Rituals, Habits and Anchoring

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A ritual is a habit with meaning. Choirs have all kinds of habits: some good (clearing the chairs away after rehearsal), some bad (sneaking breaths in obvious places mid-phrase), some cultivated deliberately (smiling while singing), some developed by osmosis (going to the pub after a concert).

But a ritual is something both done deliberately and freighted with a specific import. It shares with habits that quality of repeated action, but it has a sense of self-awareness, of being invested with significance beyond itself. It functions to bind those participating in it together into a shared identity rooted in shared experiences. It will either implicitly embody or explicitly articulate some aspect of the choir’s values.

A choir’s rituals will usually include some based in their vocal and musical activities (e.g. always finishing rehearsals with a particular piece), some that are based in their social identities (e.g. faith choirs praying together), and some that are ambiguously positioned between the two (e.g. singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to each choir member during the rehearsal nearest theirs).

Anchoring is a technique used by NLP practitioners to give people a way to trigger a particular emotional state at will. It involves developing a deliberate association between some concrete action or sensation and a set of remembered or imagined images that evoke that state.

For instance, you may make the concrete action the placing of your non-dominant hand on the opposite arm, and choose to link that action with a memory of times you felt really good about yourself. You would replay this memory with your hand in this position repeatedly, making a point of making the memory as vivid as possible, and including as much sensory detail as possible. By practising this association, you would find it progressively easier to recapture the way you felt on that day – you would have anchored that feeling in that action.

Then, if you found yourself in a situation where you might feel uncertain of yourself, you could place your non-dominant hand on your arm, and access your well-rehearsed sensation of feeling good about yourself.

The above description follows the way the technique is typically presented in the NLP literature. But (I’m sure you can see where I’m going here), you can often get similar kinds of effects from a choir’s rituals.

Actually, even the habits can work for you. If you have a regular warm-up routine on rehearsal nights, then when you go off and find yourselves in an unfamiliar environment for a performance occasion, going through that routine together can help restore a sense of confidence in the group’s identity, as it reconnects you all with the familiar, the known, and your shared substrate of skills.

But rituals are a more powerful tool for choral anchoring, as they carry both explicit references to the group’s values, and a positive emotional state. The vividness of experience that NLP anchoring fosters in the sensory imagination is built into rituals through the sense of communion they offer. They connect the choir not only with what is familiar to them, but with what is important to them.

I am a new visitor to your blog. I am always looking for places to learn and increase what skills I can bring to our choir. ChoralNet is a wonderful resource and of course, there you were.
As a newbie, I really find the plethora of a acronyms very difficult to wade through. Perhaps, you are writing for a specific audience of which I am unaware. However, it does make it hard to figure out just what you mean in an area when you throw about those unrelated letters. Could you at least hook a link to such acronyms so that the uninitiated could learn too. Thanks so much.

Hello Kitty, and welcome!

I guess it's NLP that caused the difficulty in this article? I'm sorry - I had thought the link to Anchoring earlier in the sentence would serve to answer that question, but your comment makes me realise I should also have given a link to Neuro-Linguistic Programming.

I have probably also become lazy about linking and/or writing out terms that I have been writing about for several years (some of the organisational acronyms in particular). All very well for people who have been reading for several years, but not helpful for new visitors.

It is always hard to gauge what to assume as common knowledge, so this kind of feedback is very useful. Thank you for taking the trouble to comment!

all best,

I had to look up NLP too! This is all fascinating; I've been a student of ritual for years, but always from the sociological/anthropological side, and not from the neuro-psychological side.

I'd be most grateful, if you have any suggestions, to hear your ideas for some good NLP resources I could go to for a sort of "101-level" study on how it all works? I've started some basic research, but I'm finding it tricky at least with this particular subject to cull easily through the "self-help" books in order to find the more scholarly books or articles...(my dissertation adviser will not be pleased that I've found another tangent to go off on--but seriously, now that I know about this, how can I ignore it?)

(I think I need to make a large poster for my wall quoting our department head when we started doctoral studies: "There are two kinds of dissertations: great ones, and finished ones.")

Sigh...thank you for pointing me to this new door!

Hi Jenn,

Most of the reading on NLP I've done has had that same quality you refer to of having to read across the grain of over-enthusiasm and too-shiny teeth (in a textual sense, if you see what I mean - that kind of self-help discourse).

My inclination to take it at all seriously is much more rooted in when I've seen people I respect draw on elements of NLP theory and practice in contexts such as teaching, management or performance. I believe that as a therapeutic method it is not generally favoured these days, but its techniques such as anchoring can still have useful applications.

So that's not directly helpful, but I have asked a friend who has read round this more recently than I have for suggestions...

Sympathy on the breadth-depth doctoral thing. I tend to think of the tangents as having a buttressing function to the main argument - they may not end up being included, but they play a role in helping it not fall over. And they come in useful after you've finished, too. But eventually you do reach a point where all you want to do is get the thing done - you'll know when you're there!


Hello again, Jenn.

So I asked a friend who has done more reading on NLP recently than me, and he recommended going back to the foundational texts by Bandler and Grinder from the 1970s.

I've had a rummage around Google Scholar, and in the second part of this paper: http://www.leeds.ac.uk/educol/documents/00003319.htm there is some useful commentary on why we're finding it so hard to identify scholarly yet introductory material. There are some useful references to follow up there too.

I'm finding it interesting quite how snooty academia seems to be about NLP -although I think NLP has to a significant extent asked for it, there are so many resonances with currently accepted educational theory that the stand-off seems quite unreasonable. There may be more posts on this theme to follow...


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