Tag Archives: London Symphony Chorus

Bringing heart to leadership in difficult times

I have been somewhat parochial in the last couple of weeks in my approach to the news.  On 10th February, the news reached me of the death of someone whose work has enriched my life immeasurably:  Marshall Rosenberg.  Marshall was the creator of an approach to communication which he called Compassionate or Nonviolent Communication, a passionate advocate for social change, a great teacher and author of a number of books, including his core text Nonviolent Communication:  A Language of Life.

New concert hall boost for London
New concert hall boost for London

Then, too, there has been a flurry of commentary about Sir Simon Rattle.  Journalists have been speculating for months now that Rattle, whose tenure with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra is due to come to an end in 2018, will take up the post of Principal Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra.  (This matters to me because, in my spare time, I sing with the London Symphony Chorus.)  Rattle has spoken openly about his belief that London lacks a world-class concert hall and some have speculated that he is holding out for a commitment to build this hall as a condition of taking up the post with the LSO.  It seems the politicians have been listening:  in recent days, there have been public statements from various politicians.

There has been wider news.  There was an attack on a café in Copenhagen, which was hosting a discussion about free speech.  Three teenage girls left the UK, apparently to travel to Syria, raising concerns about their safety.  British football fans were caught on camera in Paris, chanting their love of racism.  There have been discussions about the Greeks in Europe.  In the UK, election fever is starting to build.

In the UK, talk of deflation has been carefully framed and, largely, played down.  Still, talking to friends and family, and to clients in the privacy of my offices in Harley Street, I am repeatedly reminded of just how different the business environment is right now compared to ten years ago.  The possibility of a round of deflation is one more nail in the coffin of hope for many businesses.

Is your organisation struggling to weather difficult times?

Businesses continue to struggle:  yours, too, may be struggling.  It can be hard to lead in an organisation that’s grappling with change.

As a leader, you have to make decisions in the face of great uncertainty, when many things you used to rely on can no longer be taken for granted, such as year on year improvements in sales and in what you can charge your clients.

The decisions you make have an impact on large numbers of people, from staff in your own organisation, suppliers, their friends, family and communities.  This can leave you feeling torn, uncertain, though you try hard to maintain the calm authority your staff expect of you.

What’s more, you know your own employment is at risk and your prospects of career advancement are diminished.  At no other time have you given more, been more tested, with less opportunity for any kind of reward.

How do you weather such difficult times?

Turning the screw on under-performance

It can be easy to think, in difficult times, that you need to use more force to achieve results.

This was the approach that Sheldon took.

Sheldon was a sales manager in a time when sales were sluggish.  Under pressure from his own line manager, Sheldon shared targets with members of the sales team and spelled out the consequences of not achieving those targets.  The consequences for the company were significant, he said, and everyone’s jobs were at risk.

Sheldon piled the pressure on individual team members, too.  One team member was new and struggling.  This team member, Ash, had made a flying start on joining the team but his results had been patchy following a down-turn in the economy.  What’s more, he was finding it hard to balance his core work with his contribution to a new initiative in the team.

Sheldon kept a close eye on Ash, giving detailed feedback on every failing he could find.  Ash was frustrated and devastated when he was copied in to an e-mail from Sheldon to the company’s MD, highlighting a particular problem and attributing it to Ash.  If only his manager had checked the facts, he would have known the problem lay elsewhere.

The thing is, the more Sheldon gave feedback, the more Ash’s performance deteriorated.

With love, not fear

One of the articles I recommend most often to leaders and aspiring leaders is Daniel Goleman’s article Leadership That Gets Results.

In his article, Goleman lays out research which identifies six different leadership styles and explains their impact on the performance of those being led.  This research suggests that the most effective leaders use a range of styles when managing their employees.  It also shows how the most effective leaders do this consciously, because they understand that they need to do what’s most effective in a given situation.

There’s more.

Goleman’s article (which he develops more fully in his book The New Leaders) shows that, over time, the use of four styles in particular is more likely to build a climate in which team members can perform.

There’s one thing that Goleman doesn’t mention in his article and that Sheldon didn’t know either.  Sheldon’s choice of leadership style was largely driven by fear.

Sheldon’s senior management were driven by fear of the consequences for the company of a whole if the sales team did not perform.  They passed their fear right on to Sheldon, together with the responsibility to find a way to increase sales.

