  The imagination invents things to do which were never forbidden but which may still get us into trouble when our parents return.  Later in life, there comes a time when our parents leave the room and don’t come back as they pass from life into death.  When my own father died, in 2006, I learned just how much – for those who are left behind – this opens up an experience which is both broad and deep.  Memories re-play like a film reel, laden with new insights as well as strong emotions.  We feel the sense of loss keenly for everything that is gone as well, sometimes, as grieving those things we yearned for which were not part of our relationship.  We discover just how much a relationship can continue – and continue to evolve – beyond death.

Rehearsing today for this evening’s concert, I notice how much I think of Colin – Sir Colin Davis – as a father.  Of course, he is in a very real sense a father.  I think of his children, who have lost their mother and step mother and then their father within three years of each other, watching their father’s declining health following the unexpected loss of his dearly beloved wife.  No words can be enough fully to express my deep respect for them in the heart and fire of their own grieving.  I think to of Sir Colin as a musical father, too.  This evening’s concert reflects both these roles.

As a chorus, we have been rehearsing Brahm’s Nänie, a musical setting of a poem written by Friedrich Schiller following the death of a friend.  Simon Halsey, our Music Director and Norbert, our language coach, have provided the literal translation of Schiller’s heartfelt lament which has, in addition, been deeply enriched by a member of our alto section who has explained the classical allusions which run through the text.  Its message is deeply felt by members of the chorus – that that which is beautiful passes, dying even as it reaches its moment of fulfilment.  The weekend’s rehearsals have brought us together with Nikolaj Zneider, who studied conducting with Sir Colin and with members of the London Symphony Orchestra with whom we shall be performing this piece.

The programme for our concert this evening, which was due to be conducted by Sir Colin, has been revised following his death and I can find no better words than those on the Barbican’s website which tell us:

It is with much sadness that the LSO announced the death of Sir Colin Davis on Sunday 14 April. Sir Colin specified that there should be no memorial service held for him, yet the Orchestra and many other people close to him, as well as our audiences, would like an opportunity to remember him, and to celebrate his extraordinary contribution to the LSO and wider musical life.  It is with that in mind that the closing concerts of the 2012/13 season, which Sir Colin was due to conduct, will now form a tribute to our former President, Principal Conductor and great friend.

All the music and artists have a close resonance with Sir Colin, from his support of young performers to the symphony that inspired him to be a musician. Joseph Wolfe, Sir Colin’s son, will conduct his father’s beloved Berlioz and Nikolaj Znaider has now asked to play Mozart’s Third Violin Concerto – one of Sir Colin’s favourites and a work they planned to perform together. Sir Colin was also President of the London Symphony Chorus, and they will now close the concerts with a setting of Friedrich Schiller’s poem Nänie, for full orchestra and choir, which Brahms wrote in memory of a close friend.

After we have completed our own rehearsal, I take the opportunity to sit in the auditorium for the remainder of the rehearsal.  Joseph Wolfe, in whom I immediately see the resemblance to both father and mother, conducts Berlioz and an encore by Elgar.  Tears flow as I listen to the Elgar but Wolfe is not maudlin, choosing instead to emphasise joy and celebration.  Znaider directs and plays the solo role in Mozart’s Violin Concerto number 3 and even in rehearsal I can see that this will be a ravishing performance.  Gordan Nikolich directs Beethoven’s eighth symphony from the leader’s chair.  Many times I have sat in the auditorium and watched the orchestra rehearse and still, something about this rehearsal makes me think I am enjoying the rare privilege of observing members of the orchestra in their most intimate and private place.

The programme is thoughtfully put together and stands on its own two feet.  This evening, it is also the means by which we celebrate Sir Colin’s life, mourn his loss as our father in music and observe in action the legacy he leaves behind him.

At the Barbican for Berlioz

With concert schedules planned years in advance, nobody could have predicted that our performance of the last act of Berlioz’s The Trojans would take place so soon after the death of Berlioz’s greatest champion, Sir Colin Davis.  But… I am getting ahead of myself.

