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Rituals, Habits and Anchoring

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A ritual is a habit with meaning. Choirs have all kinds of habits: some good (clearing the chairs away after rehearsal), some bad (sneaking breaths in obvious places mid-phrase), some cultivated deliberately (smiling while singing), some developed by osmosis (going to the pub after a concert).

But a ritual is something both done deliberately and freighted with a specific import. It shares with habits that quality of repeated action, but it has a sense of self-awareness, of being invested with significance beyond itself. It functions to bind those participating in it together into a shared identity rooted in shared experiences. It will either implicitly embody or explicitly articulate some aspect of the choir’s values.

A choir’s rituals will usually include some based in their vocal and musical activities (e.g. always finishing rehearsals with a particular piece), some that are based in their social identities (e.g. faith choirs praying together), and some that are ambiguously positioned between the two (e.g. singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to each choir member during the rehearsal nearest theirs).

Anchoring is a technique used by NLP practitioners to give people a way to trigger a particular emotional state at will. It involves developing a deliberate association between some concrete action or sensation and a set of remembered or imagined images that evoke that state.

For instance, you may make the concrete action the placing of your non-dominant hand on the opposite arm, and choose to link that action with a memory of times you felt really good about yourself. You would replay this memory with your hand in this position repeatedly, making a point of making the memory as vivid as possible, and including as much sensory detail as possible. By practising this association, you would find it progressively easier to recapture the way you felt on that day – you would have anchored that feeling in that action.

Then, if you found yourself in a situation where you might feel uncertain of yourself, you could place your non-dominant hand on your arm, and access your well-rehearsed sensation of feeling good about yourself.

The above description follows the way the technique is typically presented in the NLP literature. But (I’m sure you can see where I’m going here), you can often get similar kinds of effects from a choir’s rituals.

Actually, even the habits can work for you. If you have a regular warm-up routine on rehearsal nights, then when you go off and find yourselves in an unfamiliar environment for a performance occasion, going through that routine together can help restore a sense of confidence in the group’s identity, as it reconnects you all with the familiar, the known, and your shared substrate of skills.

But rituals are a more powerful tool for choral anchoring, as they carry both explicit references to the group’s values, and a positive emotional state. The vividness of experience that NLP anchoring fosters in the sensory imagination is built into rituals through the sense of communion they offer. They connect the choir not only with what is familiar to them, but with what is important to them.

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