Can a rehearsal be better than a concert?

rehearsal concertCan a rehearsal be better than a concert? You be the judge!

Every summer since 1951, the world-famous Marlboro Music Festival takes place my small Vermont hometown. Last week my wife and I attended the free morning rehearsals for two pieces of chamber music — Mozart’s Horn Quintet and Dvořák’s Piano Trio No. 3 — played at the formal concert that afternoon.

The rehearsal

Around twenty-five people showed up in an auditorium that, in a few hours, would be filled with hundreds. We could sit anywhere! Naturally, we chose front row center.

Earlier Festival rehearsals are held in classrooms scattered around the Marlboro College campus. Many years ago, when I taught at the school, I’d wander around during the summer and hear beautiful scattered fragments of music. Auditorium rehearsals are the last before the performance, so they tend to contain long stretches of music, punctuated with only a few pauses and occasional repetitions at the ends of movements.

This rehearsal was no exception. The artists played both pieces through with little interruption. They conferred with each other on stage, but we couldn’t easily hear what they were saying.

After the rehearsal we noticed that several friends were present, and it was easy to stroll over and spend some time chatting.

Rehearsal versus concert

It’s interesting to compare the rehearsal and concert experiences. I think many listeners would agree that rehearsals are primarily about the music, though some rehearsals I’ve attended at other venues have offered fascinating glimpses into the ways in which musicians think and work together.

Concerts are, hopefully, primarily about wonderful performances of great music too, but they are also social events. Sometimes, I admit, I find the social aspects distracting and/or detracting from the performance. Audience coughs, rustling, and occasional clatter are inevitable. Navigating my way through crowds to take my seat, get a drink during intermission, or leave when the concert is over is sometimes irksome.

Paradoxically, we met and chatted with more friends at the rehearsal than we’d probably have at the concert, where it’s harder to physically move near people who you know.

Listening to a breathtaking musical performance with hundreds of others is also a unique experience, with the loud applause and, sometimes, standing ovations emphasizing the depth of feeling that the audience collectively shares and of which you are a part. The rehearsal, in contrast, is a subdued affair, with each audience member individually responding to the music and the performance.

Which is “better”? I’ll leave that as an exercise for you. (Feel free to share your perspective in the comments.)

Final thoughts — a performer’s perspective

For a dozen years I sang tenor with the Brattleboro Concert Choir. This involved many weekly rehearsals, followed by just two or three public performances. Like all musicians, we spent far more time rehearsing than performing.

As a performer I learned the wisdom of a mantra that has stood me in good stead over the years — after I slowly and painfully acquired it. “Process not product!” The frustrating, time-consuming, and taxing process of learning your part in a majestic piece of music and working to sing it really well with others is valuable in itself. Though there is the bonus of finally performing publicly to an appreciative audience, I did not spend my time and effort to be rewarded with applause. I rehearsed mightily because I love to sing for or with others. That, as an amateur musician, is sufficient reward.

Photo attribution: Mitsuko Uchida & Jonathan Biss from Marlboro Music 

The workshop that wasn’t

workshop that wasn'tLast week, my friend Traci B wrote to me about a workshop that wasn’t.

“You’ll love this…I went to a 4 hour morning workshop at this digital conference. The speaker said, this will be interactive because no one wants to listen to me talk for four hours. He then proceeded to talk for 4 hours!

I did learn stuff and it prompted some ideas, but imagine how much better they might stick if it actually was a workshop. Also, he polled people in the audience and asked who was B2B [business-to-business] and who B2C [business-to-consumer]. 90 percent of the room was B2B…his presentation was almost all B2C.”

Sadly, experiences like this are far too common. Speakers (and the folks that concoct conference programs) decide to jazz up the description of a broadcast-style session by calling it a workshop.

The dictionary definition of a workshop is: “a seminar, discussion group, or the like, that emphasizes exchange of ideas and the demonstration and application of techniques, skills, etc.”.

Workshops that are

Obviously, the lecture Traci had to endure wasn’t a workshop. Genuine workshops include significant, frequent, and appropriate work by participants, guided by leaders. The leaders typically have significant content-specific experience. However, they also need adequate facilitation skills to guide the group through the session’s activities.

Some workshops are better described as trainings, where the participants are novices and the leader supplies the vast majority of the content and learning environment. However, most workshops I’ve led included professionals with significant skills and experience.

Customizing a workshop

When running such sessions, it’s important to customize the workshop in real time to meet the actual wants and needs of the participants, rather than plowing through a predetermined agenda that may be partially or largely irrelevant.

This did not happen at Traci’s event!

“Also, adapting your presentation isn’t tagging on “it’s the same for B2B” after every example…cause it’s not.”

Skilled leaders know to uncover the wants and needs of participants at the start of the session, and use the information to build a workshop that’s optimized for the attendees.

This sounds more difficult than it usually is. Preparation involves having a broad set of potential content, techniques, and skills to cover. Then, during the session, the leader concentrates on the wants and needs the attendees have initially shared, adjusting the time spent on each area to match the expressed interest.

One final suggestion

If a presenter (like me) is actually running a workshop, please don’t insist on calling them a speaker! In my experience, attendees prefer well-designed workshops to almost any other session format. Tell them the session is a workshop. They’ll appreciate the information (and likely the session too)!

