Setting the Tone – Putting the ‘Music’ Back into Keynote Presentations
From Pianoscapes the web site for Michael Jones
The ‘key’ unlocks the doorway to new possibilities. The‘note’ creates a tonal atmosphere for these new possibilities to be received and understood. When the key and the note sound together they result in an inner music, a song that can be heard not just by the intellect, but also by the body, the mind and the heart.
What if we listened to a keynote presentation not as a lecture, but as music? This question struck me following a conference keynote presentation one day when a senior leader came up to me afterwards and said; you don’t speak, you sing!”
As a pianist, speaker and leadership educator, I know that the arts have something significant to contribute to whatever the purpose a meeting or conference has. Even the most practical minded events draw significant benefit from setting a tone that encourages an open mind and heart and nurturing a network of relationships that achieves this purpose.
So setting the right tone was in the front of my mind when I was invited recently to be the opening speaker for a national conference in Montreal, Canada. This involved arts educators and administrators engaged in exploring innovative learning strategies for the 21st century (1). As the opening speaker my role was to create the learning environment and offer perspectives on the theme of creating our desired future together. I was also setting the stage for facilitating a conversation on dialoguing with our future later in the day.
I started with a story, followed by music. Stories are the way that the future makes itself known to us. Music opens the way to the future through speaking to us in a language beyond words.
A Glass of Water
The story involved an earlier visit to Montreal. At that time I was invited to be a featured performer with the International Piano Festival, a prestigious event that brought pianists together from around the world.
I was very nervous before the concert, a condition made worse an hour before my performance when I learned that many who had signed up for the series that year were piano teachers. By the time I had been introduced and walked on stage – the sharp bright lights illuminating the beautiful Bosendorfer 9 ft 6 Imperial Concert grand standing at centre stage –the environment felt distant and unfriendly. In my imagination I could see the judges in the front row – pens and paper ready to grade my first note. As I sat at the piano my hands were shaking and my legs soon followed, my body was cold, my mouth dry, my throat tight. The audience felt alien, critical and far away.
As I struggled to breathe deeply I remembered experiencing a similar feeling a few months before. It was in a chapel in Lebanon Penitentiary, a maximum-security prison near Toledo Ohio. “ There is no need for concern” the event organizers said. “All the men will appreciate your visit”
I didn’t notice too many expressions of appreciation amongst the men as they seated themselves in the hot dry chapel following lunch that afternoon. I wished in that moment that I could take a pill and be transformed into Johnny Cash – an artist far more suited to this venue than myself.
Soon after I started performing, a stocky man with tattoos down both arms stood up… walked slowly down the aisle… and out the door. How many will follow, I wondered – they are not required to stay. My heart was racing. Distracted now, I was waiting for a second and perhaps a third to leave as well.
Then the first man returned. I heard the chapel door creak as he opened it. He walked slowly up the center aisle to the piano and stood beside me for a moment…
Then he set a cold glass of water on the piano ledge and returned to his seat.
Everything changed in that moment. The simple act of seeing the condensation on the side of the glass was humbling. All the assumptions that darkened my thoughts suddenly evaporated. I realized that this was not a performance and that creating music involved more than simply getting the notes right. In order to connect with the audience both in this prison chapel and with the audience in Montreal, I needed to connect with myself first. As I brought more of myself into the room including my fear, my passion, my spontaneity and aliveness for what this moment called for – they gave more of themselves back to me. The room in that moment – and in those concert halls in the future – suddenly took on a more intimate and human face.
I finished the story and moved to the piano….
“I thought we might continue with some music,” I said. “ Everyone has traveled a distance to get here. Sometimes music helps us settle in. When I play, it’s music that is coming to me in this moment. My own improvisations… While you are listening you may also consider a time when you received a glass of water and how it changed your relationship with the future in some way. ”
Keynotes in a New Key
A keynote is defined as the tonic of a musical key- it is the primary element, image or theme –the bass note or tonal reference for all that follows. If we go a little deeper we may consider how the key unlocks the doorway to new possibilities and the note – like the glass of water – creates the tonal atmosphere that allows these new possibilities to be received and understood. Singers will say that for their voice to be authoritative and clear they need to produce the sound but, more importantly, they also need to receive the sound. Like seeds and soil, each is intimately connected to the other. When the key and note sound together an inner music appears, a song that can be heard not just by the intellect, but also by the body, the mind and the heart.
No matter what the purpose of the conference is, its’ success is always going to depend on how this balance is set in the mind and heart of the speaker. Words are intended to inform and give direction. But more importantly they are also intended to transform – to invite a shift of mind that connects us more deeply to our own humanity and imagination. In this context putting the music back into keynote presentations can be any spontaneous or authentic gesture that introduces new perspectives and does so in a way that helps us relax our focused attention and become more thoughtful, calm and attuned to ourselves and others. This may include music, quiet reflection, a poem, a story, an unscripted moment, a conversation or a pause.
Too often we associate the keynote presentation with hard content that provides learners with dynamic tools, concepts, frameworks and action plans for achievement and success. This is true, but by also ensuring that we are engaging not only the active mind of the ‘tool user’ but also the thoughtful and imaginative heart of the ‘tool maker’ we can ensure our meetings and conferences can create learners who feel more revitalized, balanced and alive.
1. Realizing the Potential of the Arts and Creativity in 21st Century Learning. Hosted by Arts Smarts Learning Exchange. Montreal, Canada October 4th and 5th 2010.
Michael Jones has been a featured keynote speaker at leadership forums and conferences across multiple sectors throughout North America and Europe.