Collaborate, communicate, connect

Colin Brett PCC, trainer at Coaching Development Ltd, maintains that “words create worlds”.

The three words that make up the title of this blogpost and, indeed, the tagline to this website, conjure up all kinds of images.  But what do they really mean?

My background is in performing arts, so let’s spend a little time in that world.

When we go to a music concert, we’re watching and listening to a group of people, working together. We love the feeling we get when we experience these musicians, literally co-labouring. What we’re experiencing is much more than the sounds they’re making: we’re listening to the result of hours and hours practising together, laughing about an awesome new chord they’ve disovered, arguing about who should make the tea during their rehearsal break, agreeing on their final playlist/programme.

The experience for us is even richer when we’re there with someone else, or as part of a group.

A number of years ago, I went to the South Bank in London, to watch an episode of “Room 101” being filmed. It was terrific fun, and I remember laughing heartily at some of Paul Merton’s quips and witty observations. Back at home though, when I watched similar programmes on TV, alone in my living room, the same sorts of jokes elicited little more than a faint smile, a light chuckle at best. Then again, when I invited some friends round to watch TV with me, that previous sense of hilarity suddenly returned. But why? The jokes were no more or less funny, so why would we laugh more, just because we’re in the company of others? My own view is that we want our friends to know that we “got the joke”, that we understood it. By acknowledging that, it helps us feel included in the group. But, and I ask this again: why?

Why do we need to collude with others in order to feel good about ourselves? Isn’t that a bit shallow? Can’t we rely on our own strength of character? Personally, I don’t think it’s about that. I think it’s about how we evolved as a species.

According to the Smithsonian, we have been stumbling around on this planet for around 6 million years, and right from the off, we have relied on collaboration for our very survival. With so many predators early on in our existence, we’ve needed “strength in numbers” in order to survive each day so that we can come home and say, “You go collect berries, me hunt animal.”, or grunts to that effect. Anyone considered an outsider would be pretty much doomed to become prey before too long.

So we developed social strategies, ways to ensure we could be “part of the gang”. This survival tactic has been in our DNA for so long, that we barely notice it any more than a fish notices the water it swims in. As I mentioned in my recent TEDx talk, it’s the reason groups of people sing together at football matches. It’s why we chant the creed in church. It’s why we’re on Facebook.

But what of our solo artists? Surely there’s something incredibly special about listening to a solitary performer, utterly engaged in what they’re doing out there, on their own. They don’t need anyone else to bring their message across, do they? Do they?

Let’s consider a solo harpist, playing at a wedding. She’s sitting there all alone, there’s no interaction with any other band members, perhaps her eyes are even closed while she plays, and she’s barely aware that other people are even in the room. There’s something eerily beautiful about the solitude of her performance.

Now let’s consider further: our harpist, most likely, took lessons – either from a teacher, or perhaps from a book. Someone wrote that book. A team of people designed and built her harp, and all its component parts. In fact, whole teams of people came together to shape her life, her upbringing, her education. Everything that has brought her to this point was as a result of countless interactions with people.

And the fact that she can touch our hearts with her music, well that in itself is a form of collaboration: we have entered into a mutual space of enjoyment. The music itself forms a bond between the performer and the listener. Of course, we can enjoy being on our own, singing a tune to ourselves that makes us feel happy. But perhaps we feel happy because it triggers a memory of something. And you can bet that that memory includes other people.

Collaboration, therefore, is everywhere. We can’t move for it. No one can succeed purely on their own: we can’t be great leaders without followers, a world-class conductor is nothing without her orchestra, the head of an international opera house cannot achieve anything without the willing participation of those working under them. (For more on the “Lone Genius innovator” read this.) Collaboration is the thing that tap into that six million year old, archaic part of ourselves.

When we collaborate, we communicate. And when we communicate, we connect.

Opera and cultural change: Is the system in need of a rethink?

by Elisabeth Meister and Stuart Pritchard

The climate in which opera singers work is often one of powerlessness, fear, repression and anxiety:

Powerlessness, because hiring decisions are outside their control, and even their ability to influence them is very limited.

Fear, because the lack of ability to influence those making casting decisions leads to chronic work insecurity.

