How can I retain what I’ve learned?

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Retention is the Achilles heel of a performance coach. It’s one thing to go and help an ensemble significantly improve their performance, but unless the coaching results in some kind of longer-lasting improvement, it has not done its job. It may of course have given the singers a good time, so was still a valid use of the session - but there is a difference between a fun workshop and coaching.

There are a number of elements or stages to the process of retention, and I suspect that the secret lies in combining them effectively.

  1. Data capture

    Ensembles use a variety of different methods to record what goes on during coaching: note-taking, audio recording, video-recording. Heartbeat has rather a nice method whereby there's a single flip chart on which any member of the chorus can go and write when they have learned something they wanted to remember. This not only connects the recording phase with the act of collating the details, but also turns individuals’ learning into a public experience.

  2. Review

    Records of what a coaching session achieved do no good if they stay on the recording medium (paper, hard disk or whatever). The details captured only help if they are processed through the brains of the people who will act on them. So, notes need collating and sharing, recordings need editing and disseminating.

    Now, my hunch is that the people who do the collating are the ones who learn the most from it – since they are taking a much more active relationship with the material than people who simply consume (read/watch/listen) the edited result. I don’t know of any groups using tools such as wikis that allow distributed authorship for this, but I would think it could be quite effective – again, as a means to make learning a socially-shared experience.

  3. Reinforcement

    Performance coaching is about removing old habits and replacing them with new ones that offer greater technical control and/or artistic depth. By the end of the coaching session, people have demonstrated that they are capable of performing the new skills, but they have much less practice at them than at the old habits they replace. So, embedding the new ways of thinking, feeling and singing is an ongoing task in subsequent rehearsals, and is central to retention. (This is akin to the re-freezing phase of the Kotter model of change.) The primary purpose of data capture and review is to feed this process.

  4. Internalisation

    When the new habits are no longer ‘what we learned from the coaching session’ but are ‘this is what we do’, the process of internalisation is complete. This is the goal of all learning experiences, and again the earlier stages only exist to facilitate it. As a friend of mine once put it: if the information hasn’t changed you, you haven’t learned anything.

Now, the retention process can break down at any point in this process. Inadequate data capture just leaves people forgetting what they did before the next rehearsal comes along. Inadequate review leaves the information collected unprocessed and therefore unavailable to feed reinforcement. We’ve all been in groups where we can hear the magic wrought by a visiting coach gradually leak away over the following month as weak reinforcement allows the old habits to reassert themselves.

But I’m wondering if the most frustrating way for it to break down is where a group is endeavouring to nail every step of the process, but ends up with the earlier stages getting in the way of internalisation.

I spend a lot of my coaching helping people explore the music they sing: what is going on in the text, why a particular chord is used in a particular place, how the relationship between the parts contributes to the emotional trajectory – that kind of thing. Unless there are specific vocal technique issues getting in the way, I mostly don’t tell people how to sing something, but work instead on their understanding, knowing that what’s in their imaginations will come out in their voices.

Now, if people are overly focused on data-capture during the coaching process, what you’ll hear is this: First time they try something with a new image in mind, there’ll be a major gain in colour, expression and often vocal freedom, too. Then, subsequent times, you hear a technical effect as people try to ‘remember’ to ‘do’ the new thing. Given that what people focus on is what you hear in their voices, an excessive focus on ‘not forgetting what we covered’ can result in a performance expressive of maintaining a laundry-list of instructions. The attention to recording what’s learned comes at the expense of attention to the music.

So, my job as a coach is to maximise stage 4 while I’m there. I’m not knocking stages 1-3, since they are excellent symptoms of and means to an ensemble taking responsibility for their own learning – corporately and individually. But they do not substitute for internalising the new vocal and imaginative habits. And if I can help the singers make the changes their own while I’m there, there’s much less pressure on the follow-up.

My thanks must go to Helen Lappert who made a couple of passing remarks a few weeks ago that have made me think through all this afresh.

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