Categories
Career Creativity Music

Why do I want ‘work artefacts’?

I sometimes wonder if the reason it’s difficult for freelance live performers to motivate themselves lies in the lack of a tangible product of the work. A sculptor can point to their work with a certain satisfaction and say: there, I did that, that was the direct result of my work. An author can look over a day’s worth of pages and feel that something has been accomplished. But the product of the live performer is intangible: a rehearsal, a performance, a moment shared (or none of the above, as is more likely at the time of writing).

Perhaps that’s why I’ve always enjoyed the process of recording CDs. Not only do you get the intense focus of working on something with other people and making it as perfect as possible – that true feeling of team effort – but at the end of it all you have a product, an artefact. You can send it to people, as if to prove that what you do is real work after all, because it had a physical product.

While there are may things I would do differently a second time around, making my first CD as a conductor in 2019 was a fascinating and rewarding process for many of the above reasons. Add to those the post-production process – going over and over tracks, track order, booklet layout, album art, &c – and you had the feeling of polishing something until the final product gleamed. (I would be remiss not to acknowledge the patient expertise of Convivium Records who guided me through it.)

However, that process is very much the exception in my life and career as they’re currently configured. There are rehearsals and services in their hundreds (2020 excepted), concerts and workshops and recitals – but they’re over in a flash, leaving only a memory. Of course, that’s what makes them precious – the thrill of the live, the electricity in the air, the limitless potential of what might happen. But I do occasionally struggle with the lack of some kind of longer-lasting artifact, one that can prove to me that all those things weren’t just a dream but something I did.

Workism

In doing so, I am probably succumbing to a little workism. If you’re unfamiliar with the coinage, start with this article in The Atlantic. Workism is the idea that we define ourselves solely or principally by our work, by producing things endlessly, keeping our economies chugging along and our money-machines going brrr. In the article, Derek Thompson writes:

In the past century, the American conception of work has shifted from jobs to careers to callings—from necessity to status to meaning.

He goes on to point out just how damaging this view can be. If you don’t succeed in work, your whole being becomes suspect. My desire for some tangible outputs to show for my work probably stems from a desire to join the class of people with that sense of meaningful work.

But, to quote Admiral Ackbar, it’s a trap. After all, the goal of human society shouldn’t be 100% employment, but 100% unemployment, with humanity doing what it wants, and the machines doing all the things we don’t want. It’s another reason I’m uncomfortable with the economic justifications for creative work – creativity is a human good.

That doesn’t help me with my dilemma – where is my artifact? Take today, for example. The ‘work’ content of my day consists of the following: learning some music; programming music for some upcoming services; thinking about the structure of next season’s programmes; processing some invoices; preparing for and then leading an online session for a choir. At the end of the day, although plenty of work will have been done, I won’t be able to admire it hanging on a wall, or observe it like a half-finished sculpture in the middle of my workshop.

In having this problem, I find myself somewhat surprisingly aligned with the information-economy workers of my millennial generation. Thompson again:

Blue-collar jobs produce tangible products, like coal, steel rods, and houses. The output of white-collar work—algorithms, consulting projects, programmatic advertising campaigns—is more shapeless and often quite invisible.

My output may not be as economically useful as a programmatic advertising campaign, but it’s just as invisible most of the time. Thompson argues that one result of this is that we feel the need to prove our accomplishments by preening our images on social media and making what we have done in a given day seem meaningful.

‘You are what you do’

‘Career as life meaning’ might be a relative newcomer to the workforce at large, but we in the so-called ‘creative’ professions have been haunted by it for much longer. We’re constantly told that what we do is meaningful, and, if caught complaining, will invariably be rebuked with something along the lines of ‘yes, but you get to do what you love/follow your passion/etc’.

Our careers have been expected to be our life meaning for a long time, probably since the 19th century elevated artists to the lofty plane of suffering genius, and persuaded people that being creative wasn’t a career but a calling. Artists succeed, we are told from a young age, because of their burning and unquenchable passion. But we didn’t undergo some Pokémon-like evolution from the travelling court musicians of the Renaissance into beings with a higher calling; we are still crafts-people, and if for some reason I’m not so ‘driven’ as to stay up all night thinking about Brahms, it doesn’t make me a lesser musician.

Combine this already damaging view of art and artists with contemporary millennial workism and you’ve got a toxic, if not lethal, combination. TwoSet Violin are perhaps the most successful classical music YouTube channel in the world, and their message strongly parallels hustle culture: practice, practice, practice. You can even get a hoodie with it on. I’m not about to say they haven’t done a great deal for classical music’s reputation with young people – and we all know we need to practise – but the fact that they might have worked themselves into the ground doing it doesn’t fill one with confidence.

In their haste to prove that artistic work is just as much work as anything else is, some turn to workism. ‘Today’s office’, as a caption on a picture of a beautiful concert venue, is ubiquitous among musicians on social media, and I think the intent is to make the reader recognise that art can be work too, whilst simultaneously acknowledging the privilege of occasionally working in beautiful spaces. However, it also feels a bit like workism – not only is this work, it seems to say, but it’s meaningful. I’ve almost certainly done this myself over the years. Who doesn’t want to prove that they’re a useful, productive member of society?


I think the pendulum might be slowly swinging away from workism. Personally, I’ve begun to stop idolising workaholic musicians and instead contemplate the people I respect for being curious, creative and chilled-out. The social-media grift-porn is wearing thin. There’s a better and healthier way.

Back to those work artifacts. Perhaps it’s a realisation of the need for some kind of product to show for my day that I’ve tried to use my non-work time to produce something more tangible. No sculptures, mind, but at least one or two drawings, and, if I finish it, the very blog you’re reading now.

Categories
Creativity

Learning curves: on being bad at things

It’s been interesting to see the ways in which musicians and other artists have been coping with the present situation – one which is, as we are constantly reminded, unprecedented. I know several who launched energetically into diversification almost as soon as the first lockdown was pronounced, pivoting as much of their activity as they could to the internet and going all-in online.

Others have battened down the hatches, keeping a low profile until it all blows over. This better suits those of us with a less entrepreneurial mindset, but it’s a strategy that takes a hit every time another lockdown is announced. I took something of a middle path, educating myself just enough in things audio and visual to be able to keep some form of online engagement just about ticking over.

Right now, this is pretty much all I’m doing: hosting online musical meet-ups with choirs in the evenings, and spending the rest of the time score-learning, battling ennui, and very cautiously planning the 21-22 season. (this latter must be done in whispers – if it hears us it might decide to go the way of the current season…)

However, I’ve also taken up something completely different: drawing. Full disclosure: I am very bad at drawing. Or, at least, I have always thought of myself as very bad at drawing, having displayed no aptitude for it at school – my primary-school cartoon strip, ‘Gauss, the Famous Mathematician’, being notable for its eccentricity rather than for any artistic merit.

After a couple of weeks drawing for half an hour a day, I am pleased to report that I am still quite bad, but joyously, entertainingly and divertingly so. It is a great pleasure being bad at drawing, especially because there is so much room to get better. When I do manage to produce something that actually possesses realistic proportions, or bears a passable similarity to its intended subject, this is an occasion for great rejoicing.

