Effecting Change 4: Re-refreezing

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Once we have persuaded people to let go of their previous habits, and changed the way they are performing something, we need to make sure that they will retain the change as a regular part of how they perform. There are two elements to this part of the process:

  • Consolidate and keep moving
  • Anchor the changes in the organisational culture

Consolidate and keep moving

This looks obvious on first sight, but I think the key point is that keeping moving is essential to the consolidation process. So, yes, you have to repeat the new way of doing things several times so that people get used to it – but if all you do is drill, that is less effective in embedding the new patterns than drill plus incrementally adding new elements to the challenge. I can think of two explanations of why this is so

  1. Adding to the challenge mitigates against hedonic adaptation – that phenomenon whereby the more familiar something is, the less you notice it. Thus, drill by itself can erode the quality of attention people bring to their singing, but drill+development keeps them engaged.
  2. You know how the most recent person to join a choir is always the ‘new girl’/’new boy’ until someone else joins? As soon as there is a new newest member, that person loses their status as the person who needs extra help, or allowances made for not knowing everything yet. The keeping-moving part of consolidation is a similar effect. The most recently-learned behaviour always seems the most fragile, so if you combine the process of embedding the new way of doing things with adding newer behaviours on top, it will feel more secure by comparison.

Anchor the changes in the organisational culture

This is where you build your choir mythologies. People will remember to use the new forms of behaviour much more readily if the discourses that surround their vocal and musical activities reference those behaviours, and keep them not only readily to mind, but part of the choir’s identity.

In the early days of Magenta, when rehearsal night might just see five or six of us, none of whom knew each other very well, and all as yet unpractised at finding their way round close-harmony styles, it was very easy for people to sing diffidently. The thing is, I knew that if we were singing out strongly, it would easier to harmonise together and people would have more to feel confident about. So started the ‘stardom’ campaign.

Initially it wasn’t a campaign – it was just an element of the warm-up. Rather than simply stretching as part of our physical preparation to sing, we flung our arms outwards and preened like superstars, imagining the adoration of our cheering fans. At first everyone was a bit embarrassed, but we just made the description of our fan base more and more exaggerated (‘televised in 20 countries; in Japan they’re staying up all night to hear the live broadcast….’) until we were laughing too much to be anything but relaxed. The voices were freer that night.

A week or two later, there was a flip-chart left in our rehearsal room after another event, so I drew a quick cartoon of a singer with out-flung arms and the caption ‘be a star’. After our first big gig – part of a concert in the Adrian Boult Hall – I sent every singer a thank-you postcard with a small version of that same cartoon. You’ll notice there are stars in our logo on our website. The collective noun for Magenta singers is now routinely ‘stars’ (as in ‘That’s great news; have you told the rest of the stars yet?’).

These days, 2 ½ years after that diffident beginning, the primary thing our audiences comment on is the performing confidence of every singer in the choir. Stardom has become part of our culture.

Every social group needs its stories, its narratives of where it came from, and why it is like it is. As director, you get more opportunity than anyone else to define the terms of those myths – use it to help your choir build its identity in terms of what you are working on artistically with them.

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