Their approach intensified Sheldon’s fear and Sheldon lacked the skills to turn down the dial on his emotions in order to reflect on how best to handle the situation.  Like his own managers, Sheldon passed his fear right on.

Ash was already anxious when his performance started to drop and he didn’t know how to respond.  What’s more, he could see that an initiative in the sales team, designed to give better service to some of the company’s smaller client organisations, was asking members of the sales team, repeatedly, to be in two places at once.  He’d tried to give feedback to Sheldon but Sheldon seemed to be on a mission to prove to Ash that he was not up to much.

Ash was struggling to maintain his confidence and self esteem.

So was Sheldon.

So, too, were members of the senior management team.

About Marshall Rosenberg

On the day I heard that Marshall Rosenberg had died, I noticed my heart opening and the sensations in my body.  I knew it was not a day to bypass my experience but a day to take time out to be with everything that was in my heart, including the great sense of gratitude and the feelings of love.

Following the announcement of his death, colleagues at the Center for Nonviolent Communication (CNVC) set up a call for people to share their memories, to celebrate and mourn together.  Intended to last a few hours it went on for seven days.  A group set up on Facebook has become a living memorial to this towering giant of a man.

Early in his life, Rosenberg was struck by the various forms of violence he encountered growing up in Detroit.  He went on to study psychiatry and obtained a doctorate before going on to develop the approach to communication which has become known as Nonviolent Communication, with the aim of widely disseminating much-need communication skills.  During his life he worked widely around the world, bringing healing to many individual people and to troubled, often war-torn, communities.

It’s a testament to Rosenberg’s leadership that he set up a Center for Nonviolent Communication as a way to spread his approach and worked with many people around the world to share his skills.  He leaves behind many people who are themselves experienced in training others in NVC and in mediating conflict.

At the heart of his work, Rosenberg emphasised paying attention to feelings and needs so that we can find ways to meet our own needs whilst also respecting and contributing to the needs of others.  The disciplines of NVC – the process he described for communication – are especially powerful when they are rooted in love and in an intention, where there is fear, to find our way back to love.

I owe much to Marshall Rosenberg and to the approach he developed.  I am particularly grateful to the clarity of intention I have, as a result of studying with him and with others in the community, to live my life from a place of love.

Leadership with heart

This posting is, for now, my own testimonial to Marshall Rosenberg and an expression of my own love for and gratitude to him.

At the same time, I am aware of the power of love as an underpin to the kind of leadership Goleman describes in his article, Leadership That Gets Results.

Marshall advocated separating our observations from our judgements and Goleman highlights the need to step back and assess what is needed in each situation we face as a leader.

As a leader, Sheldon’s experience started to change when he learnt to notice his emotion and to bring care to his fears before choosing how to respond to each situation he faced.

The experience of his staff was also changed by this.

So, too, was their performance.

Marshall Rosenberg, 1934 – 2015.

A compassionate welcome to 2014

Last week I found that a message from a friend (“Dot, we haven’t seen you since your birthday!”) triggered an overwhelm of emotions – some I hardly dared own in the quiet of my own heart, let alone share with my friend.

The first emotion was anger.  Didn’t you read the letter I sent you at Christmas?!  In it I shared, as tactfully as I could, the experience I had of supporting a friend in a suicidal episode (an experience I also referred to in my blog posting entitled Preventing employee suicide).  How could my friend – if she’d read my letter – admonish me for our lack of contact over recent months?

Sitting with the anger, I quickly realised that it masked a layer of guilt.  It wasn’t just guilt about my lack of contact with my friend – no.

I am feeling guilty about all sorts of things right now.

My most chaotic New Year ever…
The truth is, this year has been my most chaotic start to the New Year  – ever.

I haven’t yet written all my Christmas cards (yes really).

I haven’t yet opened all the Christmas cards that loved ones have sent to me (sadly, also true).

I haven’t yet bought Christmas presents for all my loved ones.

And it’s not just about Christmas.

Last week, I spent hours catching up on my first couple of days back at work – opening December’s unopened post, sending invoices for the work I did last month, bringing my diary up to date and more.

I also spent time every day washing clothes, and sheets and towels.  I now have a huge pile of ironing to contend with.

