On giving and receiving feedback

Today I visited a Montessori classroom (around 30 children, 9 to 11 years old) and had the chance to attend a presentation about animal welfare, created by one of the children. First, it was a feast to see how much information she collected, how she organised it into a meaningful sequence, and how she presented, both reading texts written by herself and initiating brief guessing games where all children gladly took part. The presentation lasted almost an hour, and awoke the general curiosity. Many children set precise questions and she answered with sincerity.

Obliques

The most touching part for me was the final feedback from most of the people present, both children and adults (the teacher, the girl’s parents and a few guests including me): it felt sincere, accurate, carefully worded and spontaneous. I have read many articles and books about giving feedback and I thought I knew a lot, but was overwhelmed and almost surprised by how experienced everyone acted in that circle. I was equally moved by the quiet joy of the girl answering with a few words to each person, often with a simple, soft “Thank you”. It felt so right! She did a terrific job, put a lot of effort, time and passion into it, presented it to the whole group with an enviable nonchalance, then her classmates gave her positive feedback and a few points to improve: she deserved to be proud for that. It made me think of the times when my parents scolded me for looking too proud when I received compliments, and I am so glad that this girl, and the other children in that group, can practice this healthy feedback exchange from an early age so that it can become a natural, fully functional part of their growth.

Die Sonne genießen. N'Jumo, Orientalisch Kurzhaar.

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On disappearing while observing

At the last concert I attended as audience member, I happened to think about my love for observing. I loved to be for once in the audience instead of on the stage; to have the privilege to be still, to receive music without the need to interact with the musicians, except by clapping and cheering after each piece. The moment I loved most was after the concert when I stood near the stage, looking at the drummers packing up their gear: concentrated, efficient, relaxed after the show. I didn’t feel the need to interact with them, it would have been an interruption, even if I approached the stage with the wish to greet one of them. After a while he noticed me and walked over for a quick greeting, then had to come back to his instruments. I felt like a birdwatcher, briefly approached by a curious bird. I then wondered how I could ask (or even pretend) attention and recognition, when I feel so blessed as I get little or none of it. Maybe it’s because this is how I make sure to get sincere attention, instead of artificially-induced positive feedback.

I thought that attending a concert is one of the many setups where I am not the centre of attention, and not even an active participant in a communication. I felt the same positive sensations when I was observing wildlife during my university studies, and I realise that it was the strongest reason for me to enter the wildlife management field: this ability to disappear from the eyes of the animals, while working behind the scenes for their well-being. Well, sometimes they did notice me, like “Gina”, a female red deer rescue, who loved human attention, especially when it came in form of food 🙂

La Gina

I felt a similar heartfelt call when I met Maria Montessori’s concept of observation and her way of enabling children to learn by themselves, by stimulating their curiosity rather than actively keeping their attention on activities designed by myself. Even my friends sometimes make me the wonderful present of their spontaneous life, free from interactions with me. With my closest friends I notice that we have communication phases and observation phases, and we found our way to stay near each other with the possibility, but without the obligation, to interact. I feel it is a true mark of respectful closeness.

I have even experimented this mindset by standing near an intersection for several traffic light cycles. For ten minutes, the traffic lights lost for me the usual meaning of “Wait! Walk!” and my attention moved to the approaching cars, bikes and pedestrians. I watched how impatient each of them was, how some people scanned the surroundings while waiting and others kept their attention on the traffic lights; how some children on bikes negotiated the intersection with careful attention; how few people noticed me while others didn’t. At the orchestra’s rehearsals, it happens that I have significant gaps in my notes, or I plainly have nothing to play for a whole piece: wonderful! Time to disappear and observe! Time to watch other musicians and better understand which parts are hard for each instrument; time to better hear each one of them in the sum of sounds; time to enjoy their concentrated faces.

I sometimes think there is something odd in my fascination for this kind of disappearance. At the same time I find very healthy to practice invisibility and experience the world without being the centre of it, at least for a little while.

Any of you made similar experiences? I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

Book recommendation: “Barfuß auf dem Sommerdeich” by Katja Just

I just finished reading this book. First of all, I’m quite proud of having been able to read it all without looking at the dictionary!

