Never assume you know what it takes to be a World Class Performer

Never assume you know what it takes to be a World Class Performer

After the ‘violent entrepreneur’ let’s move on to peak performance in the arts and learning from another area that opened my eyes. Well maybe it reminded me of a harsh reality.  Just when you’re starting to develop a theory on what it takes to excel there’s something and someone that stops you in your tracks. I hadn’t expected but I jumped at the opportunity to meet a maestro musician. The arts aren’t really my cappuccino.  A couple of years ago I’d profiled  Kathryn McKusker an Australian Soprano tutored at one time by Joan Sutherland as well as specialist in Kundalini Yoga I don’t know about opera but years ago I learned Yoga through Professor Chakraboorti at the Institute of Management of Calcutta so found her a wonderful exemplar of the virtues of Yoga and had a brief  education in Opera as one of the highest art forms. As I recall she pointed out many similarities between top performers in sports and the arts. “You have to be very disciplined, very focused and very mindful of keeping yourself healthy, fit and energised and in top vocal performance. As singers you are working with a vocal coach and a singing teacher, so there is not really a great difference; musicians are like sportsmen” Dame Joan Sutherland, one of Kathryn’s inspirations, also made this point in an interview, emphasizing that “technique is the basis of every pursuit. If you are a sportsman, a swimmer or a singer you have to develop a basic technique to know what you are doing at any given time”. She also added,’’ you can’t expect to perform at Sydney Opera House after socialising till four in the morning the night before.’

Floyd’s response: this is where discipline is key, the difference between most top performers is fractional. If you therefore undermine your performance with lack of sleep, nutrition, too much alcohol and think that this will not affect your performance you are kidding yourself.

Once again the term basics drills comes to the fore. When we talk about basics we must then identify what they actually are. I sometimes hear “I just do the basics well ” from top professionals but they can’t articulate what the basics are.  It is the same in the business world, what are the basic elements you need to do as an individual, team or Organisation to ensure that you are competitive ( I will outline what are my basics in a later blog today)?

Victor Yoran  born in Moscow in 1938, and accepted into the Central Music School at the age of six was someone completely different …but the same.  His talent was spotted and nurtured for 14 years  by eminent cellist and conductor maestro Mstislav Rostropovich, (Jacqueline du Pré was also a pupil of his) one of the greatest cellists of the 20th century. In fact I’m starting to believe that enquiring about choice of mentors and influential ‘teachers’ is a great way of identifying people’s potential. I seem to recall Floyd you specifically mentioned Al Slater. These people are worth their weight in talent gold. Floyd’s response: I have recently identified 15 people who have been influential in my journey to this stage of my life. Some of them have just provided a thought but that thought has allowed me to grow as a person. I have always taken the time to ensure that people know when they have assisted me so that they continue to do so for others. I also intend to hold a dinner for these people in the near future to say thank you (the reason I have done so is so that I do not forget these key learnings and the benefit it gave).  I am fortunate to see enormous potential in people on a daily basis and most of them just need to be shown/told that someone has confidence/trust in them. Comment ends.

Rostropovich claimed he was very lucky because he didn’t need to practice when young. Perhaps Gladwells folklore rule of 10,000 hours is open to interpretation but  he generally practiced at most two hours per day once saying in an interview,’ while some performers had to practice every day in order to stay in top form, I didn’t. It was as if my fingers had a memory of their own. They never forgot what they were supposed to do. ‘ In 1969 having distinguished himself during the Prague Spring Yoran left the Soviet Union illegally and taught at the Rubin Academy of Music in Israel. As he emphasised to me after the moving  tribute to his teacher, ’I was in a way not an active but passive dissident. I just didn’t cry against the regime, I just disappeared. I changed many things after I came to the West. I changed my views on music and art so it was very fruitful for me but that’s for another discussion.’ From Israel, Yoran went on various concert tours to England, where playing with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra he excelled with Dvorak´s cello concerto. Yehudi Menuhin called him one of the most impressive cellists and musicians of his generation.  Floyd’s Response: there will always be exceptions to the 10,000 hours rule. As I am not an exception to that rule I can confirm that the majority of people need to practice for at least 10,000 hours to become an expert at something.  We can sometimes be distracted with someone who has more natural ability and seems to find the practice sessions easy, it can give us an excuse to not practice as hard or be as dedicated as we need to be.  I see this often when one of these performers becomes a spokesperson in a team.  The can distract others because they do not have to practice as hard so they don’t want others to do the same. This is where a head coach earns his money by not allowing this attitude to distract a team’s cohesion (one for another blog, “how do we control egos in a dressing room”) Comment ends

