Primacy and Recency Effects: Implications for Musicians
Rolf Dobelli’s book The Art of Thinking Clearly includes primacy and recency effects in its catalogue of cognitive errors that can mislead our judgement. We pay too much attention to both our first impressions and our most recent experiences, and tend to neglect what happens in between. Dobelli gives some advice about how we can develop strategies to compensate, but I find myself more interested in considering how we can work with this natural tendency to make it work for us.
There are two main scenarios in which these matter for musicians: rehearsing and performing. In both cases, we need to note that those whose attention we are managing - respectively the musicians learning the music and the audience listening to it - are going to be disproportionately affected by the first and last things that happen to them, and thus this is where our best opportunities to influence them lie.
Selecting repertoire for a performance and planning a rehearsal are related skills. They both involve planning an expanse of time such that it is a satisfying experience for those attending. Both need a balance of coherence and variety, and benefit from some sense of emotional/psychological journey.
Primacy and recency effects suggest that it is the first and last items in the programme that will have the biggest impact on people’s sense of satisfaction. Comedians put it as: finish with your best joke, start with your second best, and bury any new material in the middle. Best-to-undeveloped is not the only dimension musicians (or indeed comedians) are working in, of course, but it still makes sense not to put yourself under any technical pressure at the start or end of the programme. Start and end with things you can do well.
The other factors to consider are those which define the overall flavour of the experience. Is the performance about bravura showmanship or emotional nuance? Is the rehearsal about technical rigour or imaginative play? A good performance/rehearsal will obviously embrace more than one dimension, but a clear sense of overall purpose will help those attending take away a more integrated and distinctive memory of the experience. How you open and close the event can set the agenda and then summarise it.
Within the whole, we also need to think about intermediate sections: even huge works that take a whole evening are divided into movements, after all. And the brain needs these moments of fresh starts to revivify the attention so that everything between start and finish don’t just mush into one generalised lump.
In programming a performance, this is where the balance between contrast and continuity comes in. In planning a rehearsal, you also have to control for length of time spent on each activity. Two lots of twenty minutes on two different tasks achieves more in total than a forty-minute slog on one thing.
Starts and Ends
As the start and end of the event disproportionately define people’s experience of the whole, the start and end of each piece disproportionately determine their enjoyment of it. This is why barbershoppers are locked into a kind of escalation of introductions and tags that make the nuclear proliferation of the cold war look mild. And this is also why other barbershoppers say, ‘But what happened to the song?’ when their memory of a performance is completely overwhelmed by their memory of its opening and closing chord worship (ahem).
More important than supercharging your arrangements, though, is rehearsing starts and ends so that you can perform them as you would like to at will. This is, I realise, stating the obvious, but it is surprising how often people bumble into the music, settling down into an effective performance by about bar 3 once their brains have caught up and got on task. But by that time the first impression is made.
This likewise tells us we need to practise our entrances and exits. People do like to feel that the performer(s) coming on stage know what they’re doing, and if you walk on stage as if you’ve done this before, this will reassure them this is the case. And the best way to achieve this impression is actually to have done it before.
Primacy and recency effects are also significant in the learning process, whether in rehearsal or in individual practice. Two principles in particular are important:
Learn it right first time. How people do things for the first time is the way they are likely to continue doing it for all time. It is so hard to change something initially learned incorrectly.
This is easy to say of course, but just believing in the principle doesn’t make it happen automatically. It entails a little thought into how you learn something. If you are a director, it means you need to have anticipated where the pitfalls in a piece are and devised strategies to get people onto the right track from the get-go. If you are doing individual practice you need to identify the tricky bits and then have the patience to approach them slowly and analytically.
If you insist on using learning tracks, at least make sure they are accurate and well-sung. Please.
Stop when it’s good. When you have been working on something, and you do it really well, stop there. You want to leave your aural (and indeed kinaesthetic) memory with your current best effort. If, as you will no doubt be tempted, you are so enthused by how good it was that you immediately try and recreate the experience, the chances are that it won’t be as good, and you will be using the recency effect to get a disproportionately strong impact from a sub-optimal rendition.
On a related note, have some awareness about how tired you (and your ensemble) are. It is one of the little ironies of singing that at the point when your voice is really well warmed up, your brain is completely shot. Rehearsing beyond the point of reasonable alertness likewise uses recency to detrimental effect.
A particular instance of this to note is on occasions when you are rehearsing longer than usual, such as a retreat weekend. These are great for the intensive experience and giving time to really get into things that you can’t always address on a week-to-week basis. But they also make demands on your mental and technical stamina which mean that you may well be flagging by the end.
Hence, the instinct to finish the last session with a ‘full performance’ of the repertoire you have been working on may sometimes be counter-productive. Do you really want your abiding memory to be of sounding tired and struggling to recall the whole weekend’s work? A better plan may be to put the full performance a little earlier in the day, take a break just before it to refresh attention, and then dedicate the final session to something that supports the retreat’s primary agenda without relying too heavily on faculties that have already been stretched to full capacity.