Effecting Change 3: How to Transform

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This is the third in a series of posts about using Kotter’s model of organisational change as a way to conceptualise the rehearsal process. Once we have unfrozen people from their entrenched ways, we are ready to make the change. Like the unfreezing process, Kotter breaks this down into three constituent elements:

  • Communicate your vision
  • Empower people to clear obstacles
  • Secure short-term wins

Communicate your vision

At first sight, the need to do this is so obvious that it hardly needs saying. But it’s surprising how often choral directors merely give instructions rather than actually sharing their vision. ‘Sing this phrase mezzo-piano,’ may be helpfully specific, but it gives very little clue as to the artistic intention behind it. ‘Sing this phrase intimately,’ allows the singer to participate imaginatively with what we’re trying to achieve.

We also need to notice the messages we are giving with our directing technique, and with our general rehearsal habits. Singers will typically sing as they see, so if we don’t like what we hear, the chances are that our conducting gestures aren’t congruent with our vision. Beyond this, what kind of example are we setting in how we approach the rehearsal? If we want our singers to sing a piece with impressive gravitas, we need to treat rehearsing it as an important and serious endeavour. If we want our choir to perform joyfully, there is no place for impatience or irritability in the rehearsal.

Empower people to clear obstacles

This is an interesting stage, because it’s not immediately obvious how this plays out in rehearsal. We spend a lot of our time as choral directors clearing obstacles for our choirs: breaking things down into smaller, simpler elements so that people can grasp the building blocks in isolation before re-assembling them back into their complex wholes. But empowering our singers to clear their own obstacles? How often do we hand out that power?

In an organisation such as the ones Kotter wrote about, you’d do this by giving someone a budget, or whatever equivalent combination of resources and authority they need to get stuff done. Within the ebb and flow of rehearsal, the resources we have available are time and access to others’ attention. So, if a section wants to get into a little huddle to figure out how to do something, it may be more effective to let them get on with it for a few moments. We obsess so much about rehearsal discipline and the importance of not letting chit-chat get in the way of work, that letting go of the reins can be hard. But it can also be the quickest route to our goals to let our singers fix their own problems rather than insisting on doing all their thinking for them.

(I’m not advocating a free-for-all here, by the way. A cheerful and friendly choir will always have more capacity for chattage and talkery than is conducive to good rehearsal, so we need to keep a careful ear and eye out to get things moving again as soon as the obstacle is cleared. But if the hubbub is in the service of the ends we have been trying to achieve, neither do we need to be complete control freaks.)

Secure short-term wins

We already know as a standard part of good rehearsal technique that we should break things down into manageable chunks. But Kotter’s formulation gives us a slightly different spin on this advice. The point here is not just about digestibility of the challenges, but about the choir’s emotional engagement with the goal.

Achieving something immediately does two things for a singer. First, it gives them something to celebrate, a reason to feel good about themselves. Undergoing change is unsettling, even threatening at times. You have to let go of your comfortable, well-practised habits, which can leave you feeling desperately de-skilled until the new way of doing things is under control. A short-term win reassures you that you are on the right track, and motivates you to keep going.

Second, short-term wins help people understand the goal more clearly. Stepping out into unknown territory always takes something of a leap of faith. But the moment that you can point to an achievement and say, ‘Yes that’s it; what you just heard is what we’re aiming for,’ the vision comes into focus.

Singers trust their directors. Usually if they’re not going with us in a direction it’s because they don’t see the path. The ‘Oh I get it now’ experience is one of the most powerful ones we can give our singers to help them on their way.

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