A Concert Pianist Tackles Skill-Building In Corporate Training

How can I be useful, of what service can I be? There is something inside me, what can it be?

Vincent Willem van Gogh

In late 1986, I performed my final-year examination piano recital at the Conservatorium of the University of Melbourne. Before the official results were out, the Dean called me aside: “The examiners are so happy with your playing, they want you to stay on for an honours year.” I chose the concerto I would play with the orchestra and spent the summer practising it. However, at the end of summer, the administrator at the Faculty of Music had exhausted all options that would have allowed me to remain. Being an overseas student, it wasn’t straightforward, apparently. My fellow music course-mates suggested marrying one of them. I replied: “My father will kill you before you can finish that thought.”

marianne plays piano
Marianne at her third year recital in Melbourne University

And so, in early 1987, with an extremely heavy heart, I returned to Malaysia. Our results had been released: I had won ‘Most Outstanding Piano Performance’. I locked myself in the room at my family home where the piano was, and continued practising. I tried to resurrect my long-held dreams of starting a music school, but all I wanted to do was to practise.

I had to start working and so I started to teach music, but my music career was short: 1987–1991. During these four years, two turning points led me to a fork, and I chose the untravelled path.

First, I had fallen in love with Terry Netto through a year of writing letters – me in Melbourne completing my final year of studies, and Terry in Kuala Lumpur after returning from the Ateneo de Manila, having decided not to pursue studies to become a Jesuit priest. Now that I was back in Malaysia, we were getting to know each other in person. When we were not riding around on his motorbike, I was in my room practising, and later, teaching.

Terry had come across an approach called NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming). As he talked about it, I realised I didn’t understand what he was going on about. Since he was helping to organise a basic course for a friend who was teaching NLP, I decided to attend.

I could not believe what I was learning. NLP presupposed that the meaning of your communication was the response that you got. If this sounds weird now, imagine encountering it in 1987! I was intrigued by the idea that we distort, delete, and generalise information; that we each carried a distinct “map” of how we interacted with the world around us. The internal strategies for pacing and leading, goal- setting, perceptual positions, association–disassociation, anchoring, representational systems and sub-modalities suddenly offered a view inside my head, and I could also see the world outside differently.

There was an entire new technique to build. I knew even then, at the very beginning, that there was material I could keep learning and returning to for the rest of my life.

A while later, Terry designed a three-month learning to learn programme for secondary school students. After the first batch of students completed the twelve- week course, I started refining the programme with him. We invented methods for time management, and designed planning worksheets. We devised speed reading, concentration, and photographic memory exercises. We developed study methods using Mind Maps, and innovated by building in ways to review material based on memory principles. We taught goal-setting strategies from NLP. We included a module on how to design home environments to reduce distractions.

As I saw students apply what they were learning and improve in their studies, I was certain that there was nothing better to focus on than these two areas: building a technique to be able to feel, think, work, and interact better every day of your life, so you would be able to keep growing; and learning how to learn, so you could learn anything you needed, at any point in your life.

The second turning point was that my younger sister had a profoundly brain-injured baby. She and I, 22 and 24 years old, refused to accept the prognosis of a leading paediatric neurologist: your baby won’t live much past eight years; there’s nothing you can do for her. In that time before the internet, and with the help of a friend who was a new doctor, my sister and I wrote out baby Patricia’s case history by hand, made multiple copies of the 20-plus-page document, and mailed it to friends in different parts of the world.

We discovered the Institutes for the Advancement of Human Potential in Philadelphia and that they had a branch in Healesville in Victoria, Australia. They were developing methods to help children just like Patricia to move up a developmental ladder. Their method was unconventional, detailed and structured; it was not easy to execute. They were people on a mission – just our kind of people. In the days before crowd-funding, we raised funds to travel to Healesville, and then to Philadelphia.

With my sister, and through the books of the Institutes founder Glenn Doman, I learned about developmental stages, and about the intensity needed for crawling, creeping, patterning. We designed a daily twelve-hour programme of movement and stimulation. Our family and community in Petaling Jaya volunteered to learn and run the programme. Friends offered expertise to build equipment like the patterning table, the inclined plane, and the vital stimulation box.

My sister and her baby moved to the US a couple of years later where Patricia, even with the disabilities, led a full and rich life until she passed on at 21. I learned that the impossible was possible.

By 1991, I had obtained my Practitioner Certification in NLP and had decided, together with Terry, to join CREDO (the Centre for Research, Education and Development of Organisations) upon the invitation of two of its founders: for Terry to be the new CEO and for me to produce fresh, new programmes. CREDO was delivering management and leadership programmes to multinationals.

