Learning Vs Performing


There’s a popular trope amongst local musicians, that you can practise a new song all you want, you can play it over and over, you can rehearse it hundreds of times, but the first time you play it live to an audience, you’ll mess it up. Your guitar, your fingers, your brain, they all just know that you’re no longer in your rehearsal room. Now, there are people watching, and now, they have to sabotage you.

This resonates with me. As a person who writes new songs and finds venues and outlets to debut them, I can confirm that there’s a stark difference between the first performance of a song and its twentieth. But what makes the difference? And more importantly, what can we do to set ourselves up for success, so that first performances aren't the seemingly inevitable car crashes that everyone believes them to be? This is what I’d like to explore in this post, and it begins with a TED talk that I accidentally came across years ago. 

The talk, by Eduardo Briceño, explores the concept of learning vs performing. This is relevant to creatives since craft is an endless cycle of learning (or practising) and performing (or executing). Musicians learn to play songs they have (or someone else has) written, and perform them for an audience. Choreographers learn dance routines and perform them on stage. Actors learn lines and perform them in theatre. Even writers learn storytelling and perform them in prose form.

Briceño's thesis is that the default structures we live by in society put us in the unfortunate position where our need to perform gets in the way of our ability to learn, which in turn limits our ability to perform better. In other words, we view performance as the goal, end result, and climax of a learning journey (which, by the way, can and should be its own reward), but we face invisible obstacles along the way, obstacles that impinge on the quality of the performance. It's like leaving your home to head for the gym, but stopping by three fast-food drive-thrus on your way, such that when you arrive at the gym, you're too full to use the treadmill and too sick to use the weights. This is a hyperbolic illustration of course, so I'll use something more realistic and pervasive – typing.

More people than not in the WEIRD – Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, and Democratic – world own some sort of computer with a tactile keyboard. We spend countless hours typing on said keyboards – emails, school assignments, social media posts, work reports – but few of us bother to dedicate even a sliver of that time to improving our typing efficiency. There are myriad programs and courses on improving typing technique, and they're freely available, but the uptake is unimpressive. 

Given the time we spend at our keyboards, it behooves us to learn to type properly. Sure, there'll be a steep learning curve in the short run, it’ll be a painstaking process, but the pay off in the long run will be huge seeing as it’s something we’ll likely be doing for the rest of our lives. And yet, most of us don't. 

One reason why few of us ever learn to type properly is that from the day we started using keyboards, we've just thought of typing as a basic, intuitive thing to do. 

The reasoning goes something like this: There are keys, I can see them, I can punch, or push, or depress them, and words will appear on the screen. The more I press the keys, the more I’ll recognise patterns and remember where most of the regularly used keys are, so I’ll master it all over time. Why should I bother taking a typing course or playing with a typing program? There are better things to do with my time, surely.

Maybe this monologue resonates with you, maybe it doesn't. Either way, most of us think of typing as something we don’t need to learn. What we forget, or fail to realise, is that there are other activities that are analogous to typing that we all had to learn, just when we were much, much younger. 

You may not remember, but once upon a time, you had to learn to read and write, and it was hard. Now you read and write automatically. You’re moving your eyes across a screen right now, picking up words that your brain is interpreting, and translating the words into your inner voice which you hear in an assigned tone of voice or likely – if you know me personally – my speaking cadence. You probably didn’t even realise you were doing this until I called attention to it. That’s how automatic it is for you, because you've imbibed a process that enabled you to do it, and now that process is set in stone, tucked away in a cognitive drawer somewhere along with the rest of your automatic processes, like walking, breathing, and chewing. 

But this isn't a post about typing. It's a post about creativity, and I'm here to suggest that this ability to inculcate an activity to the point of thoughtless, automatic mastery, that this too is possible with creative pursuits. 