An untypical introduction to Typical Tchaikovsky

Now I am not at all musical, though I can appreciate a virtuoso performance in action. The audience and musicians were in concert and synchrony.  Plus Yoran was an entertainer. So when  Yoran introduced the Tribute It was warmly appreciated on a cold evening in the library of the Reform Club. ‘I am authorised,’ he announced, ‘to make you laugh though somehow doubt whether my weird Russian Jewish sense of humour would be fully appreciated. (warm laughter.) …..But even if not, you will acquire that knowledge about what I consider to be funny…. However this though very special knowledge shouldn’t be overestimated. The first piece is the special capricioso (in music lively and free as in capricious of course) of Tchaikovsky. There is nothing much to say about it about this insignificant piece…… You will have a rare opportunity, it is my privilege, of listening to perhaps the most insignificant piece he ever wrote. He himself wasn’t particularly fond of it….…but I am. It is so typical Tchaikovsky that just because of that it is worth playing……………… and worth listening to.’ Watching Yoran and his pianist Elena Smoljanski in action time stood still. I could almost sense the appreciation and understanding  of the audience. I’m almost sure one could see the music unfolding in front of one individual’s eyes concentrating on the art of listening (it seemed to me) to each note. I guess it’s like experts watching Cricket.  I might see one thing but Michael Vaughan even after a night out with Beefy will see what’s really happening.

Success is not a useful Construct

I had an intriguing discussion on what it took to be a World Class Performer in the arena of classical music. Here’s some of Yoran’s perspective on success as interpreted and recalled by myself.  First Yoran was crystal clear, ’the success means nothing for you. What is important for me is to do my job as a musician and to have an appropriate audience, appropriate audience I repeat. When I was nearly six years old I told my mother I would like to go to the music school. I was at that time in Siberia because Germans were invading Russia. It was 1942 I was five, nothing was so remote as the thought of a music school, this was a luxury. We lived in very modest situation. I wanted to learn music I was never interested in success. I wanted just to say something with my music; to say and convey my sayings to people, that’s all because I need the communication. I can communicate with my music. If people are responding to what I am saying with my music I am totally satisfied whether I am successful or not.’  Floyd’s response: It is always interesting to understand what determines success. When we can appreciate our own thoughts and internal happiness without the need for external approbation from others it is a powerful place to be.  However as emotionally driven entities our desire for approval from others is strong and can be significant distraction in our need for external acknowledgement for what we do. Response ends.

The Need for an Appropriate Audience

In response to my observation that music was a form of self-expression Yoran agreed, ’Yes certainly but it also needs a response. I don’t like the idea of playing for myself in my room or my flat. I need at least one person to listen to me. For me an appropriate audience is well educated in music. Real music lovers who go to concerts, who love music, who understand music who are educated. Beethoven said I write not for everybody, I compose for the educated, that’s what Beethoven said. The people who don’t understand what one says, they for me have little value if they understand not enough, are not deep enough, not discerning enough. It’s disappointing because I put very much thought, work, feeling and intellect- everything into my work and what I do with my Cello. If I see that the people don’t grasp it I am disappointed….with the audience but often I am disappointed with myself if I don’t play well. It happens of course with everybody. But if I play well and the public doesn’t respond adequately I am disappointed too.’ Floyds response “as above”.

