Effecting Change Effectively

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One of the interesting things that happens when amateur musicians build themselves a training infrastructure is that they bring an incredible breadth of skills and knowledge from different walks of professional life and apply them to improving the ways they make music. Thus it was that in the early years of the British Association of Barbershop Singers annual Directors College that Chris Davidson introduced me to John Kotter’s model of how to effect institutional change.

Chris was presenting the ideas in the context of how a director can change a chorus’s culture, working habits and skill levels over periods of weeks and months – and indeed that is the most direct parallel to the changes in businesses that the model was derived from.

But I have been fascinated over the years with how the model might work on the micro-level – to the myriad changes we make each week in rehearsal. For, as Abraham Kaplan says, the whole point of rehearsing is to change things.

There are three basic phases to Kotter’s process of change:

  • Un-freeze
  • Transform
  • Re-freeze

Each of these has sub-stages within it – and I’m going to be focusing on each of these in my next three posts - but it’s useful in the first instance simply to look at the outline, since this gives us some immediate cues as to what is going on when we don’t make progress.

Have you ever asked your choir to do something – say, sing to the end of the note rather than chopping off the words – and they don’t do it? That’s a classic case of trying to transform without unfreezing. Unless the choir experiences a need to change, they won’t. (For this example, try asking them first to sustain a note on a vowel, and then on the consonant ‘t’, and they will have an immediate physical understanding of why closing the word down too soon might be a problem.)

Have you ever succeeded in making a change in one rehearsal, only for the choir to revert to the original way of singing it the following week? That tells you that you didn’t re-freeze after your transformation.

Have you ever worked really really hard leading up to a festival or competition, with lots of extra rehearsals, then received exactly the same score/placing as the year before? This tells you that you haven’t been doing enough transformation. And of course, embracing change *is* hard – which is why people have had to study how to achieve it – but it’s the only available route to getting better.

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