Hysteresis and Performance: Getting the Extra Push

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I wrote recently about how musical contest may be implicated in maintaining an ensemble’s level of performance. The external attribution of level by individuals in whom a degree of authority is invested shapes an ensemble’s self-image and thus makes them more likely to perform at a similar level in future. ‘Maintaining’ here is both a good thing and a bad thing of course. It involves not deteriorating, but it also entails that sense of getting stuck: you continue to work, but somehow nothing seems to improve. (Though of course, the continuing to work is why you don’t get worse either.)

So, the question is: what is going on when an ensembledoes succeed in making a significant change of level? On the face of it, there appear to be three main scenarios:

Change of Leadership

The most common push that succeeds in changing an ensemble’s performance level is a change of director. (That’s ‘most common’ in the sense that I can think of lots of examples.) And it’s the easiest to understand: a different director brings a different skill set and vision to the task, and the group changes in response. Director capability is the single biggest determinant of a group’s achievement over time.

But there are other things it is worth noting at the moment of change. Directors often find grappling with hysteresis one of their main challenges on starting with a new group – Sandra Landey once said that it takes a new director 2 years to get their feet under the table. The success of the relationship will often hinge on how effectively the new director can inveigle the group into adapting their sense of identity. At the same time, the sheer presence of a different face out front gives the members of an ensemble permission to change.

Other leadership changes can also provide a state-changing push. A new chairman, for example, can have a radical effect on the way the group’s practical infrastructure operates. Changes in things like a group’s finances, recruitment or public profile can likewise affect its self-perception, and thence how it performs. The musical and the ‘extra-musical’ are more closely linked than we often think.

In either case, it is the authority vested in the leadership position that makes the change possible. The leader’s task is to invest the group with the desired attributes, to make them manifest, and their effectiveness as a leader will be judged on the basis of how much implicit talent they can discern and develop. The authority both produces and is produced by improvements in performance.

Input from Outside

Well, I would say that, wouldn’t I? As someone who spends a lot of time going round coaching vocal ensembles, I like to think I make a difference.

An external coach has three primary tasks, all of which are implicated in level change to varying degrees. The first is to entertain: if nothing else, the group needs to have had a good time. This is partly a value-for-money thing, making the time and cost worthwhile. But it’s also an artistic thing – music is better when done with joy. The second is to facilitate skill-acquisition. It’s important that the group can do things afterwards that they couldn’t before. The third is confidence-building. The group needs to believe that they can achieve better things, and – vitally - that they deserve to.

The third one provides the push to change level most explicitly, but it relies on the other two to work. People will only believe that they can perform better if they have real skills to apply and a positive frame of mind. But their belief is also predicated on the degree to which they acknowledge the authority of the external coach. A reputation, a pedigree, a track record are central to a coach’s credibility at the moment when they wish to increase a group’s confidence. Because what they’re doing there is attributing talent. They’re saying: you deserve to perform better because you have inherent musicality that I can perceive.

Now, 15 years ago I could say that, and people would ask, ‘who’s she to say that?’, as at that point I had good qualifications, but no track record as a coach. (Interesting that people in this world only started caring about my PhD once I had established myself as a coach.) In those days I had to rely on tasks one and two for my effectiveness.

These days, I still need to come up with the goods on tasks one and two of course, but people are more pre-disposed to believe me because I’m more of a known quantity. And the various badges of authority that come with my experience give me the leverage to counteract the weight of the internalised judgements from previous attributions. I have the clout to at least partly over-write the self-image generated by a group’s last contest result.

Change from Within

This is the hardest, of course. Pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps is tough, not least because it involves assuming a new identity without having it shored up by social validation as you go. But it does happen. For instance, Sweet Adelines Region 31 quartet champions for 2009, Tone-acity, leapt to that position after knocking around in the top ten but not in the medals for several years. The primary thing that changed, according to their lead, Lesley, was: ‘We decided to work, to really go for it.’ A change of behaviour in their rehearsals produced a different result.

Of course, this isn’t quite the whole story. As part of their concerted campaign to improve, they also sought external help. But the push that motivated the change of level came from within.

In all these scenarios, there are two dimensions to the change. On one hand there is a change in behaviour: people need to go about what they’re doing differently in order to make anything more than superficial differences to their performance. On the other hand there is a change in self-perception. The stories the group tells about themselves need to account for these changes in a way that allows people to embrace them and believe in their efficacy.

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