On Wednesday 22nd May, I joined my colleagues from the London Symphony Chorus for Valerie Gergiev’s  60th birthday gala concert at London’s Barbican Centre.  As a chorus, our contribution to the concert was small – the final act of The Trojans contains little by way of choral singing so that we had had just two rehearsals before our first tutti in Walthamstow.  (Perhaps making the journey to Walthamstow on a weekday evening was our greatest contribution).  The programme as a whole, though, was the kind of glittering affair you would expect on such an occasion, with virtuoso piano followed by virtuoso violin and a scheduled finish time that was well past my weekday bedtime.

In the first half of the concert I took up the option of sitting on stage and was not disappointed.  Unfamiliar with Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2, I decided to close my eyes and simply listen without any visual distraction.  Alexander Toradze had a touch on the keys of the piano that, simply, delighted.  I enjoyed the sense of playfulness in some moments and the extraordinary lightness of Toradze’s touch on the keys.  When he finished, the audience’s response was an eruption of applause and appreciation.  I would have been quite happy to go home at that point and to savour the experience just gone.

I would, though, have missed more virtuosic sparkle from Leonidas Kavakos on the violin.  The programme – Paganini, Ravel and Sarasate – was a collection of pieces which might easily have been marked ‘unplayable’, so difficult were they to perform.  Kavakos played them with the assurance of one who has practised for a lifetime, yet without show.  If he had any sense of being there to thrill the audience it was through his musicianship and technical accomplishment rather than any showmanship on his part.  I found myself imagining the boy who became the man – the classroom geek turned extraordinary muso.

The final act of The Trojans, in the concert’s second half, marks a change – from the delights of virtuoso performance to the great soul depths of Berlioz’s rendition of the story of Dido and Aeneas.  There are hard acts to follow here.  On disc, it was Dame Janet Baker who introduced me to the role of Dido, whilst as a singer, I have had the privilege and pleasure of singing under the baton of Sir Colin Davis.  So soon after his death, it proves hard to come to this piece without some undercurrent of emotion – maybe resentment, certainly sorrow – that it is Gergiev and not Davis who, this evening, conducts this piece.

The differences begin in rehearsal as Gergiev gallops through the piece, barely stopping to give notes or to ensure that tricky sections are buttoned down.  At one point he tells the orchestra that their playing needs to be extraordinary and, right now, is only ordinary and I find myself wondering if such an admonition has any hope at all of producing the effect he desires.  This is not Colin – it’s just not Colin.  There is neither the feel for the opera’s story nor the meticulous preparation nor the sense of fellowship and connection with orchestra and chorus.  As one colleague puts it after the concert, Colin would act this piece – where it was playful his baton would become the instrument of flirtation, where there was tragedy, Colin would be the tragedy.  Gergiev, by contrast, conducts at extraordinary speed so that it is a challenge to articulate the words and so that, indeed, the concert finishes well ahead of its scheduled time.

Even in the somewhat rough hands of Gergiev, Berlioz is Berlioz and I find myself immersed in the drama of Dido’s final journey.  Ekaterina Semenchuk, in the role of Dido, has a magnificent alto voice throughout her range and sings both with assurance and with great depths which touch my soul.  So striking is her singing that the remainder of the cast, whilst competent, is somewhat overshadowed.  Nonetheless, it is Berlioz who is most in my heart, for who else could write so stirringly and with such depth?

As I write, I smile to myself… knowing that, in just a few weeks, I shall have my first reaudition with Simon Halsey, our Music Director since the middle of last year.  There’s every possibility that this reaudition will mark the end – or at least the beginning of the end – of my tenure (already half a lifetime and more) as a member of the London Symphony Chorus.  I hope it does not but if it does, I wonder if I shall look back and think, he wasn’t Colin and still, he wasn’t so very bad.

