Learning, leading and peak performance

I’ve just about recovered from two weekends ago, when we presented a hugely-rewarding, high-quality performance of Mahler’s Third Symphony. It was a privilege to stand up in front of nearly 140 performers and realise a personal dream – one I had not thought possible to bring to fruition, once upon a time. By the end of the general rehearsal, I had no doubt that we would get there, and with some style!

The sense of excitement from the players was palpable before the concert. I think the biggest satisfaction must have been for those players who’d been there at the very start, when fewer than half the orchestra was available for the first rehearsals. With non-professional players, many of whom travel from distance to take part in APO, it’s inevitable that conflicting demands affect rehearsal attendance and I know that when players are missing, it’s for good reason. Those who are there carry a heavier burden, having to rehearse with crucial parts missing and therefore not gaining as much of a sense of what the finished article might sound and feel like. How gratifying it must have been for them to hear the full band around them, pulling together to make Mahler’s vision come alive!

Some of you may have seen the short video of the very end of the performance, that I put together quickly the day after the concert. Naturally, the rudimentary audio recording set up (a couple of Zoom microphones – easily one of the best investments I’ve ever made) means that the sound is nothing like as good as it was on the night, but at least it gives us a reminder of that special moment, when we reached the end of an epic journey.

I’ve got other camera angles and will do my best to get some other clips put together in the coming weeks. I haven’t done so yet as I have another conducting engagement coming up. It will be clips rather than the whole thing, because video editing is a time consuming task and while it’s nice to bask in the warm glow of a great achievement, we have to move on to the next project!

Reviewing the video footage shot from the back of the stage has been quite useful in this regard. For the first time, I had sufficient cameras to indulge of a close up shot of the podium. Watching it is like going through the stages of grief! Just like when you hear your voice played back to you, nothing I’m doing looks anything like I think it does. There are so many failures of technique I can correct and I’ve already started going back to basics in terms of mirror work to fix things like my beat not making it all the way down to ‘table level’, cutting out excessive ‘mirroring’ (where the left hand mirrors the right hand, instead of the former being reserved for non-beat gestures) and being clearer in quiet passages, so that a beat is still discernible, even though the music may have a ghostly texture. And if I’m going to conduct without a stick, I need to learn a lot (I’m no Teodor Currentzis!).

It’s important not to be too hard on myself, though. Many of my players compliment me on my clarity, and I must remember that many of the things I do are through subtle means like a moment’s eye contact, rather than grand gesture. Ultimately, I was very pleased with the performance and how my interpretation unfolded, so if I can look through that lens and improve my conducting even 1% for next time, that’s a result.

I’m not the only person who’s been giving consideration to learning from experience, in pursuit of an improved result. Earlier this year, Kat Hatton, who often leads our viola section (and was in the chair for Mahler 3), wrote down some thoughts on section leadership. She’s since talked them through with new leader of the orchestra, Mel, and distilled them into some bullet points that prospective section leaders need to consider before putting themselves forward to lead for a concert (we routinely rotate the section leadership amongst players who have the confidence and capability to be at the front).

I’ve posted Kat’s thoughts separately, along with the bulleted summary. I’ve learned a lot from reading them. Indeed, I still learn a great deal about the art of leadership with each passing project. Working with people like Mel and Kat, from a musical perspective, is a privilege. And from an organisational perspective, observing the varying styles of APO’s chairpersons over the years: Becky, Andy and Emily, has also taught me a great deal.

We’re so lucky to have such a wealth of experience, musical and otherwise, in and around APO. We must do more to tap into it! As a starter for ten, I’m delighted that violinist Claire Taylor will join me for a workshop on ‘enabling peak performance’ during our music pick-up session in December (the start of the rehearsal process for ‘Music of Desire’). Claire is better-known, of course, for her achievements as one of the world’s top cricketers. We’ve had many conversations over the years about how to get ‘in the zone’ for performances, including how to manage nerves in a positive way, and put errors made behind you at the time, whilst learning from them afterwards. What a boon to be able to tap into the experience of performing at an elite level. We’ll publish more details about the workshop in due course.