Repression, because any honest admission of the authentic frailties which make us all human risks being interpreted as weakness, endangering the ability to get work.

Anxiety, as a result of all of these things, but also anxiety at the harsh judgment of the public who often don’t understand that the human singing voice isn’t something which can always be summoned on demand to the quality we would like: singing a top C at over 100dB relies on the complex interplay of physical and psychological factors far more than speaking can ever do.

Added to the training required to be able to sing consistently well, is the emotional input and feedback between the brain and the body.  Your state of mind has a huge effect on what is possible vocally, which explains why your voice is usually the first thing to “go” when you’re feeling emotional. But how does a professional singer’s mind work in a climate where its owner has so little influence?

The stumbling blocks are immense: there’s the pressure to find work, not only to put food on the table, but to satisfy the innate craving for performing that lies inside most singers.  Then there’s the pressure to perform when you’re feeling unwell, or worse, being forced to withdraw from a run entirely because it turns out that, several years after having signed a contract, your voice has changed and you discover that the role no longer suits your voice. The potential backlash from critics, the public, and the companies you work for can seriously affect a singer’s ability to remain “in control”.

This lack of control can lead to seriously debilitating situations: the body’s endocrine system is often the first to fall victim to stress, leading to diagnoses of, among many things, thyroid issues, acid reflux, migraines, anxiety attacks, and even epilepsy.

The environment within which singers operate is pretty much custom-made to get in the way of them being their expressive, artistic selves.

There are so many collaborative, engaging and co-operative ways in which such things could be improved.  To do so is a huge challenge, requiring bravery and courage to try doing things differently, not just for singers, but for everybody who works in the industry, and everybody who enjoys the fruits of the industry’s labour.  It was Charles Darwin who observed that it isn’t the strongest or the fastest who survive, but those most adaptable to change. Inevitably collaboration would mean a re-distribution of power and a change in the culture of many organisations.  It can be done; but it’s not an easy journey.

Next time you wonder why opera struggles to survive, you might take a moment to wonder whether its cultural approach is able to make the leap necessary to allow it not just to survive, but to thrive.

Stuart Pritchard is an award-winning author and behavioural psychologist.  Find him at his website, Unlimited Growth, or follow him on Twitter @StuartP69. He is a member of the Meister Music Creative Team.

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Cardiff Slimmer – update

Yesterday I published a blogpost on some comments made about one of the entrants to the Cardiff Singer competition.

I’ve been reflecting on the situation, and have to admit I have some conflicting thoughts and opinions about it all.

Over the last twenty years or so, a part of the opera world has become swept up in the media’s quest for physical perfection.  On the one hand, our singers are being taught to become “HD ready”, and that “that’s the way things are these days – if you want to be hired, you’ve got to look like a film star”, but at the same time we strive to break down any hints of elitism by showing how normal and representative of society we are.  People come in all shapes and sizes so why shouldn’t we?  And in any case, do we really want to spend more time in the gym than in the practice room?

We’re really happy to see the likes of Anna and Erwin on the covers of magazines, and we’ll salivate over the latest edition of “Barihunks” – who doesn’t love a bit of positive objectification now and again, eh?  But, my goodness, we don’t like it when we get objectified in any negative way, and we’ll rush as fast as possible to the “it doesn’t matter what you look like, it’s how you sound” argument, and that feels to me, well, somewhat hypocritical.

Of course, it’s not nice to be called names, and it’s great to see people rallying around in support.  I feel uncomfortable about people wanting to censor those who want to say negative things.  “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”  Hmm.  Can you imagine if that were actually to become law?  We’d all be living in a rather strange and fearful world, and sooner or later we’d start campaigning again for freedom of speech.

I don’t know what the answer is.  I guess there’ll always be people who say nice things, and likewise those who say nasty things.  I think all we can do is try to rub along together in this strange tension, and try to understand and not vilify those whose opinions differ from yours.

Cardiff Slimmer of the Year?

Apparently there’s some debate going on about fat people in opera.


