Classical singing: This is what work should be like

How singing in a classical choir presents a compelling analogy for a good corporate culture.

I was in London earlier this summer, as the Copenhagen Chamber Choir Camerata won the prestigious London International A Capella Choir Competition. It was an amazing experience, and once again I am amazed by what can be achieved with this group.

The victory has also led me to reflect on how you can achieve something truly remarkable with a group of very different people. I believe much of the same could apply to a working environment. Sadly, that’s not always the case.

But if the recipe for our success could somehow be copied into a corporate culture, this is the place I’d like to work. So how did we do it?

  1. Know your material

An essential and obvious starting point: we all need to be able and willing to learn, acknowledge the need for practice, and correct ourselves when needed.

If you want to be a professional, you need to be extremely well-prepared, but also humble enough to admit it when you’re not.

  1. Listen to each other

A choir is like a living organism where you need to be completely in sync, even to the point of breathing together. Unless called for explicitly, you should not be able to hear any individual singer. Which is why you need to constantly tune in to your teammates in terms of volume, pitch, and sound. Fail to do this, and the result will be cacophony, not harmony.

The same should apply at work: even if you’re technically right, you need to walk in the same direction as your  team, not just run off on your own.

  1. Follow the leader

A well-performing choir should be an instrument on which the conductor can play and express his/her art. When we all know our material and listen to each other as one, we have the energy and ability to follow the direction. And we need direction. Sure, we may challenge the details, and we often arrive there together, but in the end it is the conductor’s call: there is just one performance, not 25.

At work, we all have contributions as well as opinions. These are welcome, and most decisions should be robust enough to stand a challenge. We also need to respect our differences; individual personalities should not be left at home. But once the shit hits the fan, you get in line and perform at your best.

  1. Connect with your audience

Rehearsal is one thing; but at a performance your utmost objective is to create a space in which the audience may connect with the sublime. Acknowledging the people of your audience, as well as the surroundings and acoustics, is essential. The conductor plays an important part in gauging the mood of your audience, but everyone has a responsibility for making the music come alive and move beyond the edge of the stage.

Likewise, in order to deliver outstanding business results, I believe it is essential not only to have a sound strategy and skilled and aligned employees; you also need people motivated around a shared objective. You could call this a winning culture – but winning not over staid KPIs, but by giving your customers/users/etc. a truly memorable experience.

Can it happen?

In Camerata, most of us are amateurs, and the con amore effect should not be underrated. Still, I believe most people, like me, actually want to make a difference, also in their professional lives. It shouldn’t be that difficult then, should it?


St John

Today and tomorrow I will be in the choir, singing Bach’s Passion of St John with Aarhus Symphony Orchestra. The music is wonderful and rehearsals have gone well – with the very inspiring Paul Goodwin conducting – so I believe we are in for something special. Tonight’s concert is in the new Symphonic Hall of the recently expanded Concert Hall Aarhus. Tomorrow is in the gorgeous 12th century Aarhus Cathedral.

I love these experiences. During my time in the Jutland Academic Choir I have had the privilege of singing with the symphony on numerous occasions, including the Passion of St Matthew (Bach) Christmas Oratorio (Bach), Dream of Gerontius (Elgar), Requiem (Hindemith) and The Creation (Haydn). It is extraordinary to be a part of music performances on this level, and I look forward to adding another memory to the list tonight.

A Night at the Symphony

Last night the New York Symphony Orchestra performed in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. That event may well go down in history as a groundbreaking thaw in the relations between the rest of the world and one of the weirdest regimes the world has ever seen. So would a proposed visit by Eric Clapton later this year. Or it may, as hawks would imply, simply be seen as yet another propaganda tool by master propagandists who would make George Orwell proud.

The first group would applaud dialogue as the way forward and see cultural engagement as a boon to relations, notwithstanding the possibility of interpreting the move as a recognition of the regime.

It is funny, therefore, that the same group of people would be so critical of this fall’s Olympic Games in Beijing. Prince Charles has announced his absence from the event (for the record, he hasn’t been at the Olympics for decades). Certain people would also have Danish Prince Frederik stay home to protest human rights abuses and what not. Fortunately he has been wise not to meddle in politics and accept the fact that Denmark has good relations and many cultural and economic exchanges with the People’s Republic of China.

If engagement is the solution in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, than how much more is it so with China? This was understood by Nixon when he visited China in 1972. And by most accounts, China and North Korea are worlds apart. Both are communist by name, but China is a modern country with free markets and widely enjoyed personal freedoms. North Korea is more akin to 1984.

This is not to say that everything is perfect in China, but boycotting a country rarely produces good results on either part. The Olympic Games in Beijing will be a great leap forward for China. Whether that can also be said about last night’s concert in Pyongyang, only the future will tell.