Reflections on my 50th birthday

There is something wonderfully bold and liberating
about saying yes to our entire imperfect and messy life.
With even a glimmer of that possibility, joy rushes in.
Yet when we’ve been striving to make “Pillsbury biscuits” for a lifetime,
the habits of perfectionism don’t easily release their grip.
When mistrust and skepticism creep in, we might be tempted
to back down from embracing our life unconditionally.
It takes practice, learning to bounce back
each time we’re dragged down by what seems to be wrong.
But […] when we stop comparing ourselves to some assumed standard of perfection,
the “biscuits of today”, this very life we are living right now,
can be tasted and explored, honored and appreciated fully.
When we put down ideas of what life should be like,
we are free to wholeheartedly say yes to life as it is.

Tara Brach
Radical Acceptance:  Embracing Your Life With The Heart Of A Buddha

On Saturday, I had a moment of awareness of being in heaven.  I was sitting in the You Don’t Bring Me Flowers cafe in Hither Green on my way back from a visit to my hairdresser.  It helped that the sun was shining – had shone, indeed, on my walk from Lewisham, through the underpass at Hither Green Station, along Springbank Road and all the way to Hither Green Cemetery and back.  It helped that my sandwich was freshly made and accompanied by a (very rare and much savoured) cup of coffee.  It helped that I was seated by the window and enjoying the bustle of the cafe.  Most of all, it helped that, in this moment, I was present to each and every one of these things – even to the strange juxtaposition of my feelings of sheer bliss with the rather prosaic view out to the rows of cars parked on either side of the street.

Life has not always been bliss, is not always bliss at this time.  Regular readers know that the year started with the final illness and death of my uncle and more recently the death of Sir Colin Davis with whom I have regularly performed in recent years as a member of the London Symphony Chorus.  There have been other deaths, too.  Business has been relatively quiet this year.  Initially I was grateful for this period of quiet and even now I know how much it has benefited me to take my foot off the accelerator for a while.  I have taken time to assimilate the death of my uncle and to notice how it signals to me the passing, one by one, of my mother’s generation.  I have been busy with the house and am thrilled that, having completed the kitchen last year, Gary returned to prepare one of the spare rooms for a second lodger (so that the house can work harder to pay for itself) and to strip and varnish the floors in the hallway.

There are, though, bills to be paid.  As the months have gone on at this slow pace I have been feeling increasingly anxious about money, even whilst some part of me feels totally calm.  With the anxiety about money come all sorts of thoughts …about the future consequences of this quiet patch, …about whether after almost eleven years of running my own business, I should be looking for a proper job, …about what I should do  next to make things happen… about… about… about…  It’s not that I have been entirely idle.  I have not.  I have continued all sorts of activities which, over time, keep me connected to the world and let people know that Learning for Life (Consulting) is open for business.  At the same time, in recent weeks, as these different voices within me seek to hold sway, I have found myself neither fully resting nor fully productive.

There are moments when I have been touching into a layer of thinking that is deeper still.  I have been surprised, for example, to catch myself fearing that friends and family will not join me in celebrating my 50th birthday.  I know these fears are not rational and still, they have, at times, been present – or I, at times, have been present to them.  These are fears of being alone and unloved.  In my work life I have also had fears – old, old fears of being incompetent and unable to find my way forward.  I recognise the tenderness and feelings of vulnerability that comes with these thoughts.

I know from my work with clients that I am not alone with my concerns.  Yes, the particular thoughts relate to my own circumstances and still, others also grapple with a plethora of thoughts and with the fears that accompany them.  Currently, I am reading Tara Brach’s book Radical Acceptance:  Embracing Your Life With The Heart Of a Buddha.  Brach begins her book by describing what she calls the “trance of unworthiness”.  I have met it in the Board Room.  I have met it at every level of the leadership hierarchy.  I have met it in my own experience.  Brach is not alone in naming our common experience.  I think of Timothy Gallwey’s Inner Game of Tennis, of James’ and Jongeward’s Born to Win and even give a nod and a smile to authors whose names and books will come back to me later.  I am blessed in having skills and also friends and colleagues who have skills to help me to respond compassionately to my own deepest fears.  On Monday, I took time with Steve Matthus, from my mastermind group, to bear witness to those parts of me that are struggling and filled with fear.