I woke up this morning to an email from BBC Radio Wales, inviting me to come on the show to offer my opinion about a comment apparently made on Facebook by the son of a well-known opera singer.  It seemed he had made a disparaging comment about the physique of the Welsh entrant to the Cardiff Singer of the World competition.  I declined to appear on the show, as I feel it’s not something that can be coherently brought to any kind of conclusion in a 20-minute debate.

I tuned into the programme to listen to what was said and, predictably enough, the author of the comment was severely criticised for offering his opinion.  Regardless of what I actually think of his remarks, I am fully aware that, since in the invention of the interwebz we, the general public, have finally found a platform for us to voice our opinions.  Hurrah for freedom of speech!  It means that anyone, anywhere, can think up a pithy little quote, or make a snap judgement about anything or anyone, and – Boom! – it’s on the internet, waiting for someone to click away from the latest cat video and get all offended by it.

And, I guess, we have a right to be offended, and a right to comment back.  I don’t think we should necessarily call him names back in a bid to see how he likes it (there’s been a lot of sweary name-calling on social media today), I don’t think there’s any headway to be made there.


We’ve become a culture of judges and demonisers (and look!  Here I am, doing the same thing!): everyone is discriminated against in some way or other.  The overwhelming likelihood is that people are unconsciously transferring their unresolved issues with themselves onto others, in the same way that men often transfer their unresolved sexual issues onto homosexuals so they can be angry at them instead of themselves.  This goes for people on both sides of the argument.

It’s unlikely ever to change, it’s what the internet has become: a meeting place for bigots and non-bigots alike, a place where men and Katie Hopkins can spout something outrageous in order to feed their self-loathing in the quickest way possible.  There’s no way of stopping it.  We fight for freedom of speech and then vilify those who exercise such a right.  It’s an endless tension and, at the end of it, we want to find out who’s responsible for our blame culture.

All I can suggest is: if you don’t like them, don’t feed them.  I remember writing about this time last year during the last “fat female singer débâcle”: I haven’t bought a magazine since about 1987 when I finally got over my crush on Joey from New Kids.  The articles in them are designed to vilify women for being a millimetre over a size zero, and making them feel so insecure that they buy yet MORE magazines to try and find the answers.  To me, magazines like that are like an abusive husband, insisting that his wife just needs one more punch in the face to help her realise what she’s doing “wrong”.  It’s bloody appalling, but we won’t be able to change the system until we stop buying into the thing that’s punching us all the face.

So can we please stop giving air-time to the bullies?  Don’t like it?  Don’t support it.

Oh, and good luck in the Cardiff Singer, all you brilliant, brave people.

The art of auditioning

I have been a professional singer for over twenty years, and one thing I and my many hundreds of operatic colleagues have observed is that one of the most tricky things we have to negotiate in our profession is:


There are two main types of audition we do: one to get an agent, and one to get a job with an opera company.

In order to get an agent, you might start by writing round all the agents who have a great reputation for looking after their clients.  But the only way you’ll get their interest is if you can invite them to a concert or show.  And there’s your first problem: you don’t have any gigs in the diary to invite them to.  It’s a Catch 22.

But for now, let’s say you have an agent, and they want you to go and do an audition for an opera house in, say, Germany.  First, you have to stump up the cash to be able to travel to the designated city, usually arriving the night before, and staying in a hotel.  These costs mount up extremely quickly, especially if you have to fly to these places.  So we’re looking at a cost of £300-£400, just for one, speculative audition.

Ok then, so you’ve done your homework (or your agent has), and you know that this house is looking for a role that you know you can sing the tits off.  You’ve spoken to the Royal Bank of Mum and Dad and borrowed the money for the trip, and you’ve arrived at the venue, whereupon you’re told whether or not you have access to a warm-up space (hint: try to warm up before you leave the hotel – you may get an angry knock at the door, but heck, you’re there to get a job!).  And now you’re waiting outside the room, ready to show them what you’ve got.

You’re called in.  Chances are you’re in a small room (“Why did I bring Wagner?!”), or perhaps a larger one, with a pile of chairs stacked up in the corner, and the odd bit of scenery plonked down.  You try not to let your mind wander off,  musing over what opera that bit of set might be for.  No.  Focus. Keep your eye on the prize.