I can still see all sorts of carnage that needs sorting out throughout the house.  My office needs a good clear out.  In my dining room, I need to move a cupboard back into place that was treated for woodworm and put the contents back in place.  I have decided that one of my priorities in 2014 is to create storage for a new hobby – buying and selling china on a well-known *ahem* on-line trading facility.

And my diary is already tightly packed.  On Saturday, I took part in a singing Day as a member of the London Symphony Chorus.  I have a number of feedback sessions in the coming days with assessment candidates I interviewed last year.  I am working intensely in preparation for the launch of my new website.

The list goes on…

…And yours?
I wonder if you, too, have stumbled into 2014 in a way that is less than ideal.

Maybe you’ve enjoyed time with friends and family and, still, you missed some longed-for quiet time over the Christmas break.

Maybe you spent the last couple of months last year meeting tight end-of-year deadlines and you know you’ve failed to plan for 2014.

Maybe you know you’ve got too much on your plate but you can’t see what you can cut out of your schedule, unless it’s the things you put in precisely because you wanted more “life” in your “work/life balance”.

Maybe you have so much in your schedule for 2014 and you still need to catch up with the remnants of 2013.

You’ve started the New Year feeling tired and in need of a rest.  Or perhaps you’re confused about what you want in the year ahead.  Or maybe you feel overwhelmed with everything that lies ahead.

The pressures that come with stepping in to a New Year
One thing I have noticed about Christmas and the New Year, is a certain amount of pressure we put on ourselves at this time of the year.

I’ve noticed, for example, how some people struggle to give an honest account of the year just gone because they believe that, somehow, their year should have been better.  Their career (or their spouse’s or children’s) should have been more sparkling than, in fact, it was.  Perhaps their relationships or even the people in their lives (spouse, parents, children etc.) should have been better.  More challenging still, perhaps they, themselves, should somehow have been better.

There’s another challenge, too – the pressure to be happy.  In the UK, for example, happiness is a matter of government policy.  In July 2013 the BBC reported a small increase in happiness across the UK as measured by a UK-wide annual well-being survey.  The pressure is often closer to home.  Friends and family can be so keen to see their loved ones happy that they offer solutions, unbidden, when we share our problems and challenges or even criticise us for feeling anything other than happy.  This pressure carries the risk that we start to hide our emotions from ourselves and others or to respond to authentic emotion with criticism and self-punishment.

The gift of keeping it real
One person who argues for something different is psychologist and author Oliver James.  I was grateful over the holiday to hear him (on BBC Radio 4) arguing for emotional health rather than happiness as a goal worth aiming for.

What is emotional health?  James argued for being present in the moment to our emotions rather than prescriptive about what we should be feeling.  My own experience is that it is the way we feel about our feelings (based on judgements of what is or is not acceptable) rather than our feelings themselves (what some call our primary feelings) that causes us most distress.

More than this, I would add that our feelings are a valuable gauge;  a guide to needs that may or may not being met.  When we give space for our authentic feelings in the moment, we open up a space for our needs – to welcome them, to experience them and, at times, to meet them.

Happy New Year
Last week, opening my heart to my feelings and to the needs that lay hidden beneath them, I noticed that, more than anything, I have a need for understanding from friends, family, even colleagues and clients, for the ongoing impact from having taken time to support my friend.  Taking time to understand my need also opened up the opportunity to ask for understanding.  I also caught myself in an interpretation (that my friend was intending to admonish me) and was able to honestly share my interpretation and ask, is that what you meant to do?  This was my way of keeping it real.

As I think of you, dear reader, I wish for you that you, too, step into 2014 with the gift of keeping it real.  I hope, for you, that you welcome whatever happens in your life in 2014, just as it is.  I hope for you that you find time and space for your authentic responses to the events in your life.  I hope that you release any pressure to create the perfect life or even to be perfect and, instead, that you welcome your life, just as it is.
Welcome to you.  Welcome to your emotions.  Welcome to 2014.

