Take your coaching or producing to the next level

Ray at mixing desk
That's me on the right
Recently, I spent an entire weekend locked away in a recording studio, recording a number of songs with a local amateur ensemble. Later that week came two intense afternoons of mixing. After listening to our preliminary results, I am impressed with what I heard. After all, these are not trained musicians, and the challenges I set them were substantial. Last week they set up a presentation for themselves that I sadly could not attend, but their own reactions were great as well (pride, a feeling of accomplishment!). Now its of into the next stage: mastering, the making of a video and the public release in September. Throughout the project my role has changed: first the preparatory meetings, then writing the arrangements, next assisting at rehearsals as a co-conductor. And finally (in recording and mixing) as producer which is what I want to explore in a somewhat larger perspective here:

One of the tasks of a producer (or any manager or coach for that matter) is to keep an eye on the atmosphere, especially when stressful situations arise (like a mysteriously self-resetting mixing console...). On the second day of recording someone compared me to a football-coach (hey, it was the day of the European football championship final...). In a way that's true: I came up with the strategy, the arrangements and guided the group through the process. But I also remembered him that in the end it's the football-players that have to do all the running, getting tired and eventually score the goals. The real keyword is teamwork, including the "coach". A good coach (or manager) should in my view be both in and beyond the team at the same time. In the team as an equal person like all the others participating. Beyond the team in order to free them to focus on the task at hand, knowing that there's someone keeping an eye on the big picture. Notice I used "beyond" instead of "above". A true guide is never above the team, but part of the team. However, usually he or she has more knowledge of the subject matter and needs to look beyond the current things at hand. Toward the end goal of any project, but also toward any situations that might pop up between now and that end goal.

So far this is all quite straightforward: guiding a team from briefing to final product. But you can take it to the next level by catering to the specific needs of the individual members. This works especially well in a group with mixed levels of proficiency. Each person in the group has different needs - both musical and otherwise. You need to be able to identify these, in order to guide them personally. But to really take things to the next level I think you should challenge each member to their maximum ability. Of course they should be motivated for this, but in this kind of project that is usually no problem. Be very careful that you don't challenge them too much, because that will only frustrate them. It's a thin line to walk, but oh so sweet when it works!

A key theme of this project was to give the 'younger' members (ages ranging from 14 to improper to reveal...) a chance to develop and be the focal point. But in the end this whole experience also added something new to the lives of the 'old hands' as well. For me, that's the reason I do these projects in the first place: to add something to the lives of the participants - young or old, amateur or pro - and in the end to the audience I hope. That's why I wrote about my task as producer. I think in the end the producer (manager / coach) needs to nurture the people he's working with. Not just the end goal matters, but also the increase each team-member experiences for himself while doing what is required. This keeps the motivation high throughout a project and reduces the effects of inevitable setbacks. And in the end, the result will be so much better than if you focus on the original target alone. It sure was in this case! For an entire weekend we all operated in the "flow" as (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes about in his famous book "Finding Flow"): being busy with something that takes full concentration, poses specific demands with clear feedback and is at the cutting edge of one's level. This is beyond the topic of this post, but it really contributed to the great results.

To summarise: producers, conductors, managers, coaches all serve the same purpose: to guide a group of people through a certain process. In my view the best coaches are those that look even beyond the project to the individual needs of the people. Of course without getting sidetracked from the original goal of the project ;)

Related posts:

Corporate teambuilding through music
A quick way to improve amateur orchestras
How much fun can practise be?

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