Squaring the circle: creating room sets for connection


Meeting planners typically default to squaring the circle when specifying room sets. They persist in seating attendees in long straight lines whenever possible, ignoring the benefits of curved and circular seating at their events. (See Paul Radde’s Seating Matters: State of the Art Seating Arrangements for more information.)

The architecture of assembly where curved theatre seating dominates, teaches us otherwise. And we all know that the most intimate and useful small group conversation and connection occurs around round tables. (Even though many of the rounds used at meetings are far too large.)

I’ve explained the importance of curved seating and large circle sets in detail in my book The Power of Participation (Chapter 13), so I won’t reiterate its value here. Instead, I’m going to answer a common dilemma faced by my clients: what to do when there isn’t enough room for large circle sets at a venue.

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I am the second sort of escapologist

the second sort of escapologistI am the second sort of escapologist.

“I read once that the first time they put an escapologist in a tank of water, he or she will have one of two reactions, and which one determines the course of their life.

The first sort of escapologist is an ordinary person who has come to the trade organically, by whatever curious sequence of opportunity and happenstance—and that sort will panic. There is very little that is more appallingly unnatural or frightening than being lowered, bound, into a confined space containing an atmosphere you cannot breathe. … Some people just never go back in the tank. … Some get right back in and they master their fear and they go on to be as good as their skill allows. These last are most compelling to watch.

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27 years of peer conferences

27 years of peer conferencesGood things come in threes. Though I usually overlook anniversaries, I noticed one this morning. The first peer conference I convened and designed was held June 3 – 5, 1992 at Marlboro College, Vermont. So, as of today, the community of practice that eventually became edACCESS has enjoyed 27 years of peer conferences. [That’s 3 x 3 x 3. I told you good things come in threes.]

Twenty-three people came to the inaugural conference. At the time, I had no idea that what I instinctively put together for a gathering of people who barely knew each other would lead to:

  • a global design and facilitation consulting practice;
  • over 500 posts on this blog, which has now become, to the best of my knowledge, the most-visited website on meeting design and facilitation;
  • three books (almost!) on participant-driven, participation-rich meeting design; and
  • plentiful ongoing opportunities to fulfill my mission to facilitate connection between people.

However, none of this happened overnight. For many years, designing and facilitating meetings was a vocation rather than a profession, usually unpaid. Furthermore, it was an infrequent adjunct to my “real” jobs at the time: information technology consulting, and teaching computer science.

27 years of peer conferences. From little acorns, mighty oaks. I would never have predicted the path I’ve traveled — and continue to look forward to the journey yet to come. Above all, thank you everyone who has made it possible. I can’t adequately express the gratitude you are due.

Events operate by stories

Events operate by storiesEvents operate by stories.

“Our species doesn’t operate by reality. It operates by stories. Cities are a story. Money is a story. Space was a story, once. A king tells us a story about who we are and why we’re great, and that story is enough to make us go kill people who tell a different story. Or maybe the people kill the king because they don’t like his story and have begun to tell themselves a different one.”
—Isabel, in Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

I love science fiction, which Pamela Sargent calls “the literature of ideas”. In a world where it sometimes seems change is impossible, science fiction explores how our future will be different. Science fiction is also especially rich with possibility for introducing cognitive dissonance: the mental discomfort we feel when aware of two contradictory ideas at the same time.

Above all, good science fiction excels at telling stories. Powerful stories. Stories that routinely predict the future: earth orbit satellites, the surveillance state, cell phones, electric submarines, climate change, electronic media, the Cold War were all foreshadowed by science fiction stories long before they came to pass. Science fiction introduces possible futures, some of which come to pass, by using the power of stories.

Events operate by stories

Like science fiction, events also create futures, and events operate by stories. Just as good stories have a story arc, coherent events have a conference arc. In addition, every event participant creates their own story at an event, just as each reader or viewer individually absorbs and experiences a book or movie story.

The promise of events springs from the reality that we are the stories we tell about ourselves. The stories that events tell and we internalize change us.

It’s incumbent on all of us who create and design events to think carefully and creatively about the stories our events tell. When we do so successfully, the power of stories shapes and maximizes participants’ individual and collective outcomes — and changes lives.

 

Why I love conference facilitation and design

Here’s an example of why I love conference facilitation and design. After setting up a Personal Introspective this morning (25 minutes) I turned over what happens to the small groups. Watch the listening and involvement of every person as I weave my phone through the circles of chairs.

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Any questions? Rethinking traditional Q&A

Any questions? Rethinking traditional Q&AHow often have you heard “Any questions?” at the end of a conference session?

Hands rise, and the presenter picks an audience member who asks a question. The presenter answers the question and picks another questioner. The process continues for a few minutes.

Simple enough. We’ve been using this Q&A format for centuries.

But can we improve it?

Yes!

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Liberating Structures 1-2-4-All has a big problem

Liberating Structures 1-2-4-All has a big problemWhile Liberating Structures include many useful ways to improve meetings and organizations, one of the “simplest” offered — “1-2-4-All” — has a big problem. It claims to uncover a group’s “important ideas” in just twelve minutes. But in practice it invariably misses innovative ideas that need time for the group to understand and value.

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