Personal Development

On the Fear of Improvement

I have often quipped over the years that many people find increasing their skill levels to be an experience like the old song, ‘Everyone wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die’ – as in, everyone wants to get better, but nobody wants to change. But I have been reflecting recently on a phenomenon that lies behind this inertia: some people seem actively to fear getting better.

Phrase it like that, and it sounds bonkers. Why would anyone shy away from being more competent and assured at doing the thing they love? But it is an observable phenomenon, and one which I need to understand if I am to succeed in my life’s aim of helping people make music with more confidence, skill and joy.

You have to look quite carefully to make the observation, of course. People don’t come straight out and say that they’re not going to use a technique that will improve their breath control or range or expressive power because they’re scared of it. Rather, it emerges in various forms of blocking behaviour: self-sabotage, distraction, attacking the legitimacy of the technique or the person who’s teaching it, picking a fight over something completely unrelated.

Peer Learning with Holland Harmony

The weekend's final masterclass, with the New Harvest SingersThe weekend's final masterclass, with the New Harvest Singers

My trip to the Netherlands was precipitated by an invitation to serve on the faculty for an education weekend for Holland Harmony's quartets and musical leaders. It was thus a smaller event, in terms of numbers, than last year’s Harmony College, but it was commensurately more focused. Once again we had an all-star international faculty, delivering a programme of workshops that made all of us wish we had time to go and hear each other’s offerings.

As usual after this kind of intensive weekend, I have a notebook-full of thoughts and reflections stimulated by the experience, some of which will work their way into blog posts over the coming weeks and months as I process them. In the first instance, though, it’s the nature of learning experience itself, rather than the musical content of that learning, that holds my attention.

Soapbox: A Short Post About Women and the Musical Canon

soapboxAs you know, one of my projects for 2017 is making sure I’m listening to a lot more music by women by compiling a youtube playlist. One of the obvious points that keeps coming out in my commentaries on the pieces is how splendid so much of them are, and how boggling it is that I didn’t previously know it.

A possibly less obvious, and certainly less polite, point is that it makes me wonder how some of the repertoire by men that I do know seems to be taken seriously. I’m not saying that, say, Schumann wasn’t a ‘genius’ (though I am putting in scare quotes to distance myself from that rather loaded label), but I am saying that the label unhelpfully keeps some of his more irritating efforts in the repertoire (Symphony No 4, I am looking at you) when there are clearly better examples of the genre that get ignored because they are by people to whom the ‘genius’ label has been withheld – i.e. women.

On Building an Emotionally Resilient Choir

This is a theme I mentioned in relation to the session at the LABBS Directors Day in July, but there wasn’t space to expand on it that post. It was a session I included in the programme after having had several conversations during the spring that included reports of singers feeling anxious about the LABBS Convention in October.

Now, performance nerves is one thing (and something we can help with!), but worrying about an event several months in advance is just not how the world should be. People join choirs as a way to escape from the stresses of life, not to gain whole new areas of stress. Besides, fretting is terrible for pitch retention.

Left-brain, Right-brain, and Other Pseudo-scientific Clichés

This is one of those posts that emerges from the confluence in my head of conversations with several different people over the course of a few months. What I really want is to get the various people involved into the same room together and say ‘You know what you were talking about with me in January? Say it them to see what they come back with.’ But in the absence of that opportunity (and in the recognition that even if I did they’d all probably have moved on and would want to talk about something else) I’m going to have to use my own imagination instead to work out the connections and contradictions.

There were at least two conversations about left-brain versus right-brain thinking, one in the context of teaching and learning, the other a report of a speaker who had reinterpreted the dichotomy as one of focused attention versus peripheral awareness. There were also discussions of a study that contends that the concept of ‘learning styles’ has no evidential validity, and just functions as a self-fulfilling educational ideology. All these landed into a brain that was already brewing thoughts about how much of the claims made for the health benefits of singing are presented in ways that claim a scientific basis with very little reliable underpinning.

More Musings on Mindsets

After my introductory post on Carol Dweck’s work on mindsets, I promised to come back and tease out the connections with themes previously explored in this blog. For there are many. You will have noticed that I am quite rabidly growth-oriented in my stance as an educator, so there are lots connections to be made. The challenge is going to be organising them…

At the big-picture level, there are a cluster of themes I have explored over the years. Long-term readers will have seen my critique of the discourse of talent become increasingly hard-line each time I come back to it, and Dweck’s analysis will only encourage me in this dimension. Indeed, now I go back and look at my thoughts on the dangers of being young and talented, it looks awfully like her accounts of fixed-mindset difficulties.

The growth mindset, by contrast resonates strongly with my past musings on expanding your boundaries and our relationship with challenge. And one of Dweck’s key findings, for me, is the insight that your beliefs about capacity and skill determine whether you experience challenge as an adventure or a threat.

Musings on Mindsets

mindsetCarol Dweck’s research on the nature and ramifications of different mindsets is one of those ideas that has percolated through our culture quite thoroughly over the last few years. I have found myself in conversations about it with friends in teaching, and friends with small children, as well as coming across it in miscellaneous ephemeral self-help type articles online.

The general outline is probably as familiar to you as it is to me: there are two broad mindsets or belief-systems about human capability, the fixed mindset (belief that capacities are essentially innate) and the growth mindset (belief that capacities are largely learned). These shape how you go about what you do, and how you respond to others.

But eventually there comes a time when you realise you’d better actually read the book itself, not just rely on second-hand knowledge.

The Conductors’ Four Questions

In my post last month on developing the director I wrote about the usefulness of having a regular appointment with yourself for structured work on a specified area for development. Today I’d like to talk about a set of questions that I give to conductors I work with to structure their reflective process.

  1. What did we achieve?
  2. How does everyone feel about themselves?
  3. What does the music need?
  4. What do the singers need?

To start, a few words about the choice and phrasing of the questions.

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