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TOM TALK: CHANGE
Editor's note: This is a speech given during an interest session at the NC ACDA Conference,
February 10, 2012,
Over a year ago, Aimee Beckmann-Collier asked me if I had ever seen a
TEDD Talk. I hadn’t, so I went online and saw these brilliant and highly engaging people, and they only talked for 10 minutes!
So I told her, “These things are great.”
She said, “Good, because I want you to do one!”
Now, you might think that would give me pause. After all she was expecting me to be brilliant and engaging, but I teach in an elementary school. In just this past week I’ve been a Tall, Tall Tree, a Little Teapot, and an Itsy Bitsy Spider. I can do brilliant and engaging. No sweat.
So I said, “Where and when?”
She said, “At an ACDA Regional Conference.”
Well that did give me pause. I’ve taught elementary music for 37 years, but I am not a choral conductor, and I have no expertise in choral music. I often wonder why the ACDA ever let me join. So, here’s the good news: I will not be sharing my thoughts on choral music and you only have to listen to me for 9 more minutes.
I want to talk about change. I want to talk about change because we’re here at a conference that from its inception has been all about change. The organizers think there should be more to this business of conducting choirs than teaching the correct pitches, and winning competitions, and sending kids to All State, and getting through Advent without becoming an atheist.
These folks who have worked so hard to plan this conference want you to change the way you do your job. Sadly, research shows most of you won’t change anything. In fact, even those of you who want to change…won’t.
Let me give you an example. Everyone in this room wants to have good health and everyone knows how to lead a healthy lifestyle: Avoid salt. Don’t eat sugar or fat. Don’t smoke. Don’t drink. (Have I mentioned your favorite yet?) Exercise vigorously every day and don’t forget to get eight hours of sleep every night.
Have you ever met a choral director who got 8 hours of sleep?!
Why do we avoid doing what our rational brain knows we should do? Why is it so hard to change? Well scientists are beginning to figure it out. It seems we have a divided brain. Think of it as the old brain and the new brain.
The old brain has been evolving for over 600 million years. It’s powerful. It makes sure we survive long enough reproduce. It’s instinctive. It’s our multi-tasker. It’s why we can walk and chew gum at the same time.
The new brain, on the other hand, has only been on the scene for about 2 million years. It’s our conscious, reflective, truly human brain.
When scientists try to describe how this “divided” brain functions, or if you’re like me, fails to function, they use a metaphor. Imagine that the old brain is an elephant; strong, capable of great endurance, but not very nimble.
Now imagine that the new brain is a rider perched on top of that big elephant. It’s the smarter but far weaker guiding force that’s trying to direct the elephant.
So you come to this conference and hear wonderful new ideas and your conscious brain (the rider) decides to change. But getting that massive elephant to move is no small feat.
Research shows that the rider has a finite amount of strength it can devote to moving the elephant and at some point the rider will become exhausted and the elephant will take over. If you’ve tried in the past to change your eating habits or your priorities in the choir room, you probably started with a burst of good intentions, only to slide gradually back into old routines.
Chip and Dan Heath who wrote the book, Switch, have suggested that if we want to change our behavior we have to start by accepting the way our brain functions. To make change happen, we have to do at least one of three things:
We have to help the rider, or motivate the elephant, or change the environment.
Let me give you an example. Every year my doctor tells me to exercise and every year I tell him, “Exercise is boring!” In an effort to get this guy off my back, I decided to do the following:
I have this glider thing gathering dust in our basement, so I decided to walk on my glider for ten minutes every day. I decided I would watch the monologues from The Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson while I walked. I decided I would do it at home before I left for school in the morning.
Much to everyone’s surprise, I’ve stuck with this plan for over a year, and I’m actually up to 30 minutes a day – every day! What I had accidentally done was follow Chip and Dan Heath’s advice to the letter.
First, I helped the rider. I didn’t try to become an athlete or lose 100 pounds. I just committed to walk for ten minutes. The rider knew exactly what to do.
Second, I motivated the elephant. I love comedy, especially if it’s rude, profane, and inappropriate. If you think this is rare among elementary teachers you would be wrong. We have a secret life you folks can only imagine. Thanks to Craig Ferguson and a DVR my elephant got to do something it already wanted to do.
As the final step, I shaped my environment. By exercising in the morning at home I made it harder to fail. I couldn’t use the excuse that I was tired or I couldn’t afford to join a gym. I had outsmarted my divided brain and made a positive change in my life.
So, how can we help the rider, motivate the elephant and change our environment so that we can apply what we’re learning here in Madison? If you want to help the rider, remember that you can’t do everything, but you can do something. I couldn’t become an athlete, but I could walk for 10 minutes. Your singers can’t become sight-readers tomorrow, but I bet they could learn one song without depending on the piano. You don’t have time to write a thesis on your contest music, but you could write a really good rehearsal plan for just one composition.
If you want to motivate the elephant you have to make what you do a reward, not a punishment. Give yourself and your singers a gift. Give the gift that every choral director and musician covets more than any other, the gift of time. I dare you to schedule one less concert next year. I dare you to cut one piece from every performance.
As you plan your Lenten services, think less singing and more silent prayer. That’s sounds funny coming from a musician but it’s no joke. You'll find yourself with more time to “go beyond the notes” in the music you do sing, and if your church is like mine, they’ll argue and complain about the music but they’ll have a tough time griping about prayer.The last step is to shape the environment, and I’ll admit that’s a tough one. You don’t have to tell this old public school teacher that it’s a jungle out there. You don’t have to tell a former bargaining team chair that it’s an uphill battle to change the workplace. It isn’t any different if you’re a church musician or working for a non-profit.
You probably can’t change your budget, your principal or your department chair. You can’t order up a new board of directors. You can’t get rid of your senior pastor. I’ve looked into blowing up the Department of Education but apparently that would nullify my retirement plan. Lord knows, you can’t change the governor, though my brothers and sisters in Wisconsin seem to be giving it a shot.
So let’s focus on what you can control. You control the repertoire. You control what activities go in your rehearsals. You control how much responsibility to turn over to your singers. You get to determine if traveling, fundraising, and working every weekend is healthy for your choir. (If you’re not sure about that last one, ask your spouse.)
Change is hard. That is a scientific fact. I know this won’t be the conference that changes everything, but might be the conference that changes something. It might be the conference that changes you.
Patricia Trump teaches music at Monroe Elementary School,
Des Moines Public Schools