Hedonic Adaptation and Learning

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Every so often as I reflect in this blog on the process of learning, I come back to the need for repetition or drill for the secure acquisition of skills. It turned up as the idea of ‘re-freezing’ when I was thinking about Kotter’s model of how to effect change, and Iacoboni’s book on mirror neurons gave some insight into the neurological processes that underlie it.

But you’ll have noticed a certain mistrust of drill even as I affirm its necessity.

The strength and the danger of repetition is that it allows the automation of processes. Now, there are some things that are good to be able to do on auto-pilot. I like being able to shower, dress, make a cup of coffee and unload the dishwasher in the morning without having to think very hard about what I’m doing – I’d rather spend the time thinking about the blog post I’m going to write once I’m ready to start the day.

But I’m less enthusiastic about operating expressive arts like music on autopilot. Psychologists use the term ‘hedonic adaptation’ to describe the way that once pleasurable experiences become routine, you stop noticing the pleasure – they just become part of how life is. And I spend a lot my time as a performance coach re-acquainting ensembles with the content of the music they’re singing, refreshing their awareness of the life experiences that lie implicitly behind the words and the way the musical setting has been designed to tell us how to feel about them. Because unless the performer is connected with the emotional life of the music, the audience will have no way to access it.

So the big dilemma for people running choral rehearsals is how to give their singers enough opportunities for repetition to embed the skills that need automating without dulling their imaginative response to the music.

Hmm, now I’ve articulated the question clearly, all sorts of possibilities are starting to brew in my brain. (This is why I find working through ideas in writing useful.) I think I will leave the addressing of that question for a future post, because I think there’s more there than I had anticipated when I started today!

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