Doug Harrington and Helen Lappert on Planning for Freshness
At last week’s Harmony College, I was running the Directors’ Stream, in my capacity as LABBS Chorus Director Development Specialist. (Nice job title, eh? Useful for when I need to tell people what my role is in the association these days.) Our theme for the weekend was ‘Keeping it Fresh’, and one of the ways we kept things fresh for our delegates was having input from a variety of the faculty on hand for the event.
This included a rather wonderful double act from guest educator Doug Harrington and Helen Lappert, director of Amersham A Cappella on the subject of planning for freshness. I wanted to have a mull on it today as not only did include lots of useful practical advice, but there were some interesting resonances with the session I had done on Saturday on the psychology of Flow, and with Philip Zimbardo’s ideas about our relationship with time I explored some years ago.
Their starting point was that keeping singers inspired and motivated relies on the director themselves feeling inspired and motivated. You can’t do one without the other. This point is good to keep in mind as directors can find themselves endlessly focused on others’ needs, and it fed directly into our final session of the weekend, which was about avoiding director burnout.
The first main factor Doug and Helen discussed for keeping our fires alight was the act of performance. Rehearsals are a satisfying way to spend your time, but you need to get out and share it with others. They talked about different kinds of performances, and the value in having a variety of bigger versus smaller gigs, in more conventional and quirkier circumstances.
There was an obvious point here about the buzz created by novelty value, but behind it were some more subtle points about creating meaningful experiences. One of the key aspects of Flow, after all, is that an activity needs to be inherently meaningful to get you right into the zone, and the weekend’s discussion teased out the way that an intimate performance in a care home has a dimension of human contact that a high-profile event in a big theatre can’t offer. And the converse is true too of course, but the sense of special occasion for the big gigs is possibly more self-evident.
Helen also articulated the point of performance as a motivator in terms of having ‘something to strive for’. This in turn made a direct cross-reference to the balance of challenge and capacity which is the element of Flow most under the control of the director. We all need just the right amount of stretch to light us up.
The thing I found striking about this part of the discussion was how it was all about a future focus, about having things to look forward to. On the one hand, the experience of Flow is to live in the Now, with the current activity absorbing your entire attention so everything else drops out of your consciousness. But, on the other, it seems that the way you set yourself up for this kind of experience is in the creation of goals. The image of your future selves creating a successful performance in the future sets up both the requirement for meaning and the motivation to embrace challenge.
Having noted this future focus, I was interested then to hear them talk about the value of creating a legacy, of having had an impact. Doug talked about looking forward to playing the studio albums he had made with Zero8 to his grandchildren, and they both talked about creating good memories. So it’s not all future focus: there is a value in the positive past too. And there is something intriguing about looking forward to creating memories: we are imagining our future-future selves looking back happily at the future selves we have not yet experienced directly.
The thing about these time-shifted imagined experiences, whether performance occasions, or repertoire choices (another area they discussed for the generation of excitement - it helps that we work with people who already like music!), is that they create emotional focal points. They organise feeling over time in our personal life-history narratives, much as musical tension and release organise our feelings through the duration of a song.
There is an interesting point here about how to manage the relationship between repetition and the quality of experience. We had discussed earlier in the weekend the problem of semantic depletion - how repetition detaches sound from meaning - and the dilemma of needing to repeat for rehearsal purposes, but needing also to make performances communicate meaningfully. And on the larger scale, hedonic adaptation makes us take the pleasures of weekly chorus rehearsal for granted.
Freshness, that is, is not just about variety - though it is clear that both Doug and Helen are good at collecting imaginative people who will help them deliver that - but about our relationship with time. How we feel about ourselves right now isn’t just a matter of the present moment, it is also formed by how we feel about the people we have been and the people we may become. The thing about Vision is that it creates an imagined future people can feel good about today.