Right now, though, on the day of my 50th birthday, I take time to bear witness to everything that is in my life at this time.  I bear witness with deep, deep gratitude to friends, family and colleagues for the love and care which nourishes me in my life.  I bear witness to the extraordinary privileges that are in my life at this time or have been in my life in the past, including my life and career as a trainer, consultant and coach, including my diverse roles amongst friends and family, including my experience as a lifelong student of what it takes to live life consciously and fully, including my years of singing, including more than half a lifetime of singing as a member of the London Symphony Chorus.  And I bear witness to the twists and turns that take me, at times, by surprise and to the fears and doubts as well as to the yearnings and even the needs fulfilled.  This is my own imperfect and messy life.

Most of all, I wish myself a very happy 50th birthday.  

Sir Colin Davis, 1927 – 2013

And on that day he will not have ceased,
but will have ceased to be separated by death.

Brian Patten, A Man’s Life

A moment that we all knew would come has come, and is no less painful for that.  On Sunday evening I was chatting in the kitchen with my nephew who realised from my chirpy demeanour that I had not yet learnt the news – that Colin Davis (that’s Sir Colin Rex Davis, CH, CBE) had passed away that Sunday evening, 14th April, 2013.  I felt the huge sense of loss that comes with the passing of such a great man and the knowledge that I shall never again sing under his baton, or be reprimanded for the chewing of vowels, or laugh at his humour or enjoy the twinkling of his eyes or even have that vague sense that – across the generations – I am in the presence of a rather attractive man…

When my father died in 2006 the first job my mother gave me was to phone people – cousins, friends – to share the news.  Without exception people responded, spontaneously, with some expression of sadness and a story.  Over time I have come to understand that such stories are an important part of a process that we go through when we lose someone dear to us, a celebration of the person we have lost and of the relationship that we had with the person we have lost.  They are also part of a transition, a process… of all the words that carry connotations of consultant-speak and which, nonetheless reflect our experience.  With the death of someone dear to us comes a sense, at times overwhelming, of the loss we have suffered.  Over time, though, we come to accept our loss and to find that we have, still, a rich store of memories – of stories – to revisit, times that we celebrate again and again and again.  In this posting, I want to share some of my own rich store and to express my gratitude for many experiences of singing with Sir Colin Davis as well as my deep love and affection for the man himself.

As it happens, three generations of my family (given the almost 20-year age gap between my parents you could almost say four) experienced Sir Colin’s musicianship directly.  As a fiery young man – angry, even – Sir Colin conducted my parents in Reading.  My mother remembers his fiery temper and a tempestuous relationship with his first wife, April Cantelo.  When I first sang with Sir Colin, decades later, some of this temper remained (and it may have been the same gruffness that my nephew did not enjoy as a young composer with the National Youth Orchestra some twelve years ago).  In the early days of working with Sir Colin, he often invoked the presence – imminence, even – of death, inviting us to step into the shoes of someone who feared death as part of engaging with and performing Verdi’s Requiem or Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis.  In his 60s he would put himself forward as the man who was near to death, though I noticed that, as the years went on and his own death was drawing closer he did this less often.  Nonetheless, it didn’t surprise me to read, in a piece by Edward Seckerson, that he kept a human skeleton in the window of his home as a reminder of our mortality.