On asked about the evening’s tribute Yoran was self-analytical as well as analytical about the audience. ‘Tonight I was quite happy, but the way they reacted to Banshchikov didn’t quite satisfy me, because I think the piece is quite outstanding.  I understand they were not quite ready for it. It was perhaps too modern for them, but other recitals, Tchaikovsky for example  I didn’t quite play well because you don’t play like you would like to. Rachmaninov we played well and the public reacted appropriately. That is what I like. And the last two pieces that was appropriate reaction and that makes me happy.’ What intrigued me most was the aftermath of a performance. For Yoran, ‘and when people come and say good words afterwards of course I would like them to be more discerning and more eloquent in what they say, rather than say oh it was marvellous thank you. The real music lovers they can say this and that. They can go in details but normally people don’t go in details. They just go very general, not what did they love, why did they love it. It’s not the ideal audience if they don’t understand the music. Ideal audience is one that comes to you afterwards and says what they liked, didn’t like and why; they really go in detail. If they don’t do it I am not unhappy.’  Floyds response: Feedback given well is the “food of champions”. Understanding how we like to receive feedback in detail or in general is always important in communication.  If I know the person cares about me and my performance I always listen to the feedback and take appropriate action to change.

Just who is your audience?

An elite performer in a niche rather than mass market it felt to me that Yoran needed the sophistication and discerning judgement of an educated audience as his ideal in his quest for personal excellence and peak performance. As he explained to me’ right from the age of six as I grew older I understand that problem. You put so much into what you are doing. You need to have an appropriate response. You just need it.  As far as my playing is concerned I play as well as I can. My endeavour can be held if I play not well. The purpose of my playing must be received. Even if I by chance play not well, endeavour must be honoured somehow. I would love to be the best that I can be for what I  do. I would love to, every artist would like to be. If it is  possible why not?  Because to be less good as you can is just useless, unreasonable.- Why do practice? It doesn’t matter how long, how arduous you rehearse at home but during the concert you must put your very, very best into the performance. That’s the way you run your life, I think so. ‘Floyd’s response: the pressure zone is where we get to test ourselves, that may be a meeting room, an arena, a classroom, a trading floor. Once you step across the white line then we should be in performance mode. Today we get the chance to see how good we are. This is what separates those that want to truly push the boundaries of their potential.

Of course in the world where ‘software is experience and work is performance,’ it raises the question for us all as individuals about who is our audience and what do we expect from them and what do we get it from them.

Are we good enough for them?

Are they appropriate and good enough to appreciate us and our efforts?

If not what are we going to do to change?

We have a choice.  Floyd’s response: The most important element in all performance (in my opinion). Did I prepare, did I ensure I had thought through contingencies, did I minimise internal and external distractions, did I perform at my optimum element at this moment in time? If the answer is yes then it does not matter what other people think because today I was at my best. It gives me a start point and now I know what I need to do to get better.  All of those things are within my power to control; I do not have control over anything else. If people approve and give nice platitudes then that is wonderful, if not…..Comment ends.