Learning curves

A few reflections arise from this (or would, but I haven’t learned how to do them yet). For one, the feeling reminds me a little of when I took up the organ. Doing so as an adult, post-university, made me something of an exception when compared to my colleagues in church music, who are almost all fantastic prodigies with sparks flying from their fingers and well-earned postnominals coming out of their ears.

What was so enjoyable about it was the almost physical sensation of my brain developing new pathways as I practised. It was as if I could feel the neurons intrepidly mining new channels, whilst I laboured to separate the fingers of my left hand on the keyboard from my feet on the pedals. I was experiencing that exhilarating first rush of the learning curve.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/0c/Alanf777_Lcd_fig05.png

Because it had been so long since I’d tried to learn a new instrument, I had forgotten the feeling of making such rapid progress. I’d also forgotten the concomitant feeling of approaching the plateau and the enthusiasm fading away…

Being bad is good

The second reflection is that, at a time when it seems difficult to make material progress on my primary activity, it’s nice to have something that really doesn’t matter. My drawing has no purpose, no end goal, it doesn’t have to accomplish anything, it doesn’t even have to be good. It has no bearing on my livelihood, and indeed, unlike my livelihood, there is nothing currently stopping me doing it.

This chimes with one of YCAT’s recent blogs, by Kate Blackstone:

…find something to be bad at and get better at it. One of the reasons that music practice at a higher level is so difficult is that as you get better, it takes more and more work to make tiny amounts of progress. However, to feel good about themselves, humans have to feel like they’re good at stuff. In psychology we call this ‘competency beliefs’; you can reinforce and support your own competency beliefs by getting better at things, and reminding yourself that it is possible to get better at things.

I would say that in my particular case, even the ‘getting better at things’ part of it isn’t bothering me much – I am enjoying the focus that the activity of drawing is bringing me. But it is prompting a third reflection:

Growth mindsets

If you had suggested I take up drawing even a couple of years ago, I probably would have scoffed at you and pronounced, quite definitively, that I was terrible at drawing and had no natural ability at it, and that would be the end of that. An artistic avenue, closed off forever. But at least I wouldn’t have to worry that if I tried, I would be bad at it – I would simply never try, and therefore save the face of my fragile ego.

I wouldn’t say that my fixed mindset on that has disappeared – it’s still strong. But I’ve learned a lot about mindset since I finally read Carol Dweck’s book (never mind the fact that it had been recommended to me for months or perhaps years beforehand – what if it had contained difficult truths? Better to avoid…). The growth mindset believes that skills can be learned. Indeed, the lower the initial level of skill, the more opportunity for learning.

It’s interesting that if people say to me, ‘oh, I can’t sing’, I have tended to respond that everyone can sing. Why don’t/didn’t I have the same reaction to drawing? We absorb an idea of talent vs hard work early on. My school was a good school, I think, but I don’t remember anyone in an art class ever actually teaching me how to draw – it was just sort of expected. Soon it became apparent to me that there were some people who could just do it, and others who couldn’t, and that I was in the latter camp, Gauss notwithstanding. (The reverse also applied in academics – I seemed to be naturally good without doing very much, at least for a few years – the eventual realisation that I might have to start actually doing some work was deeply uncomfortable and much delayed…)

It’s an impression that stayed with me for a long time, until I realised that a good test of the growth mindset would be whether I could in fact learn to get a bit better at drawing, if I actually worked at it, and had the right teacher. The right teacher, by the way, seems to be the wonderfully enthusiastic Paul Priestly on YouTube. I would encourage anyone who thinks they can’t draw to spend a bit of time with his videos in order to be swiftly disabused of the notion. He’s the art teacher you always wished for – patient, permissive, bubbling with energy.


It’s interesting how hard it has been to quieten that part of the brain that thinks everything has to lead to something. Occasionally, as I admire a finished drawing, I catch this part muttering: ‘we could get really good at this and then sell them and then it wouldn’t matter if there’s a pandemic and you would be a proper artist’; and all sorts of other strange, ego-flattering pretensions.

Not everything has to lead to something. I didn’t really make any New Year’s resolutions this year – it felt like I could do with a break – but in my mind somewhere is the idea of ‘setting systems, not goals’. Goals can arise out of a good set of well-balanced systems – but they don’t have to. So I’m trying to silence the goal-brain, and just let the rest of me enjoy being quite bad at something quite fun.

Categories
Conducting Creativity Music

Mantras

Lean back when you want something.

When I was a teenager, I was fascinated by the idea of lucid dreams. In a lucid dream, you are aware that you are dreaming; you acknowledge the unreality of your situation, but you are at peace with it, and can even exert a certain degree of control.

Most of us have had this experience once or twice. I spent quite a lot of time reading about the phenomenon, and trying various techniques to induce this state of lucidity. I enjoyed moderate success, inducing a few such dreams over a couple of months, during which I had immersed myself in the lucid dreaming world (then confined to a few self-help volumes and some old-school internet fora). In fact, the only reason I stopped is that I was becoming too tired, from waking up constantly after vivid dreams.

What unlocked the latent ability to induce waking dreams during that time was the use of simple mantras, along with conditioning certain repeated patterns of behaviour.

For example, one book encouraged the prospective oneironaut to get into the habit of poking the finger of one hand into the palm of the other, as if testing its consistency. One did this at various times during the day, with the goal being that the subconscious mind would do it too, in a dream, prompting one to become aware of the dream-state. The first time it worked for me, my hand remained perfectly solid, but I found one of the fingers had tied itself into a knot – a giveaway that I was not in fact awake, but dreaming.

The mantra worked more simply: repeating the phrase ‘I will remember my dreams. I will become aware that I am dreaming’ or a variation on it, over and over, before going to sleep.


I recently had an opportunity to reflect on the efficacy of mantras and habitual physical behaviours. I had gone to conduct a rehearsal – my first after several weeks of lockdown-enforced inactivity – buzzing with enthusiasm. I thought of the choir, what it would sound like, the music, what I could do with it. I was excited.

In the event, my running of the rehearsal was mediocre, and my conducting execrable. It became apparent to me that I had ‘forgotten how to conduct’ in the previous few weeks.

Now, this is not to say it would have been noticeable to the singers, who were far too busy exercising dormant singing muscles, huddling against the chill, and straining their eyes to sight-read in the semi-gloom of the rehearsal space. But when you know, you know. My posture was all over the place; I spoke, too often and in rushed fragments, and practically fell over myself at some points. My gestures were wild, unpredictable, my habitual ellipse a deranged parallelogram. I was a mess.

I returned home despondent, questioning everything. How could I have forgotten everything so easily? Did it really only take a month off for all of my discipline to leave me?

Next time, on the train to the rehearsal, I decided to take a different tack. I remembered some words I had been told, and they stayed there, hanging in my mind for a few minutes: lean back when you want something. This is not the title of a self-help book – though it could have been – but a very good piece of advice from a very good conducting teacher. It was originally a corrective to a classic problem of mine, which I would describe as an inability to separate an inner musical impulse from an unhelpful exterior mannerism. It usually manifested in a strange forward motion accompanying something I wanted to happen – a stress, an accent, a particular effect.