Not knowing anything about corporate training, I attended programmes by different providers. I sat at the back of the classes CREDO was offering to our clients. A few things stood out: very little seemed to be achieved in a two-day or even three-day training programme, and learners, me included, were bored. Not much was expected of them and there was so little for them to do.

I contrasted this with the experience we had when CREDO brought in Jerry Perez de Tagle to teach educators. We were thrust into the world of Integrative Learning, Multiple Intelligences, and Educational Kinesiology. Jerry’s programmes were highly engaging and filled with multi-modal learning activities. They were awareness programmes that opened you to possibilities you might not have considered. But Terry and I both wanted to be able to impart skills that could transform a person’s life at work – daily.

We had also come across literature on creativity, and again, we thought: surely everyone needed these skills and tools. Learning to learn, NLP, creativity skills – there couldn’t be a more potent bundle of generative skills. I oscillated between the highs of designing and delivering programmes that I was sure would change the lives of the learner, and grappling with the fact that very few clients were interested.

One day I had a thought. What do many clients want, and what are they going to other providers for?

The answer came quickly: presentation skills. But next to the richness and life- changing potential of learning to learn, NLP and creativity, presentation skills seemed like the most mundane programme to work on.

Slowly, it dawned on me: with my music performance background, I was poised to design an unusual programme, one that could get to the heart of practice and of skill-building. I had so much knowledge and experience, so many stories to share about practice, how to prepare, how to face an audience, and how to remain calm.

The details multiplied as I designed. Terry taught me MS Word’s Outline function

and I built my first outline. The outline allowed me to capture everything, but it kept growing – when I thought I had a workable draft, another layer of distinctions would surface, not unlike learning to play a complex piece of music.

Still, I was overwhelmed until I realised that the presentation skills programme with a difference that I wanted to design lay precisely in the wealth of detail that only I could see. The long strings of black letters in the outline were not so different from the black notes of a sonata. If I mastered every single one of them, we would have something amazing at the end – an original composition that could be used.

I designed ways for learners to practise skills, adding much more repetition than I’d seen in the classes I had attended. I added drills; I layered skills, adding levels of challenge for the learner. I designed strange ways – flexibility exercises, we call them in NLP – to free the voice, and to get eye contact and gestures into the muscle.

I knew about breathing from my teenage days of singing without a microphone to a large congregation. I had just completed a vocal intensive with a teacher in Brisbane who could help people who thought they were tone deaf, to sing in pitch, and in harmony with others. I was studying martial arts, and it was obvious that the principles of stance would be useful for nervous presenters. I combined this into a calmness and confidence routine: warm up your body, warm up your voice, centre yourself – a model that was easy to remember and personalise, even if you forgot the details you were taught.

I focused on building the overall conceptual model of the programme: text to visual aids, then non-verbal communication. This seems so simple now. But I had seen from decoding music technique: people often delved straight into playing the notes without first knowing the structure of the piece, and so their playing had no sense of shape. They practised without working out the fingerings and so there were inaccuracies, and therefore could not move the listener. I was certain that in organisations, people would make similar mistakes: go directly to visual aids because time was limited, or think that they can’t present well because their voice was not as good as someone else’s – not realising that structure was the key to their success.

Each module then needed an internal rhythm: the types of learning activities, the groupings, the modalities used, how the teaching and activities were sequenced. A piece of music you love moves you with how it begins, develops, and gets to the end. Why not a training programme? If every note in a music piece is important,

shouldn’t it be the same for the learner in corporate training? Shouldn’t the first minute to the last matter?

More than anything, I was determined to design for transformation of skill. A pianist experiences this in such a tangible way that it changes them for life – if I practise something using a specific method, and if I practise frequently enough, I will be able to do what was impossible just a few days or weeks or months ago. I wanted every learner to experience this.

Our programme was initially called Effective Presentation Skills. At the end of one of my early classes in the mid-1990s, a young engineer stood on his chair, lifted his head to the ceiling as though looking at the stars, extended his arms and started flapping them slowly and gracefully. One of his colleagues said: Something in him has been freed, and he can now fly. He can do today what was impossible for him yesterday.

The transformations continued, for most learners in every class, and I knew that we had version one of our skill-building methodology. After several years, we wanted to show what happened to people and their ability to present in under two days; this is how Presentations Alive! got its name.

As I trained other trainers to deliver the programme, it was evident that even with their different backgrounds, the results were the same. And so, we learned that design was the key.