25 July 2011

Can You Hear Me Now? Intentional Listening.

Vístanme despacio que estoy de afán.

Dress me slowly, I'm in a hurry.

(Loose interpretation - Do your best and carefully, even more so
when you're down to the wire and running out of time.)

The Miraculous Melrosas High Wire Bicycles

Have you ever seen the circus act with the unicyclist crossing a tightrope hundreds of feet in the air?  Silly hat on his head, balance pole in his hands, and rising precariously from his shoulders and stretching upward beyond the spotlight's reach, a human lattice-work of more acrobats in more silly hats.  One missed cue, one miscalculation and spangles splattered across sand and sawdust.  Thankfully, long before donning his silly hat and climbing to the high wire, the unicyclist rehearsed, exercised, sketched, studied, imagined, trained, prayed, and prepared, prepared, prepared.
Few of us who work in the arts and entertainment arena are privileged to work in a proper circus, yet we face long years of preparation and our own peculiar dangers.  One of those dangers is when we're on a high wire and don't realise it.  In my case, I fell off my high horse, landed a black-and-blue bruise to my conscience, and barely kept my silly hat.  I learned something important about myself and about doing business though.  It all began innocently enough...

As a consultant to creative people, an integral part of my work is listening to music -- music I love, music I'd just as soon never hear again, music so close to good yet "not quite fully baked".  When strangers ask what I do for a living and I'm feeling sarky, I tell them I'm a professional listener.  Intentional listening is a consultant's most important tool.

Way back in my start-up days, My Close Friend asks will I go and listen to His Close Friend's Cousin's Daughter's Boyfriend's Mechanic's band, just as a favour, nothing official, etc.  Whiz-bang, latchety-latch, and three hours past a late-night latte with the band, the mechanic, the boyfriend, the daughter, the cousin, My Close Friend and His Close Friend, I'm asked the inevitable "Well? What did you think? Well?!?"

A smart answer would have included phrases like "thank you for inviting me", "good to listen to something different", "interesting repertoire", "I'd like to give it a bit more thought before I answer a question so important" or "Let's talk again sometime."  Misplaced overconfidence precludes a smart answer.

Hasty, ill-advised answers (read:  mine) launch.  Mine launched BIG, with champagne over the bow and skyrockets.  I can not blame the lateness of the hour, nor the location, nor the company at the table.  No, the problem was my opinion formed on the fly, without a triple safety-net of reflection, preparation, and humility.  Yes, humility.  Instead of constructive feedback which might have helped this nascent band reformulate their methods and intentions, they got bombed.  

For days afterward, I berated myself:  I said too much, too harshly, I didn't really know them, their background, their music, their direction, their audience.  Two facts stood bare:

(1) It is my bounden duty, my responsibility, to consciously and conscientiously choose my own time and place for walking the tightrope.

(2) Before issuing obiter dicta, LISTEN.  Listen, don't just hear.  Listening is done with one's whole being. 

My stumbling blindly and impulsively into the spotlight's glare like a Cantinflas -- bad idea.  Lesson learned, I created a listening ritual of specific steps.  Sorry, no incantations, chicken bones or secret potions involved.  Unless espresso counts?

My Listening Ritual

Although the listening protocol below refers specifically to forming well-advised opinions and decisions about musical talent I might rep, the steps easily apply to other scenarios, too.  Are you about to interview with a potential employer?  Are you considering investing in a start-up business?  Have you been asked for business advice?  Adjust this protocol to fit your particular challenge:  it'll keep you from losing your silly hat and splattering yourself all over the sawdust.  For an easy start, try substituting the name of your specific challenge for the word "music".
  • Watch one live performance on-site at a reasonably good venue if possible, recorded if it's all I can manage.  Back in my own space, with all possible distractions filtered out and turned off, an espresso in one hand and a lighted cigarette parked nearby, I clamp on my padded headset, cue up the music and hit "play".  Settle in and wait for the music.  Bounce quickly through the opening and closing riffs of everything on the disc.  What perks, what misses?  Back off, choose three or four cuts, listen from start to finish.

  • Second time through, I scan any collateral information -- bios, photos, press kit, web presences.  Does it match up with what I'm hearing?  What do I imagine happening with this music, these artists?  What don't I know that I'm curious about? Is there any dissonance between what they are telling me and what I hear?
  • Third time through, I start my notes.  At first, I keep the notes very personal.  What part of my life does this music fit?  When and on what occasions would I want to hear this again?  Is it music to provoke thought, is it music I want to dance to?  How would I want to dance to this?  Would I want a group of friends with me the next time I play this?  Or, is this music so intimate only a carefully crafted audience or one particular person would suit the occasion?  Is this music for meditation and reflection, growing closer to God?   Is it pool party music?  Is it music I want to share immediately, "You have to listen to this!" or would it require a warming up let-me-explain-this period?  Is it music to start a revolution, for an elegant evening, an intimate session with mi habibi, a leisurely afternoon in the garden, welcome-to-a-bright-new-day music, or music for recovering from a wearisome week?  What kind of venues optimise this music and the performers?
On and on go the questions and the notes.  I sleep with a notepad nearby for those drowsy-head-on-the-pillow afterthoughts.
  • Then, the final pass.  Time to get technical.    Critiquing passages, arrangement, instrumentation, musicality.  What's getting in the way of the music?  WHO is getting in the way of the music?  Is it good music well-performed and well-presented?  Worth tweaking?  Talented noise-making?  Would tweaking mean losing somebody, something?  I review every note and random doodle (very revealing those triangles and palm trees drawn around the margins of the page!) and  jot myself a short summary.  Add an action list.
Notes made, headphones off, coffee and cigs finished, I go on walkabout or a drive.  Refocusing, re-casting.  Now and then, I glance at the music's shadow travelling with me:  is it good, bad, boring, annoying, energising?  Am I so pumped I want to tell people about this music?  Or so dismayed, I need a mind eraser to get the sticky off me?  Or, if elements are missing from the performance, do I keep turning to thoughts of how I'd fix it?

Back home for more research.  Maybe I'll pop the disc into the player to feel how it plays the room.  Could be the music has already worn out its welcome.

Last stop:  I organise my thoughts and draft a proposal.  More about this in another post ;-)

Responsibility & Revelation

If music is one of the languages we humans use to communicate, then it is a language with many voices, tones, dialects, accents, inflections, and vocabularies.  Some voices make your heart leap in joyous anticipation.  Some voices make you dread the conversation ahead.  Some voices, no matter how you strain to listen, prove to be gobbledygook.  But, whatever the voice or accent, responsibility to our craft and our role in The Big Top of Life & Business demands we listen respectfully, carefully, emotionally, and ultimately, analytically.  And again, with humility.  In the nightclub biz, when certain employees or customers became annoying, my partner and I would remind each other, "Even a stopped clock is right twice a day."  The worst music has something good buried in it somewhere; the worst idea has a grain of revelation.

The high wire artist takes responsibility for his success and that of his fellow performers.  Likewise, as a consultant to artists, performers, and creators of intellectual property, I have a responsibility to my silly hat and the silly hats I influence.  All of us here on the patio do.

"Quien quiere celeste, que le cueste."

(Loose interpretation:  He who would possess the heavens,
must work hard to pay the price.")

See you on the patio!

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