Raising the Stakes in Rehearsal

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Back when I was taking lessons in Alexander Technique, my teacher introduced me to bit of psychological re-framing that I found rather striking. It was to do with habit and habit-change (of course - that is central to what AT is about), and how you manage at that point when you do something when you remember to, but often forget and let habit take over. 'If I gave you £200 every time you did this, would you do it more often?' he asked. 'Well, I can't afford to do that, but if you are able do it for £200, you are able to do it for nothing.'

What he did here was to raise the stakes. He changed forgetting to do something from a matter of little concern to one of significant lost gain. Never mind that it was purely hypothetical, he had me more emotionally and attentionally invested in the exercise.

Now, anyone who has worked with human beings knows that the capacity to forget instructions and revert to habit is well developed in the species. Many a choral director expresses frustration at having to give the same instruction repeatedly week after week. Clearly we all need ways to raise the stakes, to make people experience these behaviour changes as important, if we are to make our rehearsals effective beyond the moment.

There are dangers here of course. In my choral conducting book I cite the example of a director of a barbershop chorus telling a singer in an open rehearsal a couple of days before the chorus contest at an international convention, 'Twelve thousand people just heard that mistake'. Now, this certainly succeeded in raising the stakes, but was - frankly - also the tactic of a bully.

I'm sure ever singer present felt the emotional temperature rise there, and got an extra burst of adrenaline in their blood stream, but if the Inner Game has taught us anything, it is that when people are motivated by fear, that limits their capacity to grow artistically. It's not just that bullying is unkind, it is counter-productive in the longer term.

Contrast that with a lovely bit of stakes-raising I have seen in a warm-up game played by Box of Frogs improvisation group. It is a classic wits-sharpening exercise that sends a noises and gestures round a circle within a certain frame-work of rules such that participants have to be very on the ball not to make a mistake. That describes a lot of these kinds of improv games. The distinctive feature of this one is that if you make a mistake you have to run round the outside of the circle back to your place before you can carry on playing.

In the scheme of things, it doesn't really matter if you make an error. In these games it never does. The thing that keeps everyone on task trying to get it right is the basic buy-in to the activity - the rules are there to structure the interaction, and there is an inherent pleasure in getting it right. But adding the extra rule about mistakes raises the stakes of the game. It still doesn't matter, but there is a consequence. Running round the circle isn't a great hardship, but it does require a certain amount of effort, and it certainly marks you out more vividly as some who has made an error. It brings an extra competitive edge to the proceedings.

This is the kind of thing we're after in rehearsal: things that incite people to care more, to make more of an effort, to up their game, without putting personal pressure on them. We don't want to punish mistakes, as that is the road to artistic death. People shrink away from daring anything, but still end up punished, as it is impossible to work with human beings for any length of time without errors happening. But we do want people to care about getting things right. We want them to aspire towards more sophisticated and interesting mistakes instead of the basic ones they are currently making.

So, how do we do this? Some practical ideas will follow in my next post on the subject as this one has got rather longer than I thought it would when I started.

But a central principle that has emerged from my exploration of possibilities is that specificity is key. Just as 'good job' is, as compliments go, too vague to be particularly helpful, asking people just to do things better in general while raising the stakes just makes them anxious.

Give people a particular task, technique, artistic goal to focus on, and raising the stakes keeps them focused on it and determined to nail it. But it needs to be within their grasp, and it needs to be clear to them when they have achieved it. Anything nebulous won't meet those two conditions, and so deprives them of the enhanced pay-off which is the reward of raising the stakes.

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