The People that Walked in Darkness

In many ways Denmark is a nice place to live. Winter is not one of them, however. For the last many weeks, it seems, the sun has set before 4 p.m., and risen whenever it feels like it – that amounts to perhpaps once or twice a week.

So Christmas is a welcome celebration. Certain obscure theological purists object: Jesus was born in spring, not in winter, so celebrating his birth at midwinter is a heathen tradition. So what? Christ coming into this world is more of a turning point than winter solstice will ever be. Combining the two was a stroke of genius by whoever did it. Elijah says it clearly in this well-known passage:

“The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; and the that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.” (Elijah 9:1)

This passage is also a well-known Aria in Händel’s Messiah, which I heard tonight with my extended family. The choir Camerata in their annual performance in Copenhagen’s Holmens Kirke – probably the best in town, and this year was no exception.

Christmas is finally here. Jesus has been born, and light is returning to the world (including Denmark). It is time to celebrate both. Happy holidays!

The Kingdom of God is Like a Jazz Band

Last night, I went to hear Klüver’s Big Band and Cecilie Norby, performing as part of Aarhus International Jazz Festival. The concert was awesome, as I’m sure the live recording will be.

On my way back, I came to wonder if the image of jazz music could be applied to how church should be.

A feature that is more prominent in jazz than in most other genres is the celebration of the improvised solo. Isn’t this selfish, some might rightfully ask? No, I don’t believe it is. No jazz musician can do without a band, and however great the solo or the soloist, it is always best if backed by a strong band. Also, every soloist knows his place; in a jam-session it is perceived as rude if anybody abuses his position or not stands down in due time. When he does finish his solo, applause follows, and it’s time for the next solo, or back to full band.

With talented musicians, this amounts to great jazz in the art of improvisation. Knowing your place in the band, playing your solos, playing up to the other’s solos, and all the time being more interested in the end result than your own position. It’s all about making music and having a good time.

I love classical music, too, but I think I envision a church that is more like a jazz band than a choir. A church that allows for improvisation, for many different soloists, and for being happy about each others’ achievements. A church that comes together for jam session because they are passionate about the end result—living for God. And last, but not least, a church that has a good time doing it.

A New Hymnal

Hymnal 1Attention spans are a funny thing. So is time. 12 years ago, the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Denmark commissioned a group with task of producing a new hymnal. 12 years is, give or take, usually the duration of such an undertaking. But admittedly a long time in a fast-paced world such as the one we live in.

This week, the hymnal is finally complete, finished in printing, and being sent out to those who have pre-ordered. I have had the pleasure and privilege of sitting on the Hymnal Committee since 2000, being its secretary and responsible for the layout, among other things. It is not without a certain degree of professional satisfaction that I now hold the finished product in my hands. I am in no way neutral, but I do think this is one of the best hymnals out there.

Hymnal 2Many things have happened since 1995. Pop and rock music have replaced hymn-singing in some churches (including my own). New technology (PowerPoint) has, to some extent, diminished the need for printed hymnals in churches. And a new generation have grown up. Some—especially among these—may question the need for a new hymnal. And they may have a point. But I still believe that publishing the new hymnal is a milestone and that it will become an asset for the church.

Although other genres have made their way into the church (which is a good thing), I don’t believe hymns will—or should—vanish altogether. The collective memory and rich tradition entrenched in the heritage of hymn-singing has a lot to teach even our generation. Hymnals are always updated at certain intervals, and this new publication will help keep the tradition alive. Let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Hymnal 3As for technology, PowerPoint is good, and there are plans to release an official CD-rom with .ppt files. But there is still a need for the selection and quality control that a thoroughly researched publication offers. Furthermore, a hymnal is not only for use in church, but also in the home—for family vespers, or for personal inspiration. For this, it still needs to be in print.

There are many good things to say about the hymnal, and a lot of hard work that now, finally, bears fruit. I hope that the release can help revive worship and singing in Seventh-day Adventist Churches and homes across Denmark. I will do my best to promote it, and look forward to opportunities to use it and promote it in my own church and others.

A Political Message by Casting Crowns

After last week’s concert, I’ve been listening a lot to the music of Casting Crowns, which gets even better by familiarity. I have especially warmed to the song “While You Were Sleeping”- which is about how humanity too often ignores God, even when He’s right there in front of us. It’s still a very good song, but my impression was somewhat tainted when I discovered a political agenda hidden in this song.

Observe the fourth verse: “United States of America //Looks like another silent night// Every son deceived by philosophies // That save the trees and kill the children” It seems to me that CC are expressing a stance against the environment and against choice (in abortion).

I know this is a touchy subject, and perhaps not as controversial in the U.S. But I strongly believe that politics and religion should be kept separate. I am happy that the Seventh-day Adventist Church promotes religious liberty and separation of church and state. I believe that, as a Christian living in a democracy, you ought to take part in that democracy, but nobody should expect you to have this or that political view because of your religion.