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Thinking Faces

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I recently reread Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code to refresh myself before teaching a class that drew on it at LABBS Harmony College. The great thing about rereading things is that you can suddenly spot all kinds of cross-references with things you have read since – connections which, by definition, weren’t available to you the first time you read it.

One of the points that leapt out at me is Coyle’s description of people engaged in deep practice – the behaviours that lead to myelination and thus the development of skill. They display a characteristic facial expression, a kind of intent squint that makes them all look rather like Clint Eastwood. So of course I went to refresh my memory of his face and laughed out loud at the results of a google image search – my screen reminded me of a class or a choir when I’ve just asked them to do something they’ve not done before.

Anybody who has done much teaching will know that thinking face. I spent a lot of my early teaching life asking people, ‘Are you annoyed about what I just said or are you just thinking about it? I can’t tell from your face.’ Usually they were just thinking hard, but asking did elicit some productive questions on points of confusion.

Unlike the first time I read Coyle, of course, I now know about Daniel Kahneman’s two modes of thinking, and the thinking face is the classic expression of System2, slow thought. It is pain-staking and laborious, cognitively demanding and focused, quite different from the pleasurable ease of the associative System 1.

And this makes sense: deep practice is where you build new neural pathways. It takes concentration because your brain is not accustomed to these patterns yet and you need to build up some myelin round them before they will become anywhere near easy, let alone automatic. But fire them frequently and intensively enough and they will take on the speed and the fluency of System 1.

Once I’d made this connection, my thoughts turned to the rehearsal process, and how often you hear singers berated for frowning during choir practices. To be sure, the thinking face is not the most appealing to an audience and it is a good idea to put some time and effort into getting our visual performance to match the expressiveness we are aiming for vocally.

But we also need to be patient about this. If someone is wearing a thinking face, that gives us golden information about what’s going on inside them. They are working hard at building new skill, and marshalling their full cognitive resources to the task. If they are already in that zone, they are learning as intensively as it is possible for them to learn. I don’t think it is either kind or productive to try and interrupt that process. You might get them smiling, but you’ll get them looking friendly at a lower level skill than the one they had been on course for.

So there are implications here for rehearsal planning in both the long and the short term. In the longer term, you want to make sure you do your work on major skill upgrades well in advance of major performances (something I was writing about a decade ago, indeed). Give everyone time to have plenty of practice on the new skills so they can start to automate them and thus pass attention over from Manager to Communicator in good time before they face their audience.

On a week-to-week basis, thinking about expressive performance can offer a useful respite from deep technical work, especially at the points in the rehearsal where people are feeling cognitively depleted from earlier bouts of concentration. So do the tricky stuff when the brains are fresh, and touch in on some System 1 intuition as light relief, particularly later on where you can lift over a potential slump with the more playful mode of thought.

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