It is possible to learn a skill or an activity and be so fluent in it that it becomes second nature. We’ve all seen someone play an instrument with such aplomb that it looks like they could do it in their sleep. Some of the highest compliments I’ve ever received from people are along these lines. One time, after playing a gig at a London venue I’d never been to before, a fellow musician came up to me and said it looked like my guitar was an extension of my body, and that the fretboard was like a third arm. She said my performance looked so natural that I didn’t even look like I was playing an inanimate object. My head couldn't fit through the door of my hotel room that evening. My fianceé often stops and stares at my hands when I’m practicing. The other day she said she has to do that because she struggles to believe that it’s one guitar, and it sounds like there are two people playing. When I get feedback like this I feel really happy, and it makes me feel like I’m doing something right. I could go on, but my head is swelling again just recounting this, so I’ll step back from blowing my own trumpet for the time being. 

The way I think about learning or practising, and the way I’ve been able to cultivate my performing skills to date is to leverage the concept of muscle memory. This term is popular amongst performance artists, the idea that you have to do a thing over and over until you can do it on autopilot. When you’re repeating the same action over and over, you’re building muscle memory for that action so that when required, you can do it without thinking. But why is this important? Why is it necessary? Why would you want to be able to do something without thinking?

The reason, the answer, the benefit of this, is that it frees up precious (and limited) cognitive resources to allow you to focus on other things, like (for example) the song lyrics you need to remember while simultaneously fingerpicking your guitar, or the smile you need to wear on your face while executing that double spin dance routine.

To drive home this point, it is important to recognise that we can't and we don't multitask, not really. What we do is switch slices of our attention between tasks very quickly so that it feels like we’re devoting our full attention to each of them. Except, we're not, because something always suffers. You can talk on the phone and knit at the same time, but you can't give both of those activities your full attention. You'll have to settle for a mediocre conversation or subpar knitwear, or both.

Similarly, to perform a song, you need to sing and play your instrument, say a guitar, at the same time. But even then, you won't be multitasking, at least not technically. You'll either have to focus the bulk of your cognitive attention on the singing or the playing. A viable strategy is to learn to do one of those things without thinking, so that the other gets your brain's full attention. The nature of the cognitive processes involved necessitates that the instrumentation belongs in the former category, and the vocalisation, the latter. This is where muscle memory comes in. 

If there’s no muscle memory with playing your instrument, then you need to focus on the playing, but you also need to focus on singing. This is difficult, and it makes you more likely to forget your chords or mangle your lyrics, or both. It's not fun, I've been there, as have many others, which is why the golden advice is to practise, practise, and practise some more, to build muscle memory. But in order to build muscle memory, you need the right environment and the right stakes.

The right environment and the right stakes are crucial components in the learning zone, if we're to stand a chance in the performing zone. The idea behind these components is to recreate the conditions under which the performance will be executed, while reducing or eliminating the pressures associated with learning.

Firstly, the environment should mirror the real thing, or at least come close. It's no use training for a run in the Arctic when the actual race will be held in the Sahara. Where possible, the learning environment should be designed or selected to match the environment in which the performance will take place.

Secondly, the stakes should be low enough to allow for, and even encourage mistakes, yet high enough for the activity to be worthy of attention and execution. Set the stakes too high, like practising in front of an industry professional, and you'll be too scared to try things you're not comfortable with, which, ironically, is the very thing needed for growth and development.  Set them too low, like not having a goal or plan for what you're trying to improve, and the practice session might just seem pointless. This is all to say that there's a range – an in-between – where the stakes are just right. Let's call this the Goldilocks zone.

To explore the environment-stakes combination in practice, I'd like to take you back to the start of my journey as a solo performer. I'd been playing and singing for years at the time, but I'd always done so in the comfort of my room; I was a closeted musician as they say. I had the basics down and I knew I had much to learn (this will never change), but even then I was eager to step out of my comfort zone and I made the decision to go to an open mic. 

I wasn't at all familiar with them so I asked around, found a place I could go to, looked up etiquettes and best practices, and sought advice. In other words, I wanted to make sure I was prepared, and looking back, I might have overdone it. Still, one of the best bits of advice I received was to practise alone in a dimly-lit room and have some background noise playing (on a TV or radio or computer). It was all too specific and it made no sense, not until I got out and started making the rounds on the open mic circuit.

In hindsight, it was invaluable advice and it emblematises the central idea of this post, that designing for representative environments and meaningful stakes are crucial for success. Let's break down the rationale of the advice.