I held it in my mind for a while, repeating it a few times, and felt my body relax from a tension I didn’t even know had been there. Later, in the rehearsal, I had regained the control of myself that I had lacked on the previous occasion. I felt the return of the elusive, tingly spidey-sense of heightened awareness that accompanies listening, really listening to what was around me.

Let’s return to my earlier description of a lucid dream: ‘you acknowledge the unreality of your situation, but you are at peace with it and can even exert a certain degree of control.’

The rehearsal room is the dream-state: an unreal experience in which a number of people stare at you and expect you to lead or guide them. The only difference is that in the real thing you are normally permitted to remain clothed. Sometimes it’s a nightmare, in which nothing goes right no matter how hard you try. Sometimes it merely has the uneasy feeling of uncontrol that comes with a meandering dream.

My brief use of a calming mantra generated a physical response, which triggered in the rehearsal. When I wanted something – ensemble, diminuendo, rubato, breath – I leaned back. The situation was still unreal, but I was at peace with it, and I had regained a little control – over myself at least.

Again, probably noone else in the room detected anything. That universal and seemingly unlikely truth – that nobody is really thinking about you as much as you think they are – holds just as true for the conductor as anyone else. I don’t imagine anyone else noticed the small adjustment. But when you know, you know.

If I were in the business of coining terminology – like Mark Gibson, whose conducting tome I explored earlier – I would probably be trying to make lucid conducting happen right now. Good physical habits and mantras triggering subconsciously, to calm the mind and render the bizarre world of the rehearsal or concert hall less alien and more manageable. An induced state of flow, the conductor’s Witcher-sense, deep listening as opposed to surface-level fire-fighting.

Lean back when you want something. Perhaps we can come up with some other good conducting mantras. Small hands, big listening. Or maybe simply Breathe.

Categories
Creativity Music Technology

Round-up: Pods, books, and music that helped make 2020 less, well, 2020

As 2020 staggers to its conclusion, everything feels a little apocalyptic. New mutant viral strains, hiding in plain sight, out to get us. Brexit, heralding a future in which we in the UK will either mightily prosper or fall into ignominy, with seemingly nothing in between.

It looks increasingly likely that, by March, most musicians will have spent a full year dealing with the disruption to our work. For me, the missed opportunities and connections not made have been the hardest, the inescapable feeling that I will simply have stagnated for a year, treading water.

And I’ve had it easy – I have been able to keep working in some form or another the whole time. Others have been less fortunate, through no fault of their own, and the concomitant loss of talent from the musical world is devastating.

However, as the year draws to an end, I am trying to look back at it through a more positive lens – to drag my thoughts out of the negative spiral, and rebalance the scales a little. I’ve decided to self-indulgently highlight things I’ve discovered this year that have brought something new, added value, or made me think differently about life, creativity, and art.

Podcasts

In the first couple of months of lockdown, I listened to fewer podcasts. They’re normally what I listen to while travelling to rehearsals or gigs, and since that wasn’t happening, they didn’t fit into the new lockdown routine.

However, later in the year, once I discovered the magical productivity-boosting combination of podcast+wireless headphones+housework, the podcast floodgates were open again.

Song Exploder

Having been a fan of Hrishikesh Hirway’s other podcast, The West Wing Weekly, I’m surprised it took me so long to check out Song Exploder, which has been around since 2014. In fact, I’m sufficiently late to the party that this is probably a meaningless recommendation.

For me, though, it’s been a really interesting insight into the process of modern pop creation, and what creativity looks like in the studio setting. It’s been a way to reconnect with music I’ve loved for a long time – Lindsay Buckingham talking about Go Your Own Way – as well as introducing me to artists I’d heard of but hadn’t really listened to – Billie Eilish, Dua Lipa.

I’m fascinated by the craft of modern pop production, and what elements go into a really good groove. The inclusion of track-by-track audio breakdowns allows you to zoom in on how it’s actually done – a goldmine of information.

Not Overthinking

https://notoverthinking.com/start/

Not a music recommendation, but I’ve got a lot of value this year from listening to the frank, introspective, occasionally combative conversations between YouTuber Ali Abdaal and his brother Taimur, who runs a tech startup. Indeed, an early episode persuaded me to restart this blog – ‘putting yourself out there’ – but the topics covered have ranged from ‘productivity’ (a word I can only use in scare-quotes now) to how to treat children morally.

There’s also some useful observations about creativity, and plenty of recommendations for thought-provoking articles and books. I don’t always agree, but I almost always find it interesting. And in those darker lockdown times, when I haven’t been able to myself, it’s felt like hanging out with friends.

Honourable mentions: Ear Hustle, Kermode & Mayo’s Film Review, The Crate and Crowbar

Music

Bill Evans

Last year, I would occasionally stick on Bill Evans as a relaxing soundtrack for work or reading. This year I actually started listening to the music, whilst trying to introduce myself to some of the fundamentals of jazz piano playing using Mark Levine’s The Jazz Piano Book.

Pretty early on, the book introduces the concept of left-hand chord voicings, which free up the right hand to play the melody, or solo. I find these absolutely magical, largely because they can suggest a chord often without even sounding the root – so for example a V7-I progression in C can be played without a G or a C. I vaguely knew this could be done, but how effective it is still blows my mind.

I’m a long way off learning all the voicings, but there’s a beautiful elegance to the way they manipulate the role of thirds and sevenths. Bill Evans is the master, and I’ve enjoyed applying my rudimentary knowledge to his playing this year.

Honourable mentions: BTS, Bohren & Der Club of Gore (my most recent paean to them here)

Books

Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure by Artemis Cooper

As lockdown kicked in, it seemed the right thing to do to immerse myself in the lives of people who had travelled widely and done interesting things. By far my favourite was this biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor, whose writing I have hugely enjoyed for its almost cavalier richness of description and joie de vivre.

It helped alleviate my frustration at having so many weeks of travel plans hijacked this year, allowing me to spectate as the intrepid hero wanders a delightfully pre-lapsarian Europe, performs feats of derring-do in wartime Crete, and then writes thrilling prose about it all. It made it more bearable, somehow, to know that someone had taken full advantage of their freedoms. It makes me want to travel more mindfully, and joyfully, in future.

I followed up with Winston Churchill, and am currently engrossed in Rory Stewart’s Fermor-esque pilgrimage across early-noughties Afghanistan. I’ve seen Stewart described, in the context of the Tory leadership election, as ‘the only person in the room with a greater sense of his own world-historical destiny than Boris Johnson’, but be that as it may, his account of the perilous journey is honest, readable, and gripping. He also punctuates it with his own sketches, which is such a cool thing to be able to do that I think it might become a 2021 resolution to learn how to do it.

Honourable mentions: The Beat Stops Here by Mark Gibson (which I summarised here), Churchill by Roy Jenkins, Mindset by Carol Dweck, The Story of Art by E. H. Gombrich

Games

Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition

In the long summer of lockdown, there wasn’t any work to do and there wasn’t anywhere to go. It was a chance for guilt-free indulgence in a pastime I generally have less time for these days.

I didn’t even know this remaster of the classic real-time strategy game existed until a friend with whom I used to play the old version mentioned it. I booted it up and it was like stepping into the past.