I could not speak of my own experience of Sir Colin without talking of my first performance with him of Berlioz’s Les Troyens in the early 1990s.  Sir Colin was, at this stage, established as a champion of Berlioz’s music.  I was a relative novice and so, too, were my fellow members of the London Symphony Chorus.  I made the commitment to sing all of this extraordinary piece of music which we performed in a series of concerts – two concerts worth of music over three days – part I, part II and then parts I and II back to back on an afternoon and evening.  Sir Colin steered us confidently through the experience with its diversity, rich drama and melodies, and its ability to surprise – I still remember hearing for the first time Hylas’s haunting song at the beginning of Act V, performed by the as yet little known Ian Bostridge.  I thought it unlikely that we would ever sing such an ambitious piece again and laid the experience down in my treasure store.  We went on to sing many pieces by Berlioz and, in time, to return to Les Troyens in 2000 which we recorded as part of the LSO Live series.  It was a fine performance and remains as part of Sir Colin’s rich musical legacy.

Later, I had an experience of Sir Colin’s conducting which I remember for all the wrong reasons, a performance of Verdi’s requiem towards the end of the 1997 London Proms season.  We were due to be conducted by Sir Georg Solti who famously hated to work with amateur choirs.  We were joined by a number of professional singers and Solti’s assistant (an exceedingly tall man – I was half way through our first rehearsal together before I realised that, no, he wasn’t standing on a box) repeatedly asked to hear “the professionals” and then “the amateurs”, something which was hardly likely to inspire.  In the midst of our rehearsals we heard of the sudden death of Diana, Princess of Wales, who was our patron and asked for this concert to be dedicated to her which it was.  Five days later Sir Georg also died and it was Colin who stepped in to conduct.  No matter how much he urged us on to greater heights, he also showed great faith in us and we in him.  Suddenly the tables were turned as we gave him what we knew he would want in a concert which took place against a backdrop of deep shock and a nation in mourning.

In 2010 we were all shocked by the death of Sir Colin’s wife, who had been a regular member of his audience as well as his companion for almost fifty years.  We saw Sir Colin’s health deteriorate and were not surprised when he was unable to conduct our January performance of Mozart’s Requiem.  Somehow, it seems fitting that our partnership with him included – ended with – a performance at St. Paul’s Cathedral of Berlioz Grande Messe des Morts (one which prompted my English teacher to contact me via Facebook to say how much he was enjoying the recording).  If ever Sir Colin conducted with a sense of his own mortality and forthcoming death, this must have been one such time.

Over the years we saw Sir Colin soften and enjoyed his increasingly twinkling and avuncular presence.  His musicianship was never in doubt.  I celebrate this giant of a man.

Managing the things that matter

I’ve been following a discussion in recent days on LinkedIn about a blog posting by Jonathan Brown entitled Working late is no excuse.  The title succinctly captures the core message in an e-mail sent by the Managing Partner at a law firm to address lateness by fee earners – that working late in the evening is no excuse for a late start in the morning.  A reflection of our era, the e-mail clearly reached the desk of the author and went on (if Mr Brown is correct) to “go viral”.

It took me back to a time when I worked extensively with one of London’s “big five” law firms, back in the late 80s and early 90s. Many of my contemporaries (including some of my buddies in the London Symphony Chorus – how did they do it?) were young lawyers working their socks off in this and other firms. They knew they would get a partnership or a nice juicy job outside the firm and experienced the long hours as a fair exchange. As the recession bit, though, the “jam tomorrow” become a possibility rather than a certainty so that people began to reconsider their options. Notwithstanding the recession (threat of redundancy etc.) young lawyers started to think twice about putting in so many hours.

One commentator on the LinkedIn thread crisply summed up one point of view:  “This is another example of lazy management – managing what’s easy (the number of hours people are in the building) as opposed to what’s important (what they achieve for the organisation). How many examples have we all witnessed over the years, of managers judging their staff by how long they are sitting at their desks as opposed to by what they actually accomplish while sitting there? It’s sad to think that even in a law firm top management can’t come up with a smarter way of evaluating its staff’s contribution”.

