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On the Fear of Improvement

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I have often quipped over the years that many people find increasing their skill levels to be an experience like the old song, ‘Everyone wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die’ – as in, everyone wants to get better, but nobody wants to change. But I have been reflecting recently on a phenomenon that lies behind this inertia: some people seem actively to fear getting better.

Phrase it like that, and it sounds bonkers. Why would anyone shy away from being more competent and assured at doing the thing they love? But it is an observable phenomenon, and one which I need to understand if I am to succeed in my life’s aim of helping people make music with more confidence, skill and joy.

You have to look quite carefully to make the observation, of course. People don’t come straight out and say that they’re not going to use a technique that will improve their breath control or range or expressive power because they’re scared of it. Rather, it emerges in various forms of blocking behaviour: self-sabotage, distraction, attacking the legitimacy of the technique or the person who’s teaching it, picking a fight over something completely unrelated.

Successfully executed, these blocking tactics not only protect their perpetrators from having to engage with the new technique or skill, but prevent everyone else really getting to grips with it either. One person’s fear of excellence can keep an entire choir in a state of safe mediocrity.

I used to interpret these kinds of disruptive behaviours as expressions of esteem needs. As they may still be. You can generally tell if that was the case by doing things to feed the ego of the needy person, and seeing if they then calm down.

But if the pattern of behaviour recurs, it may mean looking deeper into more fundamental needs: through love and belonging (where lurks the anxiety of being left behind or left out), to safety needs. Changing the way we do things can feel dangerous, and we need to understand the nature of this threat.

In both of my books (and indeed in my more recent chapter for OUP) I have explored how we constitute our identities as singers both discursively and performatively. That is, we both create a narrative about our musical lives assembled from the various life story-lines culturally available to us, and develop shared patterns of behaviour that frame our felt experience as singers. This is why different choral traditions have different styles of body language and different styles of vocal production.

Changing the way you sing – even if it is for the better – can thus feel like a direct threat to your identity. You might feel not only deskilled but actually alienated from yourself. This is why Kotter’s advice to unfreeze before you attempt transformation is so useful: people need to have a motivation to attempt change rather than hunker down and protect their current sense of self.

And I think the narrative dimension of identity is key to how readily people will let themselves be unfrozen and move towards change. As Carol Dweck documents, a belief structure that considers capacites as fixed and inborn is much more psychologically vulnerable than one which attributes them to effort and application. Someone whose internal autobiography draws on the mythology of talent (‘I always was a musical child’) is existentially threatened by the conscious incompetence phase of learning. Whereas to a growth mindset, it’s just ‘another thing I can’t do yet but could get better at with practice’.

The possibility of failure – or even simply of imperfection - carries much higher stakes when abilities are believed to be innate.

For the choral director, this is one those situations we can influence but can’t control. We can build a choir culture that is resolutely growth-mindset in outlook, but we can’t control the narratives people bring along with them from their outside lives. For many people, with both growth and fixed narratives culturally available, moving into a choir-specific identity around an ethos of development and growth isn’t too much of a struggle. But those who come in highly invested in a fixed mindset will take more nurturing to be persuaded.

I do sometimes wonder if there are some people who will always simply refuse to embrace a growth-mindset culture. But I’m not dead yet, so I still see them as works-in-progress. And I do regard it as important for the director to hold fast to the project of fostering growth, even in the face of sometimes quite testing behaviours. If nothing else, it is good for the safety needs of others: if you are wondering whether to let yourself take personal risks in the name of learning, it is important to be able to trust in the integrity of the values of the person who encouraging you to take those risks.

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