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I picked it up in my library, attracted by the wilderness and remoteness of the Halligen, small islands in the North Sea, near the coasts of Germany and Denmark. The story of the city-dweller who leaves the busy streets for a remote, natural environment invariably fascinates every human heart.

Katja Just’s journey from Munich to Hooge is however not so close to a dream. She had hard times, not only because of the trying living conditions on the island, but, according to my impression, the deeper cause was her approach to those hardships. She does an amazing journey of introspection and acceptance, of herself, of the life on Hooge, that is unique and brave. This makes me think that just following her example and move to Hooge myself would not necessarily be a good decision: my starting point and my mindset are different. Nevertheless, the lessons I wish to learn from her experience are:

  • observe, assuming that the information is out there and deserves to be noticed
  • learn more about myself through the analysis of my reactions – being honest and open, rather than intolerant to my weaknesses
  • be ready to stand for my ideas, firmly and politely

I hope there will be soon an English translation, so that more readers can have access to the book. I’ll update the post accordingly.

Until next time, good reads everyone!

Find the difference #5: what you say vs. how you say it

I have been thinking about what has made discussions among me and others become heated, and most of the time it was not what people said, but how. Here are the two sentences I wish to compare:

  • You are not allowed to say that!

vs.

  • You are not allowed to say that this way! which could mean: You can say that, but the way you said it hurts me!

It makes me think a lot of parents and children. How many times I hear: “Don’t cry!” or “Don’t complain!” and I guess that it’s because seeing the suffering of others make us uncomfortable, at the point that we could prefer to silence it completely. There is a great article about this dynamic on happinessishereblog.com, and a shorter post on The Badger’s Smial. But what happens when we try to silence the cries, and worse, when we succeed? The suffering person feels even worse: oppressed, unable to both deal with the issue and to get support. I (among many) noticed that children get increasingly upset when they feel that their message doesn’t get through, and with an immense sadness, that some children (and adults) stop communicating and are therefore considered “good” – just because they are quiet.

I find that if I were a parent, I would promise to listen to all messages my children send me, eventually suggesting to express them a way that makes it easier for me and other people to help, but in no way editing the original content.

A similar censoring reaction happens often also when people get aggressive during a discussion: it seems easier to stop fighting if the other party stops pushing its idea forward, while it could be that it’s a matter of how the idea is expressed, and if the atmosphere calls more for white/black outcomes, rather than mutual understanding. I am trying to practice this form of de-escalation with my friends: I notice how the most vibrant advocates of a given idea calm down when they understand that I am OK with them owning their idea, and I am focusing on the way it is expressed. I think it takes a lot of pressure away, because there are endless possibilities to improve the formulation of a message. It could make me look undecided, when compared with people who get heated when they feel that others don’t agree with them; but I don’t feel comfortable being so assertive. It is actually a reason I left OSGeo Board a few years ago, because I felt that I could not fight for my/our ideas, but it was expected from my role. Now I would come back to OSGeo with a new  awareness, that I can contribute, move things forward in this equally firm, but more understanding way.

Playing drums: notes and movement

Last weekend we worked with our drum teacher on movement while playing the snare drum. Today I thought about the connection between notes and movement, and which one influences the other, in which music styles and in my practice.

Drumline
Drumline – source: marchingbands.wikia.com

I remember having paid attention to movement in itself only in my first year of drum lessons, because I started focusing on technical challenges in reading notes, learning new rhythms and learning to play various percussions. I stopped noticing when I was getting tired and cramped, when the movement was not calibrated well and therefore the notes came out of rhythm. My response was to try harder – cramping even more – and finally give up.

During Saturday’s lesson I understood that if a set of notes is not sounding right, or even is not properly timed, it is very likely that the movements are not correct. I thought about pieces that are written with the movement in mind, from which the notes come out – for example marching band music, especially the more spectacular pieces. I have in mind my beloved Downfall of Paris. Look at Tormod’s hands and arms first, then listen to the music:

This video shows the symetry of movements and is for me a feast for the eyes:

And look at the bass drum players’ movements, especially at the beginning:

The movement has a big influence on the sound itself, because the speed of the stick hitting the drum decides how it will rebound – a light stroke will muffle the note, a faster/stronger stroke will make the stick rebound and produce a cleaner note. The skill of a drummer is being able to guess the movements just by reading the notes, and practice so much that the movement does not need to be adjusted with conscious decisions (a bit like when driving cars). This is made easier in marching music, because the building blocks are not single notes, but basic patterns (the rudiments) that are learned until they become “movement units”.