Sometimes, managing time in this way is indeed a proxy for more meaningful management of performance, as if time equals – in the long run – results.  We all know it doesn’t, but what do we do differently if we want to manage performance pending the results?  As it happens, I recently initiated another thread on LinkedIn about the use of a coaching style of leadership.  As I write I think of some of the sales managers I have interviewed over the years – for developmental purposes, assessment or promotion – who have described sitting down with members of their team and asking them in considerable detail about how many calls or visits they are making per day or week and with what outcomes.  This kind of on-the-job coaching gets under the skin of “hours per week” and can give a real boost to staff performance.  In short, it’s possible that our Managing Partner just didn’t stop to think about what’s really important in the workplace and how to manage staff in ways that boost real performance.

It’s also possible that he committed an entirely different error (though, I confess, I doubt it) – the error of failing to explain adequately why an action or expectation is important.  I recognise that this is something I have to remind myself to do – because at times something seems so obvious to me I think it doesn’t need saying.  Often it does.  Reading the Managing Partner’s e-mail it’s not clear how a few minutes’ lateness impacts on performance or why turning up on time really matters.

It certainly seems to be a general view that the tone of the e-mail – familiar to me, I confess, from dipping my toes from time to time into legal waters – is unlikely to raise levels of motivation and engagement across this particular firm.  But this, perhaps, is a topic worth unpacking in another blog posting.  I’ll leave it for another day.

Covey’s third habit: put first things first

I am sitting at my desk today, reflecting on the death of my Uncle Tom following his funeral on Tuesday.  I am still finding it hard to believe that he is no longer with us.
Tom died within hours of our performance of Mozart’s Requiem and since that time we have been rehearsing Brahm’s German Requiem.  Of course, the words of a requiem are evocative.  Especially, I keep hearing denn ihre Werke folgen ihnen nach.  In my copy of the Brahms, the words of the final movement are translated as Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth.  Sayeth the spirit, that they rest from their labors, and that their works follow after them.  This phrase – that their works follow after them – touches me deeply.  Tom’s works do indeed follow after him.  The eulogy was a celebration of some of those works and of the man who was so fondly remembered.  They are reflected in the memories which each of us treasures.  They are reflected in the love of so many people towards him.  You could even say that my cousins, themselves much loved and treasured, are amongst Tom’s “works”.
In the midst of everything that accompanies a death, I have also had a small voice reminding me to return to a series of postings I began some months ago, following the death of Stephen Covey in July 2012.  It is time to write about Covey’s third habit, as described in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People – put first things first.  In this chapter, Covey describes how highly effective people manage their time.
Covey’s thoughts in this area are beloved of trainers and of other development professionals as well as of readers of his book.  One of his offerings is a two-by-two grid in which to plot the actions on our ‘to do’ lists according to their level of importance (high or low) and urgency ( high or low).  The point is, if we are constantly spending time on things that are urgent but not important, we are unlikely to be highly effective.  Most favoured by Covey is Quadrant II, that is – those activities that are important but not urgent.
But how do we determine what is important?  Covey invites us to look at the various roles in our lives – parent, spouse, leader etc. – and to identify weekly goals against each role.  We can use these goals to schedule activities for the week ahead, taking time each day to adapt our schedule in the light of new developments.  He also includes the idea of “sharpening the saw” about which we shall hear more when we come to Habit Seven.
Now, I must confess that there has been a gap in time between reading Covey’s chapter on putting first things first and writing this posting and this leaves me with something intriguing.  For what I took most to heart when I read this chapter – and now cannot find as I skim through it again – is the idea that effective time management is about knowing what we want in the broadest sense, and taking steps to move towards it.  Coaches sometimes invite people to imagine themselves sitting on a bench in their old age (hence the photo, above) looking back on their lives and to ask themselves – what would they most like to look back on?  This can be a powerful means of connecting with those things that are most important to us.  Many a senior executive has found himself taken aback by the realisation that he (or she) is spending more time on work than on tending precious relationships. 
Covey’s tools and techniques are not, he says, about time management – though he also refers to his approach as the fourth generation of time management.  They are, he says about self management.  Hanging out in Quadrant II requires us to understand what is most important to us and to manage our schedule in line with what is most important to us.  At the end of a life, our commitment to live a life in line with our values is reflected in the myriad memories of those we leave behind, as well as in the feelings they evoke.
To my Uncle Tom I say a loving thank you for these memories.