Practise alone in a dimly-lit room. Why? Because most open mics take place at night in bars, clubs, and cafes. These places tend to have little or no ambient light. In short, they're dark rooms, so you need to get used to playing in dark rooms. Why? Because being able to play well when you can't see your instrument makes a world of difference. It's the difference between a pro who leverages muscle memory to give a world-class performance when emotions take over, and a novice who crouches over and squints at their fretboard to look for the next chord in the middle of a song, thus losing the mic in the process and muttering under their breath. But why practise alone? So no one can see or hear your countless mistakes, thus freeing you to make as many of them as possible while trying to master those challenging chord changes or fingerpicking patterns in the dark. 

Have some background noise playing. Why? Because most open mics take place at night in bars, clubs, and cafes. These are places where people tend to congregate and socialise. In short, they're loud rooms, so you'll need to get used to playing in loud rooms. Why? Because unless you're playing at a venue that enforces a 'silence' policy to prioritise the performances above all else, you'll most likely have to compete with whispery happy hour chit chat at best, or drunken hecklers, and that's not even the worst. As you can imagine, it can be disorientating to have people talk over you while you're singing your heart out, hence replicating these harsh conditions in the comfort and safety of your private space might just help you develop the thick skin you need to get on with the show when the unexpected happens. 

Preparation can only get you so far, of course. It helps to remember that you'll still make mistakes. Nobody is above them, not even seasoned professionals. The difference between the pro and the novice is how they respond to a mistake. One owns it and even convinces the audience that it was intentional, the other apologises for it (sometimes mid-performance) thus drawing attention to something that maybe nobody even noticed in the first place. This, I suppose, is understandable; I used to do so myself, and ever so often, I still feel the need to. The difference is now I lean on the words of François de La Rochefoucauld, that 'almost all our faults are more pardonable than the methods we resort to to hide them.'

Much of this discussion has focused on creatives and performance arts because that's what I'm passionate about. However, the learning vs performing paradigms, and the need for reform in how we think about these zones, can be extended beyond the arts. It applies to our schools and educational systems too, another thing I spend a lot of my time thinking about. Last week I wrote about how our societal incentives in schools may do more to stifle our progress in the long run. These incentives aren't the only things we need to rethink.

We need to revisit the purpose of our educational systems to set students up for success in the contexts in which they'll need to perform in their lives, and to do so, we must revamp the learning environments to adequately represent these contexts, as well as moderate the stakes to make learning not just feasible, but desirable. 

We can start by rethinking the grading systems. We should ask, when we assign homework or set tests and exams, what are we evaluating? Are we evaluating the ability to regurgitate information, or the ability to apply knowledge in novel and imaginative ways to solve real-world problems?

We shouldn't stop there. We should give students permission to fail, coupled with the safeguards to chart their own courses. This way, they can learn from their failures and improve. Our schools need to establish the right environments that mirror or replicate real-world contexts, and lower the stakes to encourage experimentation and discovery, so that students are set up to succeed when they're called upon to perform the complicated act that is everyday life. 

These components – the representative environment and the Goldilocks stakes – are central and integral to re-imagining the educational experience. This is where I'd start, if given the opportunity.

I would extend this idea beyond our educational systems, because it's worth bearing in mind that the boundaries of the learning and performing zones shift. For instance, when starting out, practising the guitar alone in your bedroom could sit in the centre of your learning zone, while going out to play at an open mic could be stretching the limits of your performing zone. You do that for long enough – performing at open mics that is – and it transforms into a new kind of learning zone. It becomes the place where you learn to play live to an audience, and this in turn shifts the boundaries of the performing zone, so that the new performing zone might be playing a longer support slot for a touring act. You do that long enough and that 30-minute opening slot becomes the learning zone, so that the performing zone to strive towards might be headlining your own tour with a 60-minute set, and on and on it goes. 

This is life, this is progress. One person’s learning zone is another person’s performing zone, so don’t discount the days of humble beginnings, and never stop learning, because life just won't be as fun if there's nothing new to learn or discover. If you could redesign your learning zone this week, how would you rethink the environment and the stakes? 

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