We had played the original 90s version of the game in old-school LAN parties in our houses. It was a surprise to discover that the game still has an active community, now joined by a growing e-sports division, with matches available on YouTube with professional commentary.

We certainly played a lot better than we did as kids, though I think an e-sports career is sadly out of reach. It certainly helped while away those lockdown hours in blissful nostalgia.

Honourable mentions: Monster Train, Into the Breach, Final Fantasy X HD Remaster

Misc

A category for other things that have added value to my life this year in various ways. This is all part of something I’m trying – an Annual Review – to reflect on the past and make better decisions about the future. (Sometimes you realise, much as you might disdain the label, that you might in fact be a ‘millennial’.)

  • Exercise. Turns out that once you hit 30, this starts to be a bit more of a requirement. I feel good when I force myself to do it, and not when I don’t. Go figure. The next challenge seems to be to actually work out what sort of exercise I need, and how much. (Lest the reader get the wrong idea, the goal here is not to get shredded, which would be hilarious, but simply not to devolve into mush in the face of all this inactivity)
  • AirPods. I always thought these were a bit silly, until I got sent them free with something else I had ordered. They make listening to music or podcasts around the house so easy, turning chores into a pleasure. They also make phone calls an infinitely more enjoyable experience – I hadn’t realised what a difference having your hands free makes. I am much more likely to call someone now than I used to be, which has to be a good thing.

I’m always after recommendations for good material, whether it’s reading, listening, watching, or playing, so do point me at them via Twitter or email. I hope everyone reading has a happy New Year and a successful 2021.

Categories
Creativity

Will ‘design thinking’ save classical music?

I recently happened on an online webinar series hosted by the Young Classical Artists Trust (YCAT), entitled ‘Introduction to Design Thinking for Musicians‘. Now, this is sort of thing is perfect clickbait for me. ‘Design Thinking’ sounds like a cool piece of Silicon Valley tech-speak – and we can use it as musicians? Sign me up!

Like most of these cool-sounding strategies, though, there’s some pretty nebulous stuff hiding under the hood, which we’ll have to unpack before we get to whether this is actually going to revolutionise the concert experience as we know it.

What is ‘design thinking’?

Design Thinking has a few definitions, but from what I can see it’s mostly about developing products by reverse engineering the problem a consumer has, and solving it. But hang on – why use normal words when we could do this?:

Design Thinking is an iterative process in which we seek to understand the user, challenge assumptions, and redefine problems in an attempt to identify alternative strategies and solutions that might not be instantly apparent with our initial level of understanding. At the same time, Design Thinking provides a solution-based approach to solving problems.

A ‘solution-based approach to solving problems’ sounds a little like the winner of an early 00’s Tautology of the Year competition. The more useful part of that paragraph is to do with the word ‘iterative’. You try something out, make small adjustments in response to feedback, and put out a new version, with a tight loop that should quickly generate improvements to the product.

Apple is a classic example of a company that’s renowned for this way of designing. They think their way into the consumer’s head, and solve their problem before they know they have one. The process is supposed to force you out of ingrained patterns of thought about how to frame problems and provide solutions.

There’s one more concept we need to introduce here, before we dig into the applications of this strategy to music, and that’s User Experience, or UX – the way the customer actually interacts with your product. In most use-cases, you want this to be fuss-free, accessible, and efficient. As an early social-media engineer now puts it, ‘The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads.’ UX design helps funnel people towards where you want them to be, or what you want them to do (or click).

Can we leverage this to improve the experience of music to audiences?

Come on, less talk, more saving classical music

OK, we’re getting there. A couple of people have begun to make the leap from UX to AX: ‘Audience Experience’. Essentially, centre the experience of the audience and design a concert around their needs. Zachary Manzi, an orchestral performer himself, has written on this extensively for Medium. The pitch is a good one:

…the traditional concert experience is just one kind of experience. We can design new ones to elevate music in ways that speak to new people.

So far so good, and even if you feel the ‘traditional concert experience’ gets a lot of unfair flak these days, it’s no great leap to suggest it doesn’t appeal to everybody. Manzi’s solution is to apply design thinking to the concert experience:

What does this really look like in music? If we are a piano trio and creating an experience for 20-somethings poets, then we must understand who these people are, what they enjoy, what they hate, what they do on the weekends, where they like to hang out, how they talk, and what else they would be doing if they weren’t at a concert. Then we build a tailored experience that invites them to pave a path through the music in a way that is intrinsically valuable to them.

Let’s set aside for now the issue of whether creating a better Audience Experience necessarily results in creating better art – there isn’t space here for me to take on Milton Babbitt, even were I the right person to do so. For now, we can choose to evaluate this through a lens of ‘getting bums on seats’ rather than ‘creating great art’.

I like the idea of an experience tailored to a particular group who you’ve designated as ‘your audience’ for the purpose of a particular project or concert. There’s a little problem of scale if you choose the wrong niche, though, specifically whether there are enough 20-something poets to fill the space and make the event commercially viable.

Manzi’s description of an event created along these lines takes a solid premise: people aren’t always feeling what we’re feeling when we’re listening to music, so let’s create a programme where musicians explain what particular pieces mean to them:

Musicians of the orchestra…introduce pieces they have picked for the program, talking about how it has inspired and changed them as people. Audience members share their reactions to the music in real time–responding to questions in their interactive program books and participating in creative capacities like drawing sounds or creating origami. Everybody has options: participate, engage, ponder…or just enjoy the music.

Whether you read that with approval or horror probably says something deep and meaningful about your cultural background. Regardless, it’s an inventive solution to the problem, though you would have to have an audience willing to play along – and presumably listen to a fair amount more talking than a traditional concert.

Audience Experience

The ‘creating an experience’ mentality has had benefits in related fields. Secret Cinema (recently, and not un-controversially, awarded a grant from the very fund I was writing about a few weeks ago) has made the cinema-going experience into a thorough-going event that has proven very popular, and (until this year at least), lucrative.

I imagine it helps that cinema at its most mainstream has an incredibly wide base of appeal. I’m not sure everyone would be as enthusiastic as me about a Handel soiree experience in which the audience is greeted by bewigged attendants and interacts with actors playing, I don’t know, Hanoverian royalty, while swanning around an 18th-century ballroom.

Critics of Design Thinking warn that non-STEM disciplines are being forced into models that simply don’t apply to them. It’s safe to say Lee Vinsel isn’t a fan, here quoting an architectural professor:

“It’s design as marketing,” he said. “It’s about looking for and exploiting a market niche. It’s not really about a new and better world. It’s about exquisitely calibrating a product to a market niche that is underexploited.”

That said, in the current climate, classical music would probably settle for exploiting some market niches.

Give the people what they want?

A broader concern is – to risk another nebulous concept at this late stage – to do with authenticity. Artists are generally encouraged to communicate something personal through their art, rather than simply something that will appeal to the consumer. If we concentrate on chasing the audience experience and designing our offering around them, how much are we communicating of ourselves, and how much do we simply end up chasing trends?

‘Give the people what they want’ might work for mass media (and James Bond), but part of the problem in generating new audiences for declining art forms is that the people don’t always know what they want. We should absolutely be applauding any effort to present music in original and effective ways – and looking to the tech world for solutions is fine, if we remember that what works in one field doesn’t always transfer neatly over to another. There’s a balance to be struck between creating a more appealing product and making better art. Right now we’d probably settle for a little security, and if ‘design thinking’ is a tool to help us get there, maybe I can let go of a little cynicism.

