Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Breaking the habit of a lunchtime

This is revised version of a post which first appeared in December 2006 as Fighting habit and complacency.

It doesn’t take long to form a habit. Sometimes just a tea break, let alone a whole lunchtime. But it can take ages to break a habit.

thumb sucker

Habits can be useful sometimes (if they’re not bad habits!), but they can also get in the way of learning and creativity.

that’s my chair!

There were about 30 of us at the workshop. It was a reasonably sized room with lots of those boring plastic chairs, all orange. We’d hardly sat down, when the workshop leader had us standing up for the warm up. We ended up moving all around the room, working with different partners, being generally silly.

We were then asked to sit down to learn the first song. Most people just grabbed the nearest chair, but one woman walked right across the other side of the room, got a chair, and dragged it back to where she had been standing.

It was her chair. The chair she’d first sat on when she arrived. It ‘belonged’ to her even though she hadn’t put anything on it, even though it was indistinguishable from all the others.

I’ve found this in seminars and lectures. If I dare to come back from the coffee break and sit in a different chair from the one I had before, people get miffed. I’ve somehow upset the subtle balance of things. I’ve maybe even sat in a seat that doesn’t ‘belong’ to me!

In these instances, people have very quickly formed a habit. In moments they’ve established a new ritual and made their claim on the space. And woe betide anyone who tries to change it!

a rose by any other tune

This weekend just gone was the annual gathering of the Natural Voice Practitioners’ Network. To kick the weekend off, several people took turns to teach us all some simple songs.

One of the songs turned out to have a very well-known tune, but with unfamiliar words. Most people had heard the tune before. However, the version we were taught was ever so slightly different from the one that most of us already knew. I know the song as Rose, Rose.

Even after singing this new version for quite a while, there were still some people who were sticking to the ‘old’ version that they already knew. It was proving to be too hard to change their habit of singing that particular tune.

but we’ve always done it that way!

The same effect can be seen with choirs when you try to breathe new life into an old song, or a new musical director comes on board. It’s as if the familiar version has formed deep ruts in people’s brains so it becomes virtually impossible to steer the song in a different direction.

Same with warm ups. It’s quite nice to do a few of the same exercises each week so that people can notice their own development, plus you don’t need to explain the exercise from scratch each time.

But the danger is that if an exercise becomes too familiar, people end up just going through the motions and don’t get the full benefit.

The ideal is to approach everything (well-known song, familiar exercise, concert) as if it’s for the first time (see the concept of beginner’s mind in the post Blame it on the weather). You will then discover new things about the song, the exercise, and you.

habit can lead to complacency

I have a bee in my bonnet about habit and complacency, which is why I always try to do something new and different each choir term.

For example, in the past I’ve tried different seating configurations, changing them from week to week. For the last few years I’ve dispensed with seats altogether (which initially upset some people!).

Sometimes I revisit a song, but approach it in a different way. Perhaps we’ll sing it much slower, or I’ll add some choreography, or put a new part in.

I’ll do anything really to keep things alive and in the moment. As soon as something becomes a habit, you stop noticing it. You stop being aware of what is happening in each moment which can lead to disaster:

  • you don’t notice when the conductor brings the volume down;
  • you don’t notice that you’re going faster than everyone else in your part;
  • you don’t remember that an extra verse has been added;
  • you don’t notice that the tops are going slightly flat so you need to follow them.

These are the enemies of learning, development and improvement:

  • complacency
    “the last gig went really well, so the next one should be a doddle”;
  • habit
    “but I always sit in that seat and can only sing if the altos are on my left side”;
  • familiarity
    “that’s the way we’ve always done this song”;
  • expectation
    “in concerts the altos always stand next to the tenors”;
  • safety and comfort
    “I like being in the midst of the bass section as it helps me stick to my part”.

They can all lead to a loss of vitality in concerts, blandness and lack of energy in performance, and an unwillingness to try anything new.

shake it up!

What can you do, as a choir leader, to shake people out of their complacency?

What can you do, as a singer, to stay in the moment, even though what you’re doing is very familiar?

What are your own (good or bad) habits? How can you escape their tyranny?



Chris Rowbury's website:

Chris Rowbury


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