Richard Cross

3 thoughts on “Never assume you know what it takes to be a World Class Performer

  1. Floyd
    On the basics you make an excellent point about the need to define them- one person’s hobby horse can be another’s basics and ‘critical non-essentials ’ or shopping list of ingredients to cope with World Hunger. In the business world what constitutes the basics for a job role at a managerial role is a complex issue. It’s mediated by social and contextual issues about how work gets done and what constitutes the choreography of effective performance. With most people even on the shop floor knowledge workers ‘ those who have an interesting conversation at work’ (a definition of Knowledge Workers) or the creative classes looking to ‘add value’ effectiveness or the basics can be a social construct about how things should be done.. Sure there is data galore and competency models ad infinatum to see the basics in action but they can be open to (mis) interpretation.
    We do like to complicate issues as the advert go’s. I was once consulting on a housing project with a leading city council. The client had been an MBA and was querying myself and a colleague on whether our statistical expertise was up to par talking about multivariate analysis etc. We’d seen enough timesheets and forecasting forms, and CPk’s I confess we could both do six sigma twenty years ago. Just looking at the data we sensed it had been ‘spoofed’. John Major like we suggested a return to the basics. We took an idea from manufacturing called A delta T (actual vs theoretical time) suggested we should map out the housing process concerned with when a tenant confirmed he was leaving a property with those who worked with rather than managed the process and throw in a customer representative who was a tenant. I could tell they were disappointed and would have preferred that years slides from the latest fad. How could we address such a complex problem that had caused internecine turf wars and blame sharing for years?
    We discovered a bureaucratic and Kafkaesque nightmare as we followed the keys from the moment a tenant decided to leave a rented property. Whatever they felt the basics were, they weren’t doing them. For a start there was no collection point for the keys to be handed in , hence they got lost, hence nobody could get in to read the metres, consequently a locksmith had to be called in. (and there were gross inefficiencies all round). Then on the event it turned out they all had different definitions of voids.
    In the business world too I would also add that not all teams are driven to be ‘competitive’ in the conventional sense. We found that in the service engineer community for example in one organisation how they defined effectiveness was respect from their peers as to their technical ability, the passion they had for their jobs, just doing their jobs rather than an official league table, a customer rather than managerial perspective.. They were driven to do the best job for the customer and managers rarely saw that because they never field accompanied them., We gave them enormous manuals to help them do their jobs. They were trained in the basics of problem solving. Reality was they learned more from their peers through conversations over coffee. We assumed we knew how they learned and the basics of the job but we’d lost track of how knowledge can be created and shared through conversations of people who trust and can vouch for each other.
    I’ll add some thoughts on those who help you grow based on the research. It’s a different subject too but Gladwell’s or perhaps it should be more accurately Levitin’s 10,000 hours rule is a great advert for the power of ‘magic numbers.’ story telling and myth making.(paradoxically what also happens around World Class performers is that myths are recreated. Just for those who haven’t come across this he quotes Levitin as saying ‘the emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to the level of mastery associated with being a world class expert in anything .. composers, fiction writers, concert pianists,,master criminals, It seems the brain takes this long to assimilate all that it needs to achieve true mastery.’
    I’m not against practice, at all but would argue that what really counts is purposeful practice. Syed discusses this in Bounce but for me Gary Klein’s original work on this area and naturalistic decision making is informing my ‘emerging picture’ As to master criminals and the basics for them I have to say the 10,000 hour rule is a great but meaningless and not particularly useful truism ( even if it’s even ‘true’) and extrapolation. We’ll have to have a separate blog on uses and abuses of neuroscience. I can add though that as a result of my purposeful networking and research in elite performance in the political world I attended a talk by historian Pavel Stroilov on Soviet links to British Politics in the 1970’s and 80’s.
    From that perspective progression to the elite in Politics and also at higher levels in some organisations is more about ‘clubs’ and ‘circles’ than practice of any sort per se.

    As for how to control ego’s in the dressing room, perhaps we could ask your correspondent Michael Vaughan to open on that one?

    Best Richard Cross

    • Richard, you are correct in that practice must be purposeful and actually replicate what you intend to undertake in the real world. That means replicating even the smallest of details. Wearing the same equipment, creating the same environment, the same preparation etc. However the bottom line will always be that you will need to practice these elements time and time again no matter how many times you have done the skill before if you wish to remain at the top of a profession.

  2. Yes I was reading a brilliant book John Daniel confessions of a Rugby Mercenary. He writes about how coaches tend to love fitness sessions and weight test.. the latter are so easy to measure. And he regretted not spending more time there when younger. He also talks about assimilating all the subtle variations you may need to call upon when you’re under pressure and the guy opposite is trying to get an edge on you. You’ll enjoy the chapter on Brawn and Brains and supplementing courage with mental toughness and intelligence. The part I really like is where he describes on how Olivier Diomande converted himself into a hooker. In his late twenties he was late for positional change but’ threw himself into it,slimming to be more mobile,practicing his line-outs, throwing relentlessly , and weight training like a man possessed. He was open minded about learning, from other people and grew into a key role.’ Interesting how many of the world champions are open to learning. They’re not all receptive to feedback (it seems they are selective about those they value) but the vast majority are highly learning oriented.

    Highly recommended book his ‘beautiful career’.

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