On Rational and Experiential Objectives

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One of the Really Useful Concepts (so useful it needed Gratuitous Capitalisation) that I acquired at my recent course on facilitation skills was the distinction between rational and experiential objectives. It is one of those concepts that is so simple when it is pointed out to you, and in fact describes something you do anyway, but when given a label allows you to do things on purpose to be more effective.

Your rational objective for a workshop or consultation, or indeed for a rehearsal, lesson or practice session, is what you want to achieve by the time you finish. Anyone who has written course materials in higher education is fully familiar with this idea. You spend a lot of your time writing the back end of sentences that start, ‘On successful completion of this module, students will be able to…’.

This then makes the assessment process nice and transparent, as it basically involves checking to see if people can indeed do the things you said they should. If they can’t, you then have to work out how much this reflects on them, and how much on you. (Rule of thumb: if most participants can, then failure is more the student’s problem, but if most can’t, it’s the teacher’s fault.)

Rational outcomes are useful planning tools as they keep you focused on what you want to achieve, and can be used at any level of granularity. On successful completion of this warm-up activity, singers will be standing tall and will have activated a deep-seated breath.

Experiential outcomes don’t often appear in course literature in the same explicit way, although they have – if not labelled explicitly as such – appeared in my rehearsal planning over the years. They define the emotional or psychological state you want the participants to be in at the conclusion of your process. Do you want them to feel energised, calm, excited, sober, angry, relaxed?

Musicians use this idea to an extent in programme-planning, when crafting the emotional shape of concert. If you have a dark or tragic piece of music, do you want to send the audience home in that mood, or do you want to finish with something to mediate back to real life? And depending on how dark the serious piece is, you can’t follow it with anything too trivial or you will irritate rather than uplift your listeners. But you may want to send them home feeling reflective or hopeful rather than distressed.

We sometimes remember to provide this kind of experiential patterning in our rehearsal plans – in particular in making sure we visit a variety of musical moods overall – but we can also consider the impact of the activities we plan. Doing lots of nitty-gritty detail can give a sense of satisfaction in achievement, but if not balanced by longer spans of music-making can leave people frustrated. Technical work can build a sense of confidence as people develop and exercise consciously-applicable skills, whilst focus on the music’s expressive or communicative impact imbues a rehearsal with meaning and significance.

As we headed into what became the last full term of Magenta’s activity, having just lost two long-standing members of the choir, I was particularly aware of our experiential objectives. Rationally, our task was to prepare for a festival performance in November in parallel with getting our Christmas repertoire up and running to start performing shortly after that.

Experientially, it was all about confidence. You don’t know quite how much people’s self-belief is tied up in the relationships within the choir until you lose two very loved singers at once. It wasn’t simply that we missed their voices (though both were great musical contributors), but they had clearly been insulating everyone else from self-doubt.

And you know, whilst the achievement of our rational objectives over those three months was somewhat intermittent, the experiential objectives were much more successful. And ultimately, those are the more important ones – how everyone felt about themselves and each other has far more impact on their quality of life at the time, and on the memories they carry afterwards, than the technical specifics of those performances.

(Gosh, that was quite a hard couple of paragraphs to write. I’m really not ready to blog very much about Magenta yet. I have lots of notes in my thinking book for future reference, so one day…)

Like rational objectives, experiential ones work at both the large scale and moment-to-moment. Indeed, they map rather nicely onto two of my four questions for conductors (what does the music need? and what do the singers need?), which as we have already seen, work for both long-range rehearsal planning and working with singers in real time.

I wrote some years ago about multi-dimensional rehearsal planning, at that time in terms of Stephen Covey’s distinction between production (getting stuff done) and production capacity (building skills to achieve things more efficiently). Both of those fall into the category of rational aims, so this distinction gives us another dimension to work in.

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