The concert you didn’t get to hear

Simon Halsey in rehearsal –
a gesture we have quickly come
to understand

It’s months since tickets for our concert on Sunday evening sold out so that I didn’t send the usual alert to friends.  I’m not sure whether it was the lure of the programme – Elgar’s Cello Concerto followed by Mozart’s Requiem – or the prospect of having Sir Colin Davis as our conductor, or Tim Hugh as soloist, that made the programme so attractive.  Last week I checked and found a lone ticket (a ‘return’) – just one – available.

As a chorus, we have been rehearsing assiduously for a performance from memory.  This is something we rarely do so that the question “how do I learn a piece from memory?” is as important as the intricate detail of the piece itself.  Some members of the soprano section were taking steps well before Christmas, using our travelling time (to Luxembourg and Paris in December) to go through the score again and again.  I have been less assiduous, though I did take advantage of a recent day trip to Edinburgh to go through the score in some detail.  Mainly, though, my strategy has been to sing without a score in rehearsals and to notice what I can sing with confidence and what details I need to revise.

Who’s idea was it to put us through this challenge?  It was Simon’s – that’s Simon Halsey, newly recruited to the posts of Chorus Director of the London Symphony Chorus and Choral Director of the London Symphony Orchestra.  Simon clearly has a strategy – or perhaps one should say any number of strategies.  He has brought a kind of musical OCD to our preparation, diving into all sorts of details, letting us know where we need to improve and how.  He has also planned a generous number of rehearsals.  In the run up to the concert we have rehearsed on Tuesday and Wednesday before meeting our conductor on Thursday and rehearsing again with the full ensemble on Friday evening and Saturday and Sunday mornings.  By the time we sing on  Sunday evening I feel confident that I know the piece well and that my neighbour on the podium knows it even better.  I am also grateful for Simon’s advice to save our voices for the concert.

Some time ahead of the concert, we learn that Sir Colin will not be our conductor.  This is not entirely a surprise (we know he has been ill) and is met with a mixed response – much beloved of chorus members, we are both disappointed not to be singing with him and pleased that he is taking care of his health.  In his place, we have Yutaka Sado, who worked for a number of years as assistant to Leonard Bernstein and Seiji Ozawa and with whom we are working for the first time.  Sado’s sweeping gestures in full flow remind me of Bernstein’s grand style of conducting and, at the same time, I am grateful to him for his assiduous support of the chorus, bringing us in throughout the piece.  The orchestra violins seem to be taking more notes than I have ever seen before, conferring with each other throughout our rehearsals.  Perhaps they want to do a good job (and indeed they do).  Somehow, though, the description of a class of school children testing their supply teacher rings more true.

And what of the concert itself?  The programme is magnificent.  Tim Hugh plays the Elgar with great assurance and I find myself bathing in Elgar’s rich soundscape.  In the Mozart, I find Daniela Lehner’s mezzo-soprano rendition rather forced but otherwise enjoy the ensemble of soloists.  Andrew Foster-Williams’ breath control in the Tuba Mirum is, well, simply boasting – anyone for a pint of bass?  Elizabeth Watts and Maximillian Schmitt both bring a fine tone.  Singing in the chorus I feel confident and assured and enjoy the richness of the piece, including the contrasts within it.  I am pleased to have saved my voice so that I am able to bring power and emotion to the Dies Irae and lightness of touch to some quiet corners in the Rex tremendae and the Confutatis maledictis.

Waking up on Monday morning I have a particular reason to savour this performance.  The news reaches me, not unexpectedly, that my uncle has died.  In my heart, I dedicate this performance to him and hope that he may, indeed, rest in peace.