Self-Talk and the Ensemble

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A central concept of sports psychology is ‘self-talk’ – the internal dialogue people have with themselves about what they’re doing. The content and tone of this self-talk, and the ways people account for their successes and failures has a major impact on how effectively they develop their skills and how successfully they put them into practice when it really counts.

Everybody working on a complex skill will experience a mix of achievement and disappointment. But people often hold quite different beliefs about the two. If you tell yourself that triumphs are temporary and local, but your weaknesses are permanent and systemic, it will be very hard to get any better. But if you tell yourself that accomplishment is the normal state of affairs, with collapses as aberrations, you are going to be both more motivated to address the problems as you believe you can fix them.

In summary:
Success = normal-positive, negative-fluke

Put in the abstract like this, it sounds obvious. Why would anyone who loves what they do say that they do things badly as a matter of course? But you regularly hear comments from choir members along the lines of: ‘Oh, we always have trouble coming in there,’ or ‘It’s never as good on the stage as it is in the warm-up room is it?’

Sports psychology has all kinds of methods to help train athletes into more helpful mental habits – tricks people can use to catch themselves in limiting thoughts and re-framing them. Self-talk moves to a whole new level, though, when it operates not just within individuals but within a whole ensemble. This has both advantages and disadvantages.

The advantages are, first, that you can identify much more easily what is going on inside people’s heads than when you’re working with individuals, as you can hear them talk to each other. Second, members of the ensemble can encourage positive habits in each other. Each-other-talk both arises from and feeds self-talk.

Of course, this second advantage is also a disadvantage. Once systemic negative beliefs have got embedded in a choir’s mythology, it can be very hard to shift them, as they keep circulating and recirculating, with longer-standing members inculcating newer ones into a well-established system of limiting beliefs.

The reason it’s so hard to make changes in a choir’s culture and discourses is that the folk memory of ‘what we’ve done together’ and ‘how we do things’ is the thread that stitches the group’s identity together. Attempts to eradicate these stories are met with a deep and emotionally-charged resistance. People feel like they’re under attack if you try and interfere with the content of their private conversations – and not unreasonably so. Not only does it feel like a an unwarranted intrusion into people’s personal relationships, but denying a shared history erases significant chunks of the shared self over which all members feel a legitimate sense of ownership.

There are two ways to handle this, and they work best in combination, though each can make a difference by itself. The first is the invention of new stories, mottoes and catch-phrases. Be on the look out for moments of joy, success or laughter. It only takes a couple of references back to one in the course of a rehearsal (the technique comedians term a ‘call-back’) to create an in-joke. And in-jokes build group identity – they index not only a shared experience, but one from which others are excluded very efficiently.

The second way to displace limiting ensemble narratives lies in the distinction between permanent/systemic and temporary/local noted earlier. Rather than trying to eliminate the stories, you re-frame them as incidents rather than as endemic attributes. ‘We used to have a problem with over-singing tags until we stopped over-rehearsing them’; ‘My first time on stage I was so nervous, but now I really enjoy it’; ‘We’ve really been working on the openings of songs after a really dodgy festival performance, and now we’re starting to get specific compliments on our impact.’

Some people see even this approach to self-talk as over-controlling and rather suspect. But we do this kind of re-framing all the time in everyday life. We accept that the clothes people wore in the 1970s were perfectly valid at the time, though we wouldn’t be seen dead in them now. Ask a seven-year-old if she wets her knickers, and she’ll tell you she only did that when she was a very little girl. We shouldn’t forget our past selves, but neither do we have to let them determine our present or future.

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