The moment when plans meet reality
I have the great pleasure of leading a concert of string orchestra music at New England Conservatory on Friday, February 12th at 7:30PM. (TUNE IN!)
We had our first rehearsal last Friday, and it was a fascinating experience. It illuminated many lessons that can be helpful for anyone in a leadership position. Anyone who has spent hours, days, weeks planning — only to have things come crashing down around you. How do you keep your head about you? How do you keep the end goal in view, without getting lost in the chaos of execution? Let’s take a look at the process.
Before the first downbeat
A first rehearsal with an orchestra is always a special moment. You, as the conductor, have spent many hours studying the scores that you will be performing. For me, in this instance, it is Stravinsky’s gorgeous and neoclassical ballet score to Apollo. You spend many hours studying every single detail on the page, and asking yourself questions about every note. How should this phrase be played? What is the most important note? How loud is this, how soft is this? What is the character or image trying to be communicated? How am I going to help the orchestra play their best?
You arrive on the first day with a clear goal in mind. You have a strong sense of where you are going, a certain level of command over the material, and a sense of confidence that you will be able to steer the ship successfully.
Every member of the orchestra goes through a similar process, but with their own individual part. Each instrumentalist brings their own specific set of skills, their talents, their musicality, and all their habits both good and bad. They bring their own opinions about how they should play their specific part, which may or may not match up with your thinking or the thinking of their colleagues.
The rubber meets the road
When the special moment comes, when finally you give your first downbeat, you will immediately realize many things that do not fit with your image, with your goal. The orchestra may be playing together, but they are disjointed and disunited. They aren’t listening and responding with sensitivity to each other; they aren’t used to you, your motions, and your thinking. Your preparation process comes into instant conflict with the individual preparation of every single musician in the orchestra. It is, in a way, intensely chaotic. Your initial instinct may be to work harder, be more emphatic, more intense, but you find you are just making things worse.
It is easy to give in to this chaos, let it internalize within you, and allow it to take control over your thoughts. It can bring up all sorts of uncomfortable and unproductive ideas such as — should I have studied more? Why aren’t they playing with me? Is my beat not clear? Why are they speeding up here, slowing down here, getting louder when it says to get softer? If you aren’t careful, you can find yourself spiraling into anxiety-driven thought processes, and developing what many performers call, “the flop sweat”.
Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm. — Publilius Syrus
Trusting the process
While last week’s rehearsal was nowhere near as bad as some encounters I had earlier in my career, I used this moment to learn, to observe, and to not get taken in by my initial reactions of concern or discomfort. I remembered my preparation; I remembered my clear goal. This was just step 1 in a long process of improvement. There was nothing to fight against or stress about. Here is our starting point, and each day, each minute, we will improve together and we will arrive at the goal.
This experience summed up many ideas for me. Any leader in any business will have come into contact with this experience. They prepare for a major presentation or meeting or to lead a new team. I know for sure that millions around the US and the rest of the world have experienced that this year. How many people spent years preparing and saving to pursue their dream of opening a restaurant, a gym, a coffee shop, a small retail store, and came face to face with a global pandemic?
Stick to your goals LONGER
Not only that, but it taught me something valuable about sticking to my goals longer, through the pain of the early stages. For example, I want to start making YouTube content. I know that the first few videos will be painful — it will take a long time to write the script and to record the video and audio. I know that I will struggle for hours with my video editing software. At a certain point I will be happy with the project and release it to the public, to what will likely be relatively small numbers of engagement. We must try to remind ourselves that the beginning is the hardest. Just start and keep going. Power through that early pain, and you may surprise yourself where you end up.
Slow down, and keep looking forward
Something that can potentially save us in the short term, when all our perfectly laid plans begin to crumble around us, is to slow down, meditate, observe, and look ahead into the future. Visualize the goal that you prepared to achieve, analyze and diagnose the problems ahead, and then steer that ship in the right direction. Don’t lose the forest through the trees. This is something I have to endlessly remind myself of.