Effecting Change: from Conscious to Unconscious Competence

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I recently had a really interesting email from a friend about the chorus she directs. She has been working with them for some weeks on making a significant shift in their vocal production over the course of two months, from a sound she describes as ‘wide’ to one that is ‘forward and tall’.*

They have got to the point where the singers grasp what is being asked for, and agree with the value of making the change, but habitually revert to their previous placement any time they’re not specifically working on the new sound. This is proving somewhat frustrating.

My friend’s email talked about the process of change in Kotter’s terms – of unfreezing, transforming and re-freezing. She feels they have managed the unfreezing well, and are making good headway with the ‘communicating visions’ and ‘short-term wins’ bit of transforming, but are finding the stage of re-freezing is not getting any nearer. She specifically mentions one aspect of the process that I think she is absolutely right to focus on next:

I was really interested in handing the reins over to the singers so they can remove their obstacles. This feels like a good next stage in this particular process but I'm not sure how to do it.

Now, the way she described the process suddenly gave me an insight into the relationship between Kotter’s model of change and the model of learning that goes from unconscious incompetence through to unconscious competence. Unfreezing is the bit where you move people from being unaware they can’t do something to realising there’s something that needs learning. Conscious incompetence provides the urgency to transform, and the consolidation of conscious into unconscious competence maps nicely onto re-freezing.

The point my friend’s chorus is at is very clearly conscious competence. They are at exactly the place where they can do it if they make it their specific focus, but can’t if they’re thinking about something else. I realise that so far I’ve just named the problem in different words, but it does help allay the frustration if you know that your condition is a recognised and standard stage in a longer process. The problem still needs solving, but the fact that it’s normal encourages a belief that this is possible.

So, the process is one of embedding habits. And the key here is regularity of reinforcement. Until you do something as a matter of course, you need some kind of external reminder to reset. And this will be most effective if it (a) works at both a whole chorus and an individual level, and (b) uses system(s) than can be operated by chorus members themselves.

Indeed, the systems will work even better if actually devised by chorus members, so the following ideas are only suggestions to get the ideas flowing. I will be delighted if they are all rejected in favour some better ideas generated in-house.

Chorus Level

After spending time at the start of the evening setting up the vocal world you are aiming for (I know this chorus does this anyway!), establish a short-hand routine to reset the placement. For instance, singing ‘wide-tall-wide-tall-ah’ with gestures to match. (This can be shortened to ‘wide-tall-ah’ as people get more adept at the resetting.)

Then, get on with the rehearsal as usual, but with intermittent signals to stop and reset. These signals should be in the hands of the chorus members (to devolve responsibility, and to relieve the director of yet another thing to have to track). In the first instance, the signals should be really quite close together, and moved progressively further apart as the chorus embeds the habit.

So, you might make them 5 minutes apart the first week. This would initially be quite intrusive and irritating, but you’d get used to doing the reset routine and resuming work in hand very quickly. You might find that you can move them out to 8 minutes by the second half of the rehearsal. The decision to move the signals apart would be how much of a difference the rest makes. If you find at the reset point that the sound has reverted in a major way to old habits, you need to keep them close together; if you find you’ve retained a noticeable amount of the tall placement, you can move them further apart.

Individual Level

If the only time you practice this new placement is in rehearsal, it will take longer to embed than if you practise in between. Easy to say, but as my 5-minute practice project showed last year, it’s actually making the habit to do the practice that is the hardest part.

But doing something as part of a group effort gives the opportunity to motivate individual effort through public commitments and public rewards. This is why Weight Watchers is such a successful business.

I’m thinking of something a bit like the loyalty cards you get at cafés. Instead of getting a stamp for each drink you buy, eventually entitling you to a free one, you get awarded a tick (or a star, or whatever) on your card every time you practise at home, and the person who clocks up the most each week gets a prize. The prize may even be (in a self-reinforcing kind of way) to operate the timer for the chorus resets. But what matters is the public congratulation and applause for having done the practice. Obviously this is an honesty-based system, but my observation is that people aren’t really very good at lying, especially in situations like this where it would feel so self-defeating to do so.

It would probably help to have some kind of practice protocol for individual work that everyone learns. This makes it easier to be sure if you have done a practice session that ‘counts’, and also will make it more likely that people are really practising the technique you’re after.

Another useful technique would be for singers to record themselves singing during rehearsal, then review and give feedback on each other’s recordings. This is useful in part for receiving individual feedback (e.g. if there are particular vowels or parts of the voice where they are being particularly tall or wide in their placement), but possibly even more in what people will learn through the process of listening and analysing other people’s efforts. If anything, I like this idea even more than the practice loyalty card, though there’s nothing to stop you using both.

Or, indeed, neither. As I say, these ideas are there as examples, intended to open up possibilities. It’s always easier to devise something effective when you have some other idiot’s daft suggestions to improve upon.

Making significant long-term change is a major undertaking for any ensemble, and I’d like to finish by congratulating and encouraging anyone who makes the commitment and effort to do so. In the long term, your success will be its own reward, but while you’re in the middle where it feels difficult, it can help to know you have people cheering you on. Go for it!

* The metaphors people use to describe vocal tone are an interesting mix of reference to the type and location of physical sensation while making the sound and the audible effect this has. As a result, people can get quite contentious about the accuracy and/or meaningfulness of the vocabulary. I don’t want to get distracted by this here though, so can we just accept in this context that wide vs tall is a reasonably widely-shared set of terms for vocal sound, and is understood as helpful for those who use them?

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