Raising the Stakes, Part II

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My last post on this subject explored the idea of motivating people to achieve more and better things in rehearsal by raising the stakes. It found a distinction between bullying (which will do this effectively in the short term, but at the cost of making everyone miserable) and game-structures that increased the importance of the desired behaviours without putting personal pressure on people.

This post aims to analyse the various aspects of successful stakes-raising tactics to see how we can generate them in rehearsal. There are four main elements I have identified, and some activities involve more than one of them.

Make people feel more exposed

People step up to the mark more if they think they are being observed.

Formal exercises/activities to exploit this would include:

  • Split the choir into two or more smaller choirs
  • Cycling the stacking so that everyone takes a turn on the front row
  • Games that bring each person into the focus of attention in turn

We can also exploit this within the general run of rehearsal processes:

  • A compliments strategy that regularly names individuals you have spotted doing something well keeps everyone alert to the fact they are visible and audible
  • Working with individuals who need extra support within the flow of the rehearsal likewise encourages effort. As a coach, I often do this when working on rhythm using gesture-based exercises. This allows me to see quite clearly who finds it difficult (and/or who is not really engaging) and to work with them on a one-to-one basis within the flow of the music. This targets the help where it's needed and makes it very clear that not engaging is not an option.

It is important that all the attention people get when they are more exposed is supportive. If you make someone feel exposed and then make them feel bad about what they do, you will encourage a muted, fearful response in future. The exposure itself is what raises the stake here; it is the director's job to keep the environment safe while people take the risks that the situation demands.

Amplifying consequence of error

If there is no reason to avoid an avoidable error, people will make it. Habit is the line of least resistance, after all.

Structured activities to give people a reason to avoid these errors would include the equivalent of the improv game described in my last post - forfeits such as running found the group back to your place every time you make a certain type of error have the light quality of a game, but entail sufficient inconvenience to motivate people to avoid them.

(That's the thing about forfeits - they need to be trivial enough that people don't feel bad about them, but not so silly that people enjoy them too much. I used to have my satnav set to moo every time I broke the speed limit, but I had to change it as I enjoyed it too much - it was rewarding rather than inhibiting the behaviour.)

The musical equivalent of a swear-box can be useful here too, so long as you are dealing with very easily identifiable and correctable errors. Getting first and second-time bars muddled up is an error of autopilot and inattention that people would stop making quite quickly if it cost them a fiver to the Christmas party fund every time they did it.

Within the regular rehearsal process, raising the stakes is often about increasing the emotional charge associated with a certain error. 'Every time you sing an 's' early, a kitten dies,' is not true, but it may be memorable enough to make people notice when they do it.

Again, the amplified consequences need to be chosen carefully. This is another area where it is possible to bully your singers. Also, this only really works where people have the awareness to tell the difference between getting it right and wrong - in Inner Game terms, it is pure Will. It is demoralising to be told you have killed a kitten when you couldn't tell if you had or not...

Getting the group to enforce instructions on each other

It is one thing to hear your director say the same thing week in, week out - that's just what they do. It is quite another to be told by your peers that you need to raise your game.

Duetting is, as ever, very good for this, as is the tactic of having members of the ensemble coming out to listen and give feedback. These methods are valuable in the way not only that they reinforce to the group that the techniques they are working on are important because they make a difference to the overall effect, but also in the way they raise awareness in the listeners. As noted above, until you can hear the difference, you can't make the difference.

Introduce a competitive dimension

People like to win. Even if the victory has no particular import beyond the activity itself. (Possibly: especially if the victory has no particular import beyond the activity itself - it's purer that way.)

So, if you can turn an exercise into a competition, you raise the stakes immediately. While duetting, ask the listening singers which of the two parts had the most consistently tall vowels, or the warmer tone, or whatever you are working on. In Magenta, we have been doing some memory work recently with complex lyrics, and we have been playing games based on Just a Minute to build on the exercises we have used so far.

You can also set a current achievement of the whole group as a target for the whole group to beat. Exercises that involve increasing challenge and complexity are good for this, as the makers of computer games know.

Your compliments strategy comes into play again here. If you catch someone doing something particularly well, bestow a prize upon them. When Kate is told she wins the 'standing tall as a deity' award, everyone else stands a bit taller too.

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