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Creativity Technology

A new creative arms race?

Cultural commentators seem largely to fall into one of two camps at the moment. The first camp sees an opportunity to ‘build back better’. From the desolate rubble of 2020’s creative landscape, a new, fairer, more diverse, less stuffy artistic realm can be built, they say. We should frame our current situation as an opportunity, an environmental course correction with long-lasting benefits to be had, if we can just seize them.

The second camp is less optimistic, and rather more focussed on preserving the viability of creative institutions and the livelihoods of those who contribute to them. After all, what good is a fairer and more accessible world of the arts if there are no artists left to fashion it?

‘Normality is futility’

This week, the Guardian published an editorial outlining its view on the way forward for classical music. Their conclusion places them among the optimists:

It may mean reversing every assumption they know, it may mean that orchestras become communities of musicians who operate in small groups, as opposed to the massed ranks that they were employed to be – but the path of becoming radically local, community-centred organisations, who perform in places other than grand concert halls lies open. So does the acceleration of connecting with audiences digitally.

It makes it sound so easy – notwithstanding the fact that many organisations have been pouring their energy into these avenues since well before the pandemic. (The CBSO has arguably been doing this for decades.) Having decried Boris Johnson’s ’empty optimism and intelligence-insulting boosterism’ earlier in the article, the authors have then made some suggestions which are significantly easier to write about than they are to put into practice: be radically local, while at the same time connecting to a monied digital audience.

The way to connect with audiences digitally may remain ‘open’, but it’s not as if orchestras and ensembles haven’t been aggressively pursuing this direction for a while now. The current problem doesn’t seem to be that there isn’t enough digital content – it’s that by and large people won’t pay for it, and that other ways to monetise are hard to come by.

Arts entrepreneur David Taylor’s provocatively titled blog ‘Of course orchestras can make money online‘ offers a dissenting view – monetisation comes at the end of a sometimes-lengthy process of audience-generation via an organisation or brand providing ‘value’ to its audience, free of charge:

1 – Generate attention with content that provides value to an audience

2 – Use that attention and value to build strong connections and meaningful relationships

3 – Monetise those strong connections and meaningful relationships through multiple income streams and advocacy that also provide value.

This approach works well in many of the fields Taylor cites, including YouTubers and online lifestyle gurus. But for an orchestra, putting so much online for free in order to provide ‘value’ might prove an insurmountable loss-leader.

A creative arms-race

It’s a compelling vision of the future, especially if, like me, you avidly consume the value offered up for free by certain online lifestyle gurus. But one wonders: if there is a creative arms-race into this techno-utopian future, there will be a great number of organisations that simply can’t keep up.

Of course, seeing organisations doing something new, creative, different, and perhaps lucrative, will inspire others to have a go themselves. But the adjustment to a new funding model will leave many behind, whether because their brand simply isn’t suited to the fast-moving world of online media, or because they can’t afford the expertise of a social media brand manager on top of the salaries of a few dozen hungry musicians.

It’s notable that one of the most-watched classical music live-streams of recent weeks was that given by ORA Singers from the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern, which has now racked up a very solid 15000 views on YouTube. Significantly, it was free to watch, though it must have cost a fair amount to lay on. It was also very good, especially considering the requirements of distancing forty singers in the space.

This is a brilliant way to offer value for free and help build up an audience, and ORA will undoubtedly have reached beyond their regular live concert audience. But I wonder how many other ensembles are able to pay a small army of freelancers to put on a loss-making event such as this, in the same of brand-building.

The outgoing president of the American Choral Directors’ Association, Tim Sharp, opened a recent letter to his community with a quote from the hymnodist Robert Lowry:

My life flows on in endless song; Above Earth’s lamentation,
I catch the sweet ‘tho far-off hymn, That hails A NEW CREATION;
Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul—How can I keep from singing?

Sharp sees an opportunity to realise this ‘new creation’ by using the digital gains made during the pandemic to pursue wider teaching and engagement goals. I would love to be as optimistic as he is, and dearly hope he’s right, even though for me it remains something of a ‘far-off hymn’.

Ultimately, the conclusion I’m dancing around putting my name to is this: a transition to a more online economic basis for creative organisations is probable, at least in the short term, and not altogether undesirable. The speed of that transition is going to be the tricky thing. It will need to be cushioned by support for organisations attempting to make it. Perhaps more importantly, it’s the people they employ that need support during this time, to avoid being driven out of the industry altogether.

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Creativity

Consumption anxiety

Every now and then, I have a worrying thought, and it takes this form: is there a serious imbalance between the amount I’m creating, and the amount I’m consuming? To put it another way, I’m worrying about the ratio of things that I contribute to the world to things that I take from it. I don’t mean this in an environmental way – although I’m sure that’s true as well – but in a cultural sense.

It’s certainly a worry that’s been exacerbated by being unable to contribute to creative life in the way I normally would this year, what with global pandemia. But it’s not a new feeling, nor is it confined to this year. It’s an anxiety that appears to affect a large number of people. At a time when ‘content’ is available at our fingertips, more content than we could consume in a hundred lifetimes, many of us feel worried, even guilty, about consuming so much more than we produce.

It’s so easy to watch my friends making music online, or to binge a TV show, or waste time down in the depths of YouTube rabbit-holes. People have produced so much, and they share so much of it, and it’s just so very easy to gobble it all up. I’m attacked by the sense that I reap but I do not sow.

It’s not just me – this anxiety seems to be everywhere on the internet. Newer generations of internet users are well aware of just how much they consume; a quick google reveals that this has in turn provided the platform for dozens of articles about how to ‘release our creativity’ and counter the problem. It’s linked to an increased awareness of and contempt for the idea of consumerism. The revolt against this has led to movements such as ‘digital minimalism‘, which seems to be a reaction against the ease with which it is now possible to consume media of all kinds.

(The huge popularity of people peddling their own versions of this new ‘minimalism’ on YouTube is an interesting outgrowth of the idea. It can be easy to forget that they too are selling a lifestyle, albeit one with Apple-branded clean lines and the endless and subtly consumerist permutations of the quest for the ‘perfect productivity desk setup’.)

Where does this anxiety come from?

The disjunct between just how easily we can devour the fruits of culture, and how much we ourselves contribute to it, can seem vast. Most of us want to feel that we’re in control of our lives, and yet so many of us are reliant for our entertainment or consolation on the product of other people’s hard work and initiative – which makes us feel like maybe we aren’t in control after all.

I’ve been wondering if this is something which is particularly pertinent for those who practice music in the classical tradition. Most people would probably think of us broadly as ‘creatives’, but do we really create? I sometimes feel that at most we ‘curate’ – we take other people’s work (most often composers) and re-interpret their notes or rehearse their ideas. Thinking this way can leave me feeling like a net drain on the world’s creative output.

Is ‘creation vs consumption’ a false framing?

I wonder if it might be a bit simplistic to equate ‘creation’ with agency and ‘consumption’ with complacency. Certainly, for musicians, we can choose to frame interpretation and facilitation as a creative act in itself, one without which the composer’s notes and ideas cannot be realised.

