I read a little more in Guitar Zero, which I introduced in my last post. And I came across something very interesting.
It had to do with what cognitive psychologists call critical periods, the age range when new skills can be learned with optimal speed and thoroughness, usually considered to coincide with childhood and end with puberty. He explains a study that was done on barn owls that is one of the major exhibits in support of the idea of critical periods. I don’t understand it entirely, but it had to do with the owls’ calibrating their bat-like sound-navigation abilities with their sight. In an environment modified artificially using prisms, this calibration was disrupted and had to be re-learned. It was found that younger owls could do this, but older owls not. The age of the owl was inversely correlated with its ability to learn how to navigate its new environment. This seems to support the notions of critical periods.
However, Marcus goes on to explain a follow-up study that showed that if the adult owls’ environment were incrementally modified, not drastically and all at once, they could successfully re-learn the calibration. This is good news for those of us setting out to learn new skills in adulthood, but I found this interesting for actors for another reason.
I have written previously, here and here, about the importance of actors breaking their work down into manageable, bite-sized portions. There is a temptation to avoid exploring the particulars of our work by addressing everything at once and nothing in particular. I call this the “get-it-off-my-desk” syndrome. We would often rather address our work in a cursory way and then call it done than get into the weeds in the way that good art requires.
The discipline of breaking things down into units or beats, as they are commonly known, acts as a check on this impulse: by focusing in rehearsal on one beat or unit at a time, we create the space to delve into that beat or unit and discover its secrets. This sort of breakdown is often taught as a way of understanding a scene’s shape, and it can be that, but it is far more important that it function as a means for dividing up the practical work of rehearsing into small increments that can be successfully handled. This can go a long way toward dispelling the fear that looking at the whole mountain that you have to climb can instill.
The parable of the owls reinforces the importance of this: what can be impossible when attempted all at once becomes surmountable when it is addressed in increments.