On Saying the Same Things Every Week

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Every so often you will hear a choral director express frustration at ‘having to say the same things every week’. And I’m sure that sentence has many heads nodding in sympathy. It is disheartening to keep having to cover the same ground over and over again, when you want to be moving forward.

But, here’s the thing. If we’re saying the same thing each time, and each time the change we want to make disappears between rehearsals, then saying that thing isn’t working. The problem is not necessarily the choir’s idiocy, the problem is the ineffectiveness of the method we’re choosing to use with them. Well, the choir may be idiots (aren’t we all in our way?), but it’s still up to the director to find a method that will work on their particular brand of idiocy.

I’m reminded of that quote often attributed to Einstein defining insanity as ‘doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results’. Although it probably wasn’t Einstein who said that, and framing it in terms of ‘insanity’ only works if you take a colloquial approach to the word, it remains a usefully quotable point.

In stand-up comedy, there’s a general principle that you should try a new joke three times before deciding whether it works or not. If it doesn’t get a laugh first time, it’s too early to ditch it – it may just be the dynamic of the room (not everyone finds the same things funny), or it may be that you didn’t quite nail the delivery on first attempt. But if it hasn’t got a good response by the third time, no matter how funny you find it, the rest of the universe is telling you it doesn’t work for enough other people to keep in your set.

That’s not a bad principle for a rehearsal tactic, either. In this context, it’s more likely to be about the match with the singers’ skills than with how you deliver it, but it’s still the case that if the change hasn’t stuck after three attempts, it’s probably not the right tool for the job you want it do with these people at this stage of development.

The issue is likely to be the hand-over from conscious to unconscious competence. You ask for something, and when it’s the primary thing the singers are thinking about, it happens. But it doesn’t happen with enough traction to keep happening when they come back a week later with their heads full of other stuff. It’s too early after one attempt to give up on it, as it may just need more practice to get embedded.

But if after three attempts it is still not sticking, then it’s time to think of a different way to approach it. You know it is possible for the singers to achieve it (as they do on a temporary basis quite regularly), the knack is to find the approach that helps them integrate that skill into their armoury of helpful habits. It may be that a different method is exactly the thing they need to find the knack; it may be that triangulating between several different methods provides the key. Either way, saying the same thing every week isn’t helping.

The other thing that occurs to me in this context is that it’s not about what the director says, it’s about what the choir does. People don’t acquire skills through their conductor talking, they acquire skills through doing the thing. So any time we start to get bogged down with ‘saying the same thing’, it helps to reframe in terms of what we want the choir to do, and then start collecting activities that will get them exercising that particular skill or habit intensively.

There are echoes here of my post from some years ago about Multidimensional Rehearsal Planning. Having a defined set of development goals keeps everyone focused on the priority habit changes of the season. But the more important reference here is Choice Theory. A director can’t control anybody else’s behaviour, we can only control our own. So if saying the same thing every week isn’t working, we need to stop doing that, and do something different.

Even if it takes a few more attempts to find the approach that delivers the desired change, everybody – both director and singers – will have the benefit of novelty value in the interim. And without the depressing aura that develops in a choir when they are repeatedly failing to deliver something they are being asked for, everything becomes more enjoyable. However long it takes to reach a musical destination, it’s important to take pleasure in the journey.

Oooo, this is so good!
I think I do naturally switch to other approaches / gestures / metaphors if a thing isn't sticking - but it's good to notice this, for when I have somehow got lodged in flogging the dead horse (of instruction).

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