Adrenaline, Performance and the Speed of Thought

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When I was taking my classes in stand-up comedy last year, every week a couple of participants would present their work-in-progress to the group in a show-and-tell session. One particular in-class performance taught me some useful things about the way that a state of arousal speeds up your thought processes.

The performer in question would say some of his prepared material, and then immediately start to elaborate on it - spontaneously adding extra ideas, answering back to himself - as he had these thoughts on the spot. All the spaces where the audience should have had time to respond by laughing were filled up with this extra layer of commentary that had emerged in the moment of performance.

Watching him, I had a very strong sense of recognition - I saw myself doing exactly this in my days as a lecturer. You prepare what you intend to cover, and then in the face of live listeners, all kinds of extra ideas appear, brought forth by the occasion.

In a teacher, this isn't necessarily a bad thing at all, as it allows you to respond to the needs of the students in real time - elaborating when they look interested, adding explanation when they look baffled, finding ways to persuade them of the value of the subject when they look bored.

In a comedian, it can be useful too. You probably don't want to come off-piste quite as much as this in-class performance did, but having the wit to deal with unexpected circumstances, or just letting a corker of a new punchline appear in the moment are useful skills.

(Incidentally, in the time between my first sketched ideas for this post and publishing it, I had my first experience of a really disruptive comedy audience that was just determined to join in. And I found the process of balancing between their needs and the need to keep the whole on track was eerily reminiscent of managing a lecture-hall full of 19-year-olds.)

Partly this creative dynamic arises from the social meanings of the occasion, that sense of event that comes when people witness what you have prepared and thus turn it from a recitation into a communicative act. But there is a physical dimension to it too - the sense of occasion brings you into a state of arousal, and the rush of adrenaline speeds up all your thought processes.

Now if you're having a bad trip on your body's home-made drugs, this comes out as that destructive inner dialogue that the Inner Game people call Self 1. Even if you're having a good trip, having radically speeded-up thought processes can have disruptive effects - as in the anecdote I started with, or simply speeding up the whole performance.

The latter is a side-effect that musicians know well. Tempo control when lit up is an important performance skill.

The other thing I've observed in singers, though, is the expressive equivalent of all those added comments in the comedy class shown-and-tell. The music goes by at the pace it's been practised at, but in the heat of the performance, the singers suddenly find all kinds of extra nuances and emotional meanings to respond to. The musical phrase carries its single lyrical idea, while the face and eyes of the singers go on a journey through 14 different emotional states.

The result is a performance that is clearly emotionally committed, but not believable. There is response to the music, but it comes after the fact rather than as part of generating the performance. The music exists outside the performer, and you see them responding in the places the audience should respond, just as the show-and-tell commentary filled the spaces where the laughter should have been. To be believable, it needs to appear as if the musical utterance is the result, rather than the cause, of the inner life of the singer(s).

Once we are aware of this phenomenon, there are things we can do in rehearsal to insure against it, particularly in terms of building our longer-range mental maps of the music. But it remains that there are thoughts and responses to the material that will only ever emerge through the act of performance. And this is why repeated performance is an important part of learning a piece. An audience helps you reach the parts of the music than rehearsal can't reach.

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