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On Challenge Level, Teamwork and Locus of Control

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Hello, I'm back! I've not yet delivered the second paper I needed to prepare this autumn (coming up this weekend), but I've finished writing it, and so I have space to start blogging again. It has been interesting to focus on some longer-form writing again for a change, but I'm looking forward to getting back to processing learning experiences as they happen. My notebooks all feel like they have indigestion!

I have been having a lot of interesting conversations in recent weeks about locus of control, and specifically how to help choral singers experience a sense of autonomy, rather than just being acted upon by the conductor’s authority. Some of these conversations were ones I started as part of my keynote presentation at the Hands-On Choral Symposium in Aveiro at the start of November, but others have just popped up in the course of making music with others.

One such conversation occurred at the Association of British Choral Directors Initial conducting course in Newcastle that I am currently halfway through teaching. It was sparked by a warm-up led by one of the participants that guided us through a number of breathing exercises, but in our own time, and inviting a good deal of reflection on the experience as we went. It gave a clear signal of, ‘It’s your breathing apparatus, so you operate it’. This was interesting in its own right, but also opened the possibility of an even more interesting point of connection with other ideas later.

Another theme that came up during these participant-led exercises is judging challenge level. How do you know if your singers are coping fine with the material, and indeed need to be stretched, or if they need more help? I shared with them Daniel Coyle’s rubric of the ‘Goldilocks zone’ – that place where people are making errors, but not too many. If nobody is making mistakes, people are staying within their comfort zones and no significant growth is happening. If there are so many errors that you lose a sense of musical continuity (what Coyle terms the ‘thrash zone’) this tells you that people can’t get enough traction to start to make any progress.

The sweet spot is where people are making errors, but maintain enough contact with what’s going on to self-correct. And having just been talking about locus of control, this drew attention to how an internal locus is essential to the kind of skill-developing behaviours that build myelin: the very essence of deliberate practice is the self-correction of near-misses.

The context of challenge level also gave us a nice cross-reference with the concept of Flow, which we’d encountered in the previous session of the course. And again we note that one of the central prerequisites that Csikszentmihalyi identifies to a flow state is having a sense of personal control over the process.

One of the course participants went on to make the really useful observation that one of the rewarding things about the experience we’d just had, involving the need for all the singers to self-correct, was the sense of teamwork involved. Everyone had to actively cooperate to pull the music back into shape when it had wobbled, and that helped bond the group together.

Suddenly we had another cross-reference, this time to Coyle’s later work on the behaviours that characterise successful groups. These include the sense that individuals within the group can make a difference – i.e. have an internal locus of control in that context. If the round you are singing has got out of sync with itself, and you have helped re-establish a unified and reliable metre, there is audible evidence that you are a useful contributor to that team effort.

I spend a lot of my life saying things like, ‘the things you can nearly but not quite do are exactly the right things to be spending your time on’, and (when the 'not quite' is visibly bothering people), ‘it’s okay, we can do it again, it will be better’. Usually when I say this I am focused on the process of skill-acquisition, but this collection of conversations has very usefully focused my mind on how living on the edge of your current capacities offers a route to an increased sense of control over what you do.

But it has also made me think about how it can only happen in a culture that embraces a growth mindset, one that will welcome a little chaos as integral to the process. The musically desirable goal of producing polished performances can all too easily lead to a fear of error, one in which people beat themselves up over their mistakes. When you’re guarding against imperfection, that sense of obedience to the music can externalise your locus of control, diminishing your sense of being part of the creative team. But if we can develop a culture of growth, it looks like we’ll get a greater sense of camaraderie as a bonus.

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