Note: This article is part three in an ongoing series about mastery.
When the LA Opera recently announced its 2019-2020 season, a major coup was the world premiere of Eurydice by Matthew Aucoin. I am very excited about this opera and Matthew Aucoin’s music in general.
Though, to be honest, as of today, I haven’t heard any of it.
A quick explanation is in order: Matthew Aucoin rocketed to fame in the last several years as an unusually gifted young opera composer and conductor. His best-known work Crossing—an opera about Walt Whitman—has played only in small houses so hasn’t been seen in that many cities, or by that many audiences.
But even if Aucoin’s music is low-profile, the buzz around it and him is consistently strong; his conducting work is varied and impressive; and in public appearances, podcasts, tweets, and talks, he always comes across as generous, perceptive, and passionate about opera in a way that’s instantly engaging and infectious.
His warmth and intelligence are both on display in the following master class, recorded at the Music Academy of the West:
I watched this entire two-hour video in one sitting and may watch it again soon: it’s that good.
As a composer, Aucoin understands music in a unique way, and in the video above, he guides a soprano through the difficult work of turning Desdemona’s sad meditation from Verdi’s Otello into a journey of terror and despair. He similarly guides a baritone through making Mozart’s famous catalogue aria from Don Giovanni pulse with life. Aucoin doesn’t just know these songs, he understands deeply how they work.
The third student ventures into trickier territory with an aria from Stravinsky’s mid-20th-century opera The Rake’s Progress. The student is perhaps a bit nervous, but Aucoin is fairly blunt with his feedback:
“I don’t feel like you have command of the syntax… You have to have a better command of it.”
If you haven’t watched the video yet or don’t know these operas: the first two arias are in Italian.
The third is in English.
Granted, the text of The Rake’s Progress by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman is full of complex language that’s very, very, very difficult to parse. But knowing what the text is saying is key to being able to sing it, to interpret the line and communicate its meaning to the audience. Aucoin demonstrates with the student that these lyrics might seem like word salad on the page, but when married to Stravinsky eclectic music and performed correctly, they make immediate sense. The music elevates the words, and the two together elevate the audience… if the singer is prepared.
I feel for this student. He clearly chose or was handed an unusually difficult song. At the same time, I can see why Aucoin’s feedback was so unequivocal. The first two singers could sing their parts and knew what they were saying… which allowed Aucoin to work with them more deeply to discover why they were saying what they were saying and to give those lyrics emotional depth and specificity… which could be expressed to the audience with clear vocal and acting choices. The third singer hadn’t done that work yet, so there was nowhere to go.
Embedding good vocal technique, then discovering the meaning of the text, and then bringing that meaning to life in a specific, personal, intentional way is an example of what I would call a methodology.
Methodologies in practice
A methodology is “a system of methods.” It’s a journey of inquiry, not a simple process or checklist. Methodologies are directive, not prescriptive.
Methodologies are everywhere in business today, across industries and sectors. Examples:
- Lean Startup
- Design thinking
- Corporate Porfolio Management
- The BSIMM maturity model for software security (or any other maturity model)
- Michael Kaiser’s “Cycle” framework for managing arts organizations
When I worked at Sapient in the late 1990s, I was in charge at one point of the company’s “One Team” development methodology. My blog series on connecting business, brand, and marketing strategy is another example of a methodology, and one I use to this day. I’ve been a methodology junkie for a long time.
I see organizations get into trouble all the time when they choose the wrong methodology for the current challenges they face, or instead jump immediately into process or (worse) tools.
When a company is violating a principle, as I described in my last article, an expert will usually react by bringing the conversation to an abrupt halt. When a company is working without a methodology, or using the wrong one, an expert will usually say something like: “we’re asking the wrong questions, in the wrong order, in the wrong way.”
When you find yourself facing a work situation that intellectually and interpersonally feels like strange Stravinsky music paired to an impenetrable W. H. Auden poem, imagine Matthew Aucoin (or Mark Gibson) saying: “But but but… If we went about this in a different way, things would make more sense. It could be different. Even beautiful.”
Next article: Process