Every single day we guide musicians in how to respond to the unexpected. From a wrong note, to a glitch on the podium, to a global pandemic.
What has been your response to the COVID-19 pandemic? Frustration? Anger? Confusion? Apathy? Fear?
How about fascination?
I can't help but be totally fascinated by what's going on in our world right now, and see multitudes of opportunities for us - as we're seeing in the tens of thousands of teachers busily adapting to teaching online.
This is in no way to diminish the real threat that the pandemic poses to the health of our friends, families, communities and world. But we are in a unique position to question our perspective and long-held beliefs and assumptions.
Few generations in history have lived through situations like this. Rarely are we presented with the opportunity to solve such colossal societal challenges with such speed and creativity. And rarely are so many of us simultaneously forced to to reexamine our priorities and what really matters.
But what does all this have to do with conducting?
Every single day we guide musicians in how to respond to the unexpected.
How do we respond when there's a wrong note? Or when they seem to have forgotten everything you've ever taught them? When something doesn't go as planned? When an instrument breaks? Or, heaven forbid, when we make a mistake on the podium?
When we admonish players for a wrong note, or punish them for musical errors then their response is of course avoidance - which is kind of what we want. To avoid the error happening again. But the byproduct of this is tension. And fear. Fear of repeating the mistake, and a closing off, a retreat. An unwillingness to try quite so bravely next time. Repeated over their years in our ensembles this becomes performance anxiety and and an unwillingness to take expressive musical risks. Learned with us, then repeated over a lifetime, this becomes rigidity, inflexibility and an inability to adapt in the face of change and challenge.
Doing this to ourselves produces the same result. What is your internal response when you make a mistake on the podium, or say something to a musician you later realise was incorrect, or try something and it doesn't work, or play poorly in front of a student? Usually it's self-flagellation. Why couldn't I just do it right? What's wrong with me? I always mess up. Why do I always suck at this? Every time we respond like this to ourselves we close off a little more, avoid being vulnerable just a little more. Because we don't want to hear that internal response.
So when we're faced with a big challenge - like, say, a global viral epidemic that disrupts our daily lives and business models - it's easy to see why many people's response is anger, complaint, frustration and fear.
We are only repeating our learned response to the unexpected.
What if instead, we teach and model a different response? What if every time something unexpected happens we respond first with: 'How Fascinating!'?*
"How Fascinating" is not a rigid state. It's supple and flexible. It invites curiosity, exploration and forward (and outward) motion. It transforms a 'mistake' into possibility - the possibility that a different choice could be made next time, and that we have the power to discover and make that new choice.
"How Fascinating" is growth mindset in action. It helps de-couple our performance and our identity. It's no longer us that is fundamentally wrong (because I missed that note, or can't play that high yet). It's just that we made a choice that gave an outcome we didn't expect. And that's interesting. The outcome is fascinating.
Why did that happen? What led that to happen? What if I change this thing, will I get a different result?
Isn't that a more fun world to live in? Where we are alert, interested, intrigued and eager for more knowledge?
Next time you're faced with the unexpected - whether it's a wrong note or a school closure, choose to respond with "How Fascinating" and try it on. I think you'll find that fascinating feels pretty good.
*I first heard this phrase used by the incredible conductor Ben Zander, who has spent his life transforming communities and corporations across the world through music. You've have probably seen his TED talk - if you haven't, you need to join the 15M people who have!
I also urge you to read his book The Art of Possibility: Transforming Personal & Professional Life. It will change you for the better, and make you realise it's not all so bad after all. You can watch absolutely incredible Interpretation Masterclasses on the Boston Philharmonic's YouTube channel.
Being told to play louder or softer is okay. Being told why is better.
The path to musical nirvana starts with a single question. And the path to musical hell starts with telling the ensemble what to do.
We all know that expressive performances are way more engaging, satisfying and interesting for all involved. So why do we often get stuck grinding through notes, leading performances that barely get the dots across? What can we do about it?