Leadership and your relationship with your staff

Last month was Berlioz month for members of the London Symphony Chorus.  This year the ladies of the London Symphony Chorus had a gap of notable proportions in the schedule (no prom concert this year, and a – men only – performance of Verdi’s Rigoletto to start the season).  Our first concert in the series, on Sunday 2nd November – a performance of Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust – was my first concert since we sang Mark-Anthony Turnage’s At Sixes And Sevens at the Guildhall in July.
Many conductors – most conductors – make time for what’s called a “piano rehearsal” with the chorus.  This gives conductor and chorus the opportunity to prepare before the tutti rehearsals, in which everyone involved – conductor, orchestra, soloists and chorus – comes together for rehearsal.
This time, our first rehearsal was a tutti rehearsal with chorus, orchestra, conductor and soloists.  I was glad of the extra time which I packed with any number of chores before making my way to the Barbican for our first tutti on Saturday afternoon.
Getting on the wrong side of the class
It’s not unusual for the first meeting between the Chorus and their fellow musicians to stimulate discussion about the conductor’s leadership style and this, in turn, can lead to a discussion about events outside the chorus.  Sometimes, these events bear no relation to what’s going on inside the concert hall;  instead, they reflect a universal concern to be led in ways which are comfortable, constructive and productive.
This time was no exception – on the way to rehearsal on the Sunday morning, I found myself in conversation with one of my colleagues, a teacher by profession, who described the experience that every teacher has from time to time, of getting on the wrong side of the class.
You know you’re on the wrong side of the class because pupils start to misbehave.  It’s a wearisome experience and difficult to come back from – as you’ll know if ever you’ve been there.  It’s particularly difficult because, often, the misbehaviour of your team can be hard to pin down or even to describe as misbehaviour.  Maybe your team members start to turn up on time – but never early.  Maybe they do a full day’s work – but don’t go the extra mile.  Maybe the number of doctor’s appointments goes up in your team.  Over the years, I’ve noticed how creative people can be in signalling to their leader that (s)he’s on the wrong side of the class.
In your heart of hearts, you know that you’ve lost the support of your team but there’s nothing you can easily criticise: from time to time, everyone needs to take time to go to the doctor, right?
It’s all about relationship
In the corporate environment in which I mostly work, very little emphasis is placed on the quality of relationship between a leader and his or her staff.  Notions of what’s professional can get in the way of an open acknowledgement of the importance of relationship.  There’s a risk that, because the central role of relationship in the workplace is not acknowledged, it is, equally, not cultivated.
And yet, it is relationship that keeps you on the right side of your class.
Members of your team will go the extra mile when they sense that they matter and their contribution is valued.  Insofar as you cut them some slack based on an understanding of their real needs or a recognition that everyone makes mistakes, they will cut you some slack, too.  If you cover their backs, they will cover your back.  The list goes on.
There are big questions involved if you want to cultivate a relationship with your staff which is both professional and fruitful for everyone involved.  Perhaps the mother of all questions is this:  are you ready to give up “being in control” for an approach based on mutual learning and respect?  I say this because research tends to show that the use of a command-and-control approach to leadership tends to undermine staff engagement and motivation.
At the same time, an approach based on mutual respect demands more of us in terms of relationship.  It requires of us that we put out what we want back – giving respect, for example, where we want respect, or investing in our staff insofar as we want them to give their heart as well as their professionalism to their work.  Sometimes it requires us to have faith in our staff and their potential even when they have yet to deliver to a standard we require.
And it requires dialogue – a willingness to listen as well as to talk.
Cultivating a fruitful professional relationship with your staff
When your style of leadership is well-established, it can be difficult to know whether or not you’re cultivating the kind of relationship that keeps you on the right side of your class.  For this reason, your first steps need to be about bringing into your awareness the nature of your relationship with the people you lead.  Here are three things for you to reflect on as a way to get started:
  • What are your aspirations for your relationship with your staff?  To what extent do you aspire to work in partnership with your staff based on a relationship of mutual trust and respect?  It may be that your relationship with your staff is not even on your leadership agenda.  Perhaps, though, you do want to have a relationship with members of your team and words like “trust” and “respect” feel comfortable to you – something you aspire to and enjoy when it happens;
