The 5-30 Practice Programme: The Results, Part 1

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So, here are the outcomes from the reports sent in by participants in June’s singing practice experiment. There are a few notable (and gratifying!) overlaps with my predictions, but also some interesting things I wouldn’t have guessed. Which is why it is worth asking people about their experience of course - so as not to fall down the hole between theory and real life!

The first striking thing was actually how few people did send in reports. I don’t think this was because nobody knew about it. For one thing my website stats reassure me that people are at least visiting the site in some numbers, and 154 of those visits were straight to one or other of the two posts about the experiment. For another, I had quite a few people tell me that they were forwarding the links to other people they sang with. This latter point also suggests that at least some people thought the idea worth engaging with.

So, taking this with the content of the reports I did receive, my guess is that the biggest hurdle is starting at all. The step between ‘oh, that might be a good thing to do’ and actually getting round to doing it is huge. (Well, we knew that anyway. It’s 18 months since we decided to put up new shelves in the room in which I’m writing this, and we haven’t done it yet.)

This raises interesting questions about what it takes to get us started on a new habit or routine. And there are some illuminating comments in the feedback on this question, so I’ll look at this first before reporting on what kind of difference the practice itself made to people in my next post. I’m anonymising the feedback here, but would like to add public thanks to all the people who sent in reports to the private thanks I have already sent them.

Feedback on the practising habit

Several respondents wrote about the relationship between the practise regime and ‘real life’. In one case, being between jobs made it easier to practise regularly and starting a new job at the end of the month disrupted the otherwise quite consistent routine. Another respondent divided the obstacles to regular practice into three categories:

  1. Going away for a few days – it was harder to keep to the routine when away from her regular environment and life patterns
  2. Just getting round to it: thinking, ‘I’ll do it later,’ until later had been and gone, or deciding on a time and then getting called to do something else at that moment.
  3. Being distracted by other singing-related commitments and activities

These points suggest that the difficulty looks like one of time (it’s easier to fit in new things when you’ve got less on), but is possibly more one of attention. Five minutes isn’t a long time, but singing practice requires you to clear a space amidst all the other things clamouring for attention. There are only so many things we can keep at the front of our minds as once, and the problem may be not so much how to add a new one, but how to let go of enough of something else to make mental space for it.

I had hoped that by designing the practice regime around repertoire people would be working on anyway, this would help ease the conflict, and it seems to have done so for those who were able to keep going longer with the experiment. One of these is someone I know does quite a lot of work between rehearsals anyway, so maybe she found it easier to keep going because this was an adaptation of existing patterns rather than a totally new one.

And for those people who did get into the swing of things – compare my prediction no. 4:

The people who do manage to practice regularly throughout the month will quickly feel like they want to do more than five minutes.

with the following comment from week two of one of the reports:

This week, finding it hard to stick to 5 minutes! In most cases I found I kept on singing for 10-15 minutes after without really meaning to.

This is the flip side of the difficulty getting going. Once you have got your attention onto something your brain doesn’t like to let go.

Most respondents discussed the obstacles to practice in terms of external distractions. One, however, gave the following comment:

Did every day the first week, and every day but one for the next two weeks, and then started finding it a big chore and not liking it, and missed more days.

I find this report of internal obstacles intriguing. What changed to switch the experience from one that didn’t seem to present any problems to a decidedly negative experience? I have two hypotheses lurking in my mind, which may not be mutually exclusive.

First, it could be that after three weeks, that practice regime had taken her as far as it was going to, and she needed a more challenging and/or more individually-tailored set of exercises to keep getting the benefit. Second, that three weeks of regular practice had developed her to the point that the singing part of the brain was trying to usurp attention currently dedicated to other things. What she describes as the feeling of it being a ‘chore’ resonates with the sense of reluctance or resistance you get when a task is demanding more mental energy than you had bargained for (aka writer’s block).

And getting to understand these internal obstacles is important because my hunch is that even those things we articulate as external obstacles (disruptions to routine, family commitments, etc) are also ultimately internal obstacles, inasmuch as it is our response to all the calls on our attention that determines what we actually do and what falls by the wayside.

And this is also starting to take us into the realms of the actual results of the practice – which will come in my next post on Wednesday.

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