In Search of Myelin and Flow-states in a Time of Covid

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Last autumn, I was reflecting on the relationship between a collection of psychological concepts that have informed this blog, and indeed my work with musicians, over the years: flow, locus of control, team-work, and the process of repetition/self-correction that builds myelin, and thus develops skill.

In the musical world we took for granted back then, the group situation was integral to the process. Having the sense of contributing to the team-effort of pulling something wobbly back together in an ensemble secures your locus of control internally, and – as I observed from a different direction in my last post – the constant feedback from the choral sound around you guides your ongoing self-correction. Real-time feedback is also one of the essential components for achieving a flow-state.

I have been thinking increasingly about both myelination and flow-states of late, and how to access them in the attenuated and limited forms of interactive musicking to which I currently have access. Whilst I do at least get to do some live musicking every week now, it is only for an hour (limited duration being both a safety factor, and a pragmatic choice for comfort when rehearsing outside as the weather gets colder), and the singers only get to do it on alternate weeks (smaller groups being likewise a safety factor and a pragmatic choice: with proper spacing it gets hard to hear people much further away).

So, whilst I am grateful for the opportunity to engage in the kind of rehearsal in which I know how to reliably build myelin, each singer is in practice getting less than a quarter as much time doing it compared to when we were rehearsing together 7.30 – 10.00 each week. This is clearly a much more dilute experience, and whilst it does offer the satisfaction of hearing improvement both within a session and over time, the gradient of growth is noticeably shallower than we’d achieve with longer and more frequent sessions.

We still have our weekly Zoom of course, as the time we can all meet together, and this remains important both for our musical journey and our cohesion as a club. And we continue to find ways to wrest meaningful musical interaction out of a technology that doesn’t handle simultaneity. The challenges of online rehearsing are familiar to us all by now, but I am finding it useful to articulate them in terms of how they affect opportunities for myelination and flow.

The first of the two primary obstacles we have already met: the opportunity for real-time feedback. During live rehearsals, this is a rich and multi-dimensional experience: singers are responding to their perception of their own voices, to their interaction with the other voices in the ensemble, and to the director, whose gestures are in turn constantly responding to the needs of the music and the singers, as inferred from their sound. Singing online, this is stripped back to the perception of your own voice, or if you are singing along on mute with someone else on mic, to the combination of your own voice with one other.

Which does have value of course: if you couldn’t get into a flow state through self-monitoring as you sing by yourself, individual practice wouldn’t work. But we do want rehearsals to be different from just singing alone at home, both experientially, and in opportunities to develop. So feedback remains important, but often becomes much more about verbal interventions: turn-taking between the singers singing, and the director (or section leader, or partner in a paired activity) suggesting ways to make it better. This is also valuable (and satisfying!), but is inherently slower-paced as a rehearsal activity than working together in real time within the flow of the music.

Which brings us on to the second obstacle to myelination in a zoom rehearsal: intensity of neural firing. To build skill you want to combine the feedback/correction loop with lots and lots of repetition. Do it, do it again, and again, and again, each time with no more than a word or two to refine it, often not even with that if it’s clear the singers are one the case with what needs working on.

This kind of quickfire experience is much harder to achieve in a turn-taking environment. You can do it with one person, and hope that everyone else is engaged and thus getting some benefit through their mirror neurons, or you can lead everyone with their mics off in an activity that involves lots of repetition so everyone is getting to do the thing all the time, but without the opportunity to hear what kind of quickfire interventions they might need.

Overall, then, we can find opportunities to generate each dimension of the experience we want, but we can’t get them all at once like we do when rehearsing together live. Small-group work continues to be central, I think, not just because it increases each person’s ratio of singing to non-singing time, but it also makes each person more important in their role as listener, giving the mirror neurons more opportunity to get in on the act.

Variety of activity in rehearsals has always been a good thing to aim for, and has become especially needed to combat the obstacles to engagement that remote rehearsing presents. Thinking about the balance between intensity of neural firing and opportunities for feedback gives another useful dimension to inform planning.

Two days after I published this post, England's new lockdown was announced, so all my comments about the live rehearsals in this post become moot again for now.

All the more important to find ourselves ways into flow online...

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