You have already read up on how to greet the panel (usually just one, two, or three people), you’ve decided whether or not to shake hands, how formal to be, you’ve done your pre-audition breathing exercises to be as centred and calm as possible.  You hand your music to the pianist, whose eyes open wide as he/she doesn’t recognise the pieces.  You cross your fingers, and off you go…

Days later, you may get one of the following responses:

  1. The panel didn’t like you, and you never get to sing for them again.
  2. They liked you, but felt you need a year or two more experience before considering you again
  3. They liked you, but have nothing to offer you for the time being.
  4. They loved you, and think they might have something to offer you in three years’ time.
  5. They adored you, and were able to offer you a role (which then you have to decide fits both your voice-type and schedule).

These are all things a singer must consider when deciding whether or not it’s worth the money and time to do the audition in the first place.

And it’s no picnic for the panel either, who really want you to do well, but know that their very presence is unnerving for you.  You also know that you perform much better when you’re actually just performing.  If only you could show them what you can do on a proper stage, with an orchestra and other singers on stage, rather than standing in an empty room in uncomfortable shoes.

The whole concept of auditioning can be stress-inducing, nerve-wracking, jet-lagging, and bank-breaking.  There MUST be a better way.

Answers on a postcard please.  Or in the comments below.

Big-boned and thick-skinned

When Irish mezzo Tara Erraught was hauled unceremoniously over the coals by critics for her physicality while performing the role of Octavian at Glyndebourne’s production of Der Rosenkavalier, it baffled and angered hundreds of opera singers and fans. What on earth does your body size have to do with how well you can sing?

As a teenager, I, along with countless dozens of others, memorised the words to all the New Kids on the Block’s singles, and yes, I desired (but never got) a device for making my hair look like crinkle-cut chips (I would borrow my friends’). But I soon began to observe a phenomenon among my female classmates: they were becoming obsessed with how they looked. They would huddle in groups and read the fashion mags and long to look like Kylie, Demi and Nicole, and they’d go to great culinary and chemical lengths to try to achieve a similar level of whatever it was. Their levels of self-esteem seemed to correspond with their ability to look like someone else.

I thought it was all rather odd; these girls were making themselves miserable because they lacked the resources, both financial and genetic, to make themselves look like their idols. It dawned on me that, along with the advice my parents would give when being bullied for being ginger, if you ignore it, it might just go away.

So I ignored it, and went off to choir practice.

But it didn’t go away.

Over twenty years later, and I’m saddened to see articles that STILL try to tell us women how we should look in order to be attractive. Magazines that STILL reveal the “circle of shame” of some celebrity’s cellulite (heaven forfend); the comedian Sarah Millican having abuse thrown at her for recently wearing a dress to the BAFTAs that she liked and felt good in, and countless other citations. Who ARE these people? Does it make them feel better about themselves to hurl abusive comments around?

I’m fat. I’m 5’8″ and a size 18. I’m not expected to fit in society’s version of what hot. I sometimes wear cut-off leggings under a summer dress because my thighs rub when I walk. I sweat when the temperature goes above 21 degrees. But wait. What’s this? I’m voluptuous. I’m womanly. I AM hot. My boyfriend can’t get enough of me.

More importantly, I work in an industry that celebrates the most natural thing a person can possess: the human voice. The voice, whether it’s in pop, rock, jazz or opera, can enhance and transcend the five senses we use to observe the world around us. It transforms, heals, comforts and uplifts us far beyond the ability to squeeze into a dress better suited to a slightly tall child.

There are more than enough industries set up around the world to make women feel bad about themselves. We don’t need it in the classical music world too, thank you very much.

So, critics, if you really MUST criticise us (and goodness knows why you should even do that in the first place), then please take the time to learn what it takes to hone our craft. Understand that the training we do is sadly not on offer at Virgin Active. If it’s the case that you simply don’t like the sound we make, just say you don’t like the sound we make. That’s entirely valid. But don’t make sexist and puerile remarks about our figures; at best, it’s childish, and at worst (for you), it dilutes the currency of everything else you have to say.

PING! Ooh, there’s the microwave.