A teacher once told me that to be a conductor is not to be an artist, or some kind of lofty spiritual being, but a craftsmen, working with their hands to fashion something, just as the musicians do. Seen this way, the performing musician is indeed a creative person. Performers are always creative when performing, as long as they are not doing so on auto-pilot or without intention.

Even beyond the realm of performance, the facilitation of a creative act is just as vital. Think of those who commission composers or arrange competitions, who stimulate or provide a conduit for the creativity of others. Teachers, artist managers, stage crew, tuners, luthiers, patrons. The whole ecosystem of the cultural world is so integrated that it doesn’t really make any sense to separate ‘creativity’ into something that some have or practice and others don’t.

Consumption is necessary for creativity

There’s a broader point to draw out here about how creativity works. Tiago Forte, in the Building a Second Brain Podcast, talks about the importance of the ‘gathering’ phase of creativity. This is when we intentionally gather material and allow ourselves to digest it. Only when we have consumed a lot of material and distilled it down to that which is most interesting or insightful do we then begin germinate ideas of our ‘own’.

Essentially, Forte is arguing that it’s not only OK to consume plenty of material, it’s a prerequisite to the creative act, a way of seeding the brain with the raw material which it can then play with or recombine in new ways.

Obviously, it’s going to make a bit of difference if we do this mindfully, being alert as we consume and positioning ourselves to be able to record things that resonate with us, in order to be able to recall and play with them. This idea is at the heart of Forte’s ‘Second Brain’ theory.


I’m enjoying processing this idea of how to think of creativity: as something not opposed to consumption, but the potential product of it. I’m hoping it will help me let myself off the hook – especially if I find that those tangible, recognisable fruits of creativity are thin on the ground in the wasteland of 2020.

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Creativity

Stop making the economic case for the arts

Arts funding is in the news again. The government’s announcement of a Culture Recovery Fund has prompted a round of online discussion of the place of the taxpayer in subsidising culture. It’s not hard to imagine that a feeding frenzy will soon be upon us, with arts organisations and venues gearing up to compete for a slice of the £1.57 billion available.

Why the ‘economic case’ is made

In the arts world, we often feel like we must fight to maintain the place of something we feel is essential in a world that doesn’t always seem to agree. In recent years, it’s become commonplace for those defending state-subsidised art to do so in terms of its economic benefit to a nation or community. In the UK, studies such as this one are cited, speaking of how much the creative industries contribute to GDP.

It’s a line of argument that is both compelling and frustrating. Compelling, because it appears to use a language that governments understand: that of economic value. It’s felt that an economic argument will have the greatest chance of success with the money-obsessed decision-makers in Whitehall – a measurable instrument of success that they can plug into their spreadsheets. But frustrating, because I think most of us would agree that the true value of art to a community or country doesn’t lie in its contribution to GDP.

Problems with the economic case

  1. What are the ‘creative industries’ anyway?

Let’s return to that study. I often see people on social media using the ‘creative industries contribute £13 million to the economy every hour’ line to justify state funding of artistic enterprise. But what actually are these ‘creative industries’, and do they perhaps merit a certain amount of scare-quoted suspicion in this context? Here’s an extract from the report:

The sector was supported by large contributions from tech services and the film and television industries, which contributed £45.4 billion and £20.8 billion to the economy respectively. Another boost was delivered by the advertising and marketing industries, which account for a quarter of the total growth of the creative industries since 2017.

There are a couple of things to draw out of this. ‘Tech services’ is still a little mysterious, but let’s give it the benefit of the doubt – it could refer to the highly successful video games that have come out of British-based companies in recent years. Next comes film and TV – mass media genres drawn to Britain by its lucrative tax breaks. Then there’s advertising, and marketing.

So, while the ‘creative industries’ are indeed generating healthy contributions to Treasury coffers, are these really the areas we mean when we cite these figures to defend investment in opera, dance, or live theatre? (If the success of film is how we’re going to justify investment in art, then it’s certainly a far cry from Keynes’ mantra upon founding what would become the Arts Council: ‘Death to Hollywood’!)

More recently, the Arts Council took a stab at defining more closely the actual cultural sectors involved, but still with a focus on the economic gain accruing from them.

2. What if the economic tide turns?

If the creative economy stops contributing as much to GDP as we say it does, how can further investment be justified? By tethering arguments for state subsidy to the economic performance of the sector, we make a rod for our own backs if it then stops making money. This could happen for any number of reasons, including changing tastes or modes of consumption.

To lean into the economic argument sets up a trap later down the road. If the numbers turn against us, and the creative industries stop being the economic boon we confidently assert that they currently are, perhaps even becoming a net drain on public resources, what argument can we fall back on?

3. Square pegs and round holes

London’s Southbank Centre was in the news recently for taking the decision to make two thirds of its staff redundant. Staff were told that when the centre – the largest arts centre in Europe, apparently – reopens, it will be run on a ‘start-up’ model. If you’re wondering what that means in practice, you’re not alone:

Over email, a spokesperson for the Southbank Centre told me: “When we talk about ‘start-up’ we mean a ‘mind-set approach’: being agile, adaptable to change, moving fast, risk-taking, innovating, constantly learning, changing the status quo, learning from failure, for example. We are not re-modelling operationally as a start-up.”

This is obviously nonsense, but it reflects the fact that organisations with an arts focus are increasingly being told to align themselves with the values and concerns of the trendy ‘startup’ model of business.

Should arts organisations really model for-profit businesses? If their worthiness for state support depends on it, thanks to that economic argument for their value, then it’s no surprise if they try and force themselves into a business model that appears to justify it.

4. Does investment in art directly lead to industry economic benefit?

It’s sometimes argued that there is a ‘trickle-up’ effect, by which investment in art filters in to the success of the wider creative industry. But the direct economic links between subsidised culture and creative industry are still not well understood. John Holden, who has written extensively on public policy relating to culture, articulated this back in 2007:

…the creative industries are still, in spite of all the attention that they have received, not fully conceived, explained, narrated or understood. At a fundamental conceptual level, the ‘creative industries’ idea veers between on the one hand being based on the creative capacities of individuals, and on the other being a categorisation of industry types.

It’s therefore too simplistic to say that investment in subsidising culture leads directly to some economic benefit via the creative industries.

5. The economic argument misses the point of art

Don’t worry – a definition of the point of art is somewhat outside the scope of this post. But it’s true that when compelled to articulate the actual value of art to communities, we tend to struggle. Most of us would agree that the ‘value’ of an artistic activity cannot be measured purely by its economic consequences. Social and cultural factors are at least as important.

The result of this is that a generation is at risk of not being able to make the case for investment based on anything except economics – which, as we’ve seen, is not a stable premise. Kate Levin underscores the risk in this article:

…you have to be able to describe your value. There can be a little bit of ‘we’re on the side of the angels’ in the creative sector, and the assumption that people understand what those benefits are.

So what’s the alternative?

If the economic argument doesn’t hold water, what other techniques can we use to make the case for public investment in art? Are there other arguments we can marshal, other valuations we can usefully deploy?