  • What words would you use to describe the relationship you have with members of your team and with your team as a whole?  To what extent do these words suggest that your relationship is in line with your aspirations?  As a member of the Chorus, for example, I have worked with a wide range of conductors with diverse styles and I notice how clear my personal preferences are.  I want to know that I’m working with someone who has a real passion – love, even – for the music they are conducting and who works to high standards.  I prefer to work with someone who works with me rather than with someone who takes out his (or her) frustration on me or who is, even, simply absent.  For me, this implies relationship – a relationship between a conductor and those (s)he conducts.  Relationship, building over time, is the accumulated effect or outcome of shared experiences;
  • To what extent do you cultivate a relationship with your staff in which you receive feedback as well as giving it?  And what feedback do you get from your staff?  It’s easy as a leader to focus on the limitations of those you lead.  It takes more courage to say “how am I communicating such that they are behaving in this way?”  It takes both courage and maturity to ask members of your team about their experience – and to be able to listen to whatever answers they give you.
And Berlioz?
I still remember singing Berlioz’s Trojans for the first time in the early 1990s.  This, too, was with the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, with Sir Colin Davis.  It was not my first experience of Berlioz (I had, after all, been singing the Shepherds’ Farewell since childhood) but it was my first experience on such a grand scale, and a truly magical one at that.
I did not know it but our conductor this time, Valery Gergiev, like Sir Colin, has been a life-long admirer of Berlioz.  On 10th October, writing in the Observer, Ed Vuillamy’s article was headed by the quote, “Berlioz inspired me long before I ever dreamed I would conduct.”
Our first concert, on Sunday 2nd November, was greeted warmly by the audience.  If the audience applause at the end of the concert was anything to go by, it was a performance of considerable aplomb.  For me, there was a vigour in the performance which was lacking at rehearsal (or perhaps – as one chorus member remarked wryly – we had friends in the audience).
Some critics were not complimentary.  Sebastian Scotney, for example, writing for The Arts Desk, use the word “perfunctory” in the course of his review and Mark Valencia, writing for What’s On Stage, highlighted something of which members of the chorus were only too painfully aware – the absence of our much-loved Sir Colin Davis.  He said of the chorus:
Most disappointing of all was the London Symphony Chorus, normally a tower of strength.  Their succession of soldiers, students, peasants, gnomes, sylphs, demons and ‘the damned’ were under-characterised and apparently under-rehearsed.  In Part Two the male drinkers seemed to frequent a very sober tavern and would have been more at home at a game of skittles than an orgy, while in Part Four the ladies of the Chorus (to the mirth of some sitting behind me) diligently checked their copies before delivering a single, hellbound scream.
Not every critic agreed.  Colin Anderson,writing for Classical Source, said (of the second performance, on Thursday 7thNovember):
It was the London Symphony Chorus that in many ways stole the show with focussed and unanimous singing that survived every microscopic detail that Gergiev (and Simon Halsey, chorus director) extracted from it.  Distinctions between soldiers, students, peasants and others may not have been that obvious, but the preparation and delivery was top class.
By the time chorus members finished five performances of Berlioz’s Damnation and Romeo and Juliet, critics were fulsome in their praise.  Nicolas Grienenberger, writing forClassiqueNews.com, said of the ensemble:
On ne peut que saluer l’engagement total du chef, attentif à tous les plans sonores, variant ici une dynamique, là un vibrato, et entraînant tous les musiciens vers une palette de nuances proprement stupéfiante, leur faisant oser des pianissimi impalpables à la limite de l’inaudible, forçant ainsi l’assistance au silence le plus absolu, et demandant à l’ensemble des spectateurs un présent devenu rarissime : leur écoute. Prodigieux également, le chœur du London Symphony Orchestra, d’une cohésion sonore et d’une clarté dans la diction exceptionnelles, d’une délicatesse dans le murmure qui n’a d’égale que l’intensité de leur éclat. A leurs côtés, les jeunes chanteurs formant les Guildhall Singers ne sont pas en reste, commentant l’action d’une superbe pâte sonore au phrasé élégant.
You don’t need to speak French to notice such words as “délicatesse” and “élégant”!
I was not at these subsequent performances and can only wonder; do these diverse critiques reflect the different tastes of the critics or did the quality of performance build over two weeks, in which the chorus sang five performances of Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust and Romeo and Juliet?  I don’t know.
I do, though, believe that – in business as much as in the concert hall – it takes time to build a relationship with your colleagues and, equally, with the work you are doing.  In short, whatever your work environment, it takes time to sing your way into the totality of the piece. 

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.