I feel that I understood something big, that allows me to make progress by spotting myself what I can improve. As with horse riding, I will in any case benefit from “an eye on the ground” and will keep asking for expert advice, but I know I can do a fair amount of work on my own.

 

Music weekend with my orchestra

Last weekend my orchestra had organised a three-day musical retreat, in order to practice before our main concert. We had a great time, that I enjoyed even more as I have recently started playing again, after a long musical break. I realised how much I missed my fellow musicians, the positive energy I get from our being together.

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Still nature with trombone (accidental composition)

The orchestra was divided in three groups: wind instruments (flutes, clarinets, saxophones, oboe, bassoon), brass (trumpets, horns, trombones, tubas) and percussions, each under the lead of a teacher. The percussion section was definitely the smaller and consisted of me, the first drummer and the teacher. We first looked through all the notes (we had notes for 5+ percussionists in some pieces, and had to select which ones to play), then we practiced the most difficult spots. I practiced on the castanets, that are very conveniently mounted on a wooden base, and are therefore way easier to play – there is even a knob to calibrate the opening of the shells:

porta-nacchere.jpg

We solved our doubts on the notes in the first half of the day and dedicated the second half to posture and movement while playing the drums. It was a precious moment. We rarely have the time to take care of our posture, because we are busy following the notes; but this work is even more important, because it allows us to play for longer bouts without strain or even injuries. The exercises are on a musical sense extremely simple (for example slow quarter notes) just because the attention is elsewhere, needs to be elsewhere: on the wrists, arms, back, seat; on the speed and the similarity between the hands. It is a sort of yoga for drummers. You can read more on this topic on John Lamb’s blog.

After the practice in separate sections we had two sessions of rehearsals all together. The sound was way better than in our previous runs, thanks to the accurate work on each difficult spot! I am confident that we will have a great concert, because we have passed the point where we only read notes, and are now able to add expression to our parts.

On Saturday evening the conductor was ready to thank everyone and close the session, when the trombones asked to practice one spot once more, and the conductor was so surprised. I later thought about it, and why is it such a rare event. Maybe it is because conductors are used to whip the orchestra forward, as if the orchestra itself would otherwise not play. Therefore, at the end of the repetition the orchestra usually ends up more tired than expected. In this case, working separately allowed a better feedback between the musicians and the teacher, and probably a more appropriate workload; thanks to that, we were not as tired as usual, and wanted to continue playing. If I were the conductor, I would take it as a sign that I have allowed the orchestra to work in an efficient way, and moreover, that it is manifesting its own will to improve. I would find it wonderful, and I would do my best to replicate the conditions that lead to it.

I’m so looking forward for our Sundays concert! I feel so different from when I wrote about concerts, and am so glad I am feeling overall much better.

Shopping strategies: focused and scanning

I noticed I have two main strategies while grocery shopping, that strongly depend on how much time I have and how much optimisation I need to achieve. When I’m in full focused mode, I set up a kind of filter and I only pay attention to what I have to buy. On the opposite extreme, when I’m in scanning mode I am looking at everything with interest.

OK, this is barely new information to anyone. What I want to share is the surprise I felt when I thought: when I’m commuting, am I more focused or more scanning? And when I’m in a queue? When I’m home? I realised that I tend to travel around in a very focused manner. I wait at the bus stop with only my destination in mind. I check the phone to see if the bus is late. Only few times I have managed to look around in a more scanning-like way, and I discovered a woman on the balcony, reading among her flowers; the different greens of the trees above me; a crow walking across the street; the nice evening light.

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Source: my Flickr

This way of looking around didn’t take long, and filled the few minutes of waiting time in a very enriching way. I want to practice it more often, especially when I feel that the focused mode can be switched off for a while.