Arts Council England – the current successor to Keynes’ ‘Committee for Encouragement of Music and the Arts’ – has developed a 10-year plan, ‘Let’s Create‘, articulating its vision for publically-funded culture. It does a good job identifying some of the problems with access to culture across the country, and acknowledges a need ‘to improve the way we make the case for the social and economic value of investing public money in culture’.

However, there’s little in there that explains in simple terms why we as a people should fund the means of artistic creation. When one eventually reaches ACE’s ‘Investment Principles’, there’s a fair amount of buzzwordy jargon and not a great deal of solid matter. So what else is there?

  1. Soft power

If we still want to go down the route of talking to government in its own language, there’s always the idea of culture as ‘soft power’ – culture as an export, disseminated to project values and power across the world.

It’s interesting to see that Portland’s Soft Power Index has put the UK at number 1 or 2 in the world for the last five years, with ‘Culture’ tied with ‘Education’ as its chief asset. However, this is still largely the result of big-budget film, TV, or literature products such as Sherlock or Harry Potter – not the smaller, more fragile industries propped up by state support which are the focus of this post.

2. Enrichment

In a 2012 article for The Guardian, playwright David Edgar highlighted a case for the arts which centred on the idea of enrichment:

Five years ago, the Arts Council set out to produce a threefold definition of art’s purpose: to increase people’s capacity for life (helping them to “understand, interpret and adapt to the world around them”), to enrich their experience (bringing “colour, beauty, passion and intensity to lives”) and to provide a safe site in which they could build their skills, confidence and self-esteem. Other forms of endeavour do some of these things. Only art does all three.

I think this is compelling. Edgar goes on to lament how difficult these three effects are to quantify, but concludes that widening participation in artistic endeavour is likely to have the most long-lasting social benefit. But where does that leave high-level traditional opera, say, or other genres which are the domain of the highly-trained? Artistic value in these areas still seems to elude the quantifying measures required by state subsidy.

What does that leave us with?

Cultural ecology

John Holden, commissioned to report on this topic by AHRC in 2015, elects to reframe the subject as a ‘cultural ecology

…culture is an organism not a mechanism…careers, ideas, money, product and content move around between the funded, commercial, and homemade/amateur parts of the overall cultural world in such a way that those funding categories cannot be disentangled.

Finally we have a view which reflects the complexity of the contemporary creative landscape – culture as an interconnected series of pursuits, professions, and crafts, each umbilically linked to the others.

Seeing culture as an ecology allows the formation of ‘a comprehensible overview that does not privilege one type of value – financial value – over others that attach to culture’. A later passage is worth quoting in full, because it gets right to the heart of our discussion about the problems of relying on economic value alone:

It is…a category mistake to treat culture only as economy, because the cultural ecology operates in ways, and produces effects, that transcend monetary transactions. The mistake has real consequences. One is that concentrating on only monetary valuations of the system (which the Treasury’s Green Book methodology demands, in that it requires all types of value to be expressed in monetary terms) inhibits interactivity, and is likely to reduce the creation of both financial and cultural value. Another is that non-monetary flows in the ecology are neglected whereas in fact, as Crossick explains: ‘without an extraordinary level of free-sharing, value cannot be formed’. The cultural ecology cannot be understood without taking into account free labour and emotional rewards.

So, the focus on the measurable economic benefit of art not only misrepresents what art does, but does active damage to what it can do.

People do not have a solely ‘professional’ relationship to creation. They move through different phases, pourously – at different times and in different circumstances they can be amateurs, professionals, spectators, supporters. I started singing as an amateur; I spent a few years as a professional singer; but in my current phase I’m more likely to listen to and support others singing than participate directly myself.

Not all of our labour is directly able or apt to be monetised, and there is no blanket distinction in art between the amateur and professional worlds.

Holden is leading us towards viewing the cultural environment as a whole. This allows him to suggest targeted interventions which might take the form of funding, based on asking ourselves questions about what art needs:

It is helpful to think of these biological concepts as a set of life-cycle questions: what conditions bring a form of culture into being? How is that form of culture then sustained? What threatens its existence? How can it be nurtured to grow to its full potential? How can it help other life-forms to emerge? When should it be let go?


Perhaps we shouldn’t be shying away from the complexity of the organism that is ‘culture’. Finding the right answers to the questions above could result in funding going a lot further.

However, it’s certainly true that fulsome answers to complicated questions don’t fit in a tweet. And if government only talks the language of economy, can it be persuaded to learn that of ecology?

It might not be so far-fetched. After all, the national conversation about the natural environment has advanced greatly over a short time, with those in government generally agreed that the care of the natural world is a matter of pressing concern. The ecology model might be one to road to helping us present subsidised culture in the same light – and attract a similar level of concern.

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Creativity

Creative portfolios: diversifying against risk

I recently made my first, tentative foray into the stock market. I know very little about stocks and shares, but what I have managed to glean so far is this: diversification helps inoculate against risk. Diversifying your holdings, by spreading them out across multiple kinds of investment or country or genre or ‘asset class’, means that if there’s a crash in one area, you’re still (hopefully) not going to lose out too much. I’ve been wondering if this is a useful analogy for professional work in the creative world.

[…] diversification is the investing equivalent of a free lunch. Research suggests that, not only is it the best way of managing risk but, over the long-term, also leads to higher returns. 

Lars Kroijer

In the past six months, we’ve experienced the equivalent of the bottom dropping out of the creative market. Anything creative that was generally done in front of other people became mostly impossible, overnight.

Everyone going into a creative profession, especially as a freelancer, knows the risks. Precarity. Uncertainty. Vulnerability to market forces completely beyond our control. But just as in investment, in return for accepting the higher risk, we receive various rewards: maybe it’s a degree of control over our lifestyle, or flexibility with working hours.

We might be tempted to think Covid-19 is an isolated occurrence, but there have been other market-altering calamities, and there will be more to come. All manner of events can affect our ability to do what we do, be it external, such as a market crash, or personal, such as a change in circumstances, or an unexpected illness.

Is there a way of inoculating ourselves against these risks? And how feasible is it for a creative person to ‘diversify’?

Risk tolerance

In investing, you decide how much to put into the riskiest assets – equities, for example – vs the safer options – bonds, cash – by determining your individual risk tolerance. Younger people are advised to take more risks; the market generally evens out over time, meaning over a longer time-frame, you’re less likely to lose out. Those coming closer to when they might need the money are advised to shift the balance to less risky assets.

So, as someone just starting out, you might justifiably put all your eggs in one creative basket, and commit full-time to your passion. In the event of a Calamitous Event(TM), your liabilities are few, and you can dust yourself down and try again, or try something else.

But not everyone has the same tolerance for this level of risk. Those with more liabilities, or dependants, might want to swim more cautiously in these waters, to have a backup plan, or even something else running along the side.

Transferable skills and ‘side hustles’

Let’s assume for now that we want to do the latter. We’ll commit to our chosen focus, but we’ll try and spare 5% or so of our energy to keep something else on the back burner. What that something else is depends on a number of things.

The investment analogy suggests that to be diversified against risk, our supplementary activity needs to be in a different enough field that it would be unaffected by anything that might threaten our core activity. Here’s an obvious example: if our core focus requires live performance and travel, then the ideal bulwark against this year’s particular obstacle is a job that can be done at home.

