Arousal and Ignition

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Do you ever have one of those penny-drop moments when you suddenly realise that something you have learned recently might actually explain something else that you know from experience to be true but had never previously really understood?

I had one of these recently about the way that it takes performing a piece to cement it. It is a robust generalisation based in observed experience that however much you might practise a piece of music, it is the act of performance that moves it up to the next level. I have tended to think of the cycle of rehearsal and performance in terms of the metaphor of tempering steel: repeated heating and quenching is what makes it strong.

A passing comment from Allen Simon in an article on ChoralNet about the differences between dress rehearsal and performance gave me an insight into what's going on here:

I also find that the singers are much more focused in performance, which makes them more responsive to my conducting as well as less likely to make mistakes.

This is another of those observably true comments - and it suddenly made me connect two areas I have been interested in over recent months via the real-life experience of performance.

What Allen is describing here is the state of arousal, in which the sympathetic nervous system gets the body and mind ready for action. We become more focused, more alert, more able to dismiss peripheral distractions. We get this in rehearsal to an extent ('I was so tired before rehearsal last night, but when I got home I couldn't get to sleep'), but significantly more so in performance. The sense of occasion that comes from doing your thing publicly, often in an unfamiliar environment, and with the imperative to get things right first time without the chance to go back and correct yourself engenders an appreciably higher level of arousal.

Now, cross-reference this with Daniel Coyle's notion that the way to accelerate learning is to raise the stakes. He talks about practice strategies that 'add clarity and urgency' as a way to get the brain to supply a more focused and effective attention. This is clearly part of the process of ignition - it makes you care by making things more important. Coyle writes a lot about how operating at that level where you can achieve your goal but are not guaranteed to do so is the optimum mode for learning; this resonates in turn with my recent thoughts about how it is that the volatility of the performance situation is part of what makes it addictive.

These connections bring two conclusions. The first is that arousal is integral to ignition. We use similar metaphors for both states: we are lit up, on fire with both our enthusiasms and our peak performances. But the connection may be more causal than that. It may be that we need the blood sugar spike released by dose of adrenaline to get our neurons firing rapidly enough for serious myelin-building.

The second conclusion is that our standard advice to nervous performers to get out there and do lots of performing has more dimensions to it than usually suggested. The general (and no doubt correct) view is that since we get over-aroused in unfamiliar situations, you make performance less scary by making it a familiar experience. This remains good advice.

But performance experience does not merely inure us to nerves - it is not simply a way of developing emotional calluses - it also actually makes us better at what we do. Every time we perform, the heightened attention and sense of occasion test and thus strengthen our skill base. We are more confident next time not just because we know we can do this and survive, but because the experience itself makes us more competent.

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