If our subsidiary focus can be one that informs and enriches the main discipline, so much the better. The classic supplementary job in the world of musical performance is teaching or tutoring – leveraging existing knowledge and pre-gained experience to generate a more securely predictable income. And teaching can be just as valuable for the teacher as the pupil – something I’ve certainly found as I’ve begun to teach conducting. For me, teaching and writing have been sidelines that enhance and help me reflect on what I think of as my main discipline – and inevitably the balance will keep shifting.

We want something that will enrich and be enriched by our main specialism, but is sufficiently separate from it to avoid the same risks. Of course, not everyone will have a sub-specialism that meets these criteria, but there are other ways – perhaps there’s a related hobby that can be monetised.

I’m wary of what’s become known as hustle culture – the idea that we should always be trying to monetise our activities, spending all our time thinking of new ways to make money. I can’t imagine it’s possible to be a reflective, creative person without a bit of space in our lives, and I’m not suggesting that we need to adopt the ‘hustle’ mindset to achieve diversification. Instead, I want to safeguard that creative space by attempting to mitigate the risks associated with it.

The world as it should be vs the world as it is

This position might seem a little cynical. Shouldn’t artists be free to pursue their art to the exclusion of all else? The answer, in an ideal world, is yes, absolutely. Whether the solution ends up being a Universal Basic Income or something else, a world in which we can all exercise complete freedom of creative choice, unconstrained by market forces, or what will make money – that’s surely the goal.

However, we don’t live in this perfect world. The real world has yet to catch up to this ideal. We are, unless we are very lucky, tethered to the fortunes of the financial systems in which we live, as well as subject to the vagueries of taste or politics. For me, that awareness breeds a certain caution, and it’s why I’m going to try to keep myself, at least a little bit, diversified.


Now, you might say: Pavarotti never ‘diversified’! Da Vinci didn’t have a ‘side hustle’! Artistic geniuses always devote themselves 100% to their passions, ignoring the constraints of the ‘market’ or the ‘real world’!

Even if that were true, and even if I got away with that straw man – and I’m pretty sure it isn’t and I didn’t – most of the ‘genius artists’ we might include in this category were not only talented and hard-working, but lucky – and we might not be. So if we’re OK with embracing a bit more risk to become a bit more successful, all good. But if our risk tolerance means balancing the risk with something else, there’s no shame in that.

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Choirs Creativity Technology

Making a ‘Virtual Choir’ video with free* software: Part 3 – Video

In this three-part series of posts, I’ll take you through why and how to make one of those charming multi-screen, multi-track musical videos, based on my own experiences. I’ve used software that’s freely available online [though see update below!], and I’m very much coming at this from the perspective of an amateur video editor, in the hope that my tribulations might make life easier for anyone contemplating putting one of these together.

Click here for Part 1 & Part 2

[Update, March 2021: I’ve recently done a couple more of these videos, and decided to return to these posts, to see if they can be made more helpful, in the light of my more recent experiences. Most importantly, I’ve downgraded the headline from ‘free’ to ‘free*’. It’s definitely possible to do this with freely available software – but I’ve found that spending a little money on professional editing software makes the process roughly 10 times easier and more enjoyable.]

We’ve got our audio. Now it’s time to put the video together.

Step 3: Transcoding the video

This sounds fancy, but it’s really just the process of making sure all the videos you’ve been sent will play nicely with each other. Different phones produce different kinds of files, and film at different frame-rates. Handbrake will put them all into a format that Premiere/Lightworks can handle.

NB Phone cameras generally use variable frame rate (VFR) to make the size of the file smaller. Many video editing programmes don’t like that, as it makes things much harder to line up – that’s why we’re ‘transcoding’ the videos to use a constant frame rate (CFR)

  • Add the file to Handbrake when prompted
  • From the presets, select ‘Production Standard’
  • On the ‘Video’ tab, make sure you’ve selected ‘Constant Frame Rate’, and specified a frame rate to work at. 30fps is fine for our purposes. It should be the same for all the video files in the project
  • Press ‘Encode’ to generate the new file, and give it a new name so you know it’s the version you’re going to use
  • Do this for all the videos you’ve been sent
Transcoding in Handbrake

Step 4: Assembling the video

  • Create your project in Premiere Pro/Lightworks (or use the preexisting conducting video project) and add all the newly-transcoded videos, each with their own Video and Audio track
  • To create that split-screen effect, select each clip, and make each video smaller (using Scale), then change its position along the X and Y axes (using Position) (DVE in Lightworks) (see Note below)
  • Soon enough, you’ll have a screen full of videos. Now, in the EDIT tab, you can line them up with each other by using the audio of each track, and lining up the ‘clap’ waveform, just as you did when lining up the audio
  • This done, you can mute all the audio tracks and import the one you’re actually going to use – the mixdown from Cubase we made in Part 2
  • Export the edit
  • You could leave it like this, but if you want to add transitions and fades-in etc, rather than use the same project, create a new project and import the video you just made. This reduces the burden on the computer processor
  • That’s it!

Note: The Grid

There’s some maths to be done here – work out by what factor you need to make each clip smaller in order for them to fit into the grid.* In the end I used a 7×7 grid to accommodate my 27 participants. I suspect there’s a more elegant solution out there. I could have used a 6×6 grid, of course, but then my conducting video would have been off-centre, and I couldn’t allow myself not to be the centre of attention!

This is greatly complicated by the fact that not everyone will have sent you a video of the same size. A video of dimensions 1980×1080 will need a different scale factor applied to it to make it the same size as one which is in 640×480. Get out the calculator if you can be bothered, or you can eyeball it if you’re feeling lucky.

I got sent a couple of portrait videos. At that stage I decided that rather than asking them to repeat in landscape, I would simply crop and scale them to look landscape, in a rather trial-and-error process.

In my first videos, I just nestled the videos up next to each other with no gap in between – I felt it looked neater than separating them. However, subsequently I experimented with ‘feathering’ the edges of each individual video, which helps make them look more uniform (see here for an example).

Premiere Pro has an effect called ‘Edge Feather’ which is supposed to do this, but for reasons best known to itself, it didn’t work in the largest video I’ve made (circa 40 participants). I hit upon the (very fiddly) solution of using an online picture editor to create a 7×7 grid, blurring the edges, then overlaying it on top of the other videos. Here is the result. In hindsight, it might have been wiser to create the grid before importing any of the videos.

Note: The Background

By default, your background will be black, but this makes the videos show up very starkly and will highlight any inconsistencies in the way they are filmed. Instead, I used the colour-picker tool to lift an off-white colour from the background wall of one of the videos, and created a background ‘matte’ from it, to go behind all the videos. I like the ‘clean’ effect it gives the final video.

Assembly in Premiere Pro

Final Thoughts

There are probably a number of ways I’ve made this more complicated than it has to be. I have, though, generated a work-flow that seems to get the results I’m after. As I’ve mentioned, you can take bits of it that you like, and incorporate them into your own way of doing it – let me know what you come up with!

I’m probably going to end up making more of these, and I’m keen to refine the process. I think it’s worth conductors dabbling – these formats are not going away. Judge for yourself below..!