Friday, February 12, 2010

Friday Cyberspace Recitals - Alma del core - or What is Meant By a Learning Plateau?

When I first set out on this project to acquaint myself with all 24 of the Italian Songs and Arias in my student songbook, I expected that along the way I would encounter, develop and practice -- once and for all, I hoped -- the various basic skills I needed to have in place to be able to sing proficiently.  Little basic skills that all singers need.

In addition, I hoped that by using the version of the book that was in a little higher key and that had a higher tessitura than was comfortable for me (the book for "medium-high" voice), I might over the weeks gain more strength, ability, and ease in this new area of my voice. ("Challenging Vocal Comfort Levels")

I was surprised at the rapid gains I encountered in the first weeks of the project.  It seemed that each week built happily upon another and I was on my way to great improvement.

But this week, what appeared to be a snag in the forward momentum presented itself to me.  It did not become easier this week to sing the next song, "Alma del core," in this new tessitura.  It felt the same -- as difficult and labored as it ever had been -- to sing in this range, and it seemed as if my progress had come to a standstill.  It seemed as if I had reached some kind of plateau.

What, no more improvement this week?  Panic started to set in.  Maybe it wasn't just no improvement this week, but no improvement now forever!!!  Whatever shall I do?  My plan was to develop mastery and expertise.  My dream is to develop top efficiency!  Is this going to be it -- all I will be able to accomplish?

So dramatic.

This would, perhaps, be the way many people might react to coming up against a learning plateau.

I told my voice teacher that I didn't think the files in Frescamari's Practice Room would be as interesting or fun, since they would now start sounding the same and show less progress than the ones had up until now.

My teacher respectfully disagreed that the files would not be interesting.  She told me that I had come to a new place in my voice and that this would be a time of settling in to that new place.

I decided to hunt around and see if I could dig up any information about the pattern of learning a skill.  I recalled a conversation I once had with my sister, the golf-pro.  She told me that she could bring anyone from being an almost non-golfer to about a 10 handicap, but the progress after that -- the progress from that level of skill to becoming a master of the skill -- was a much more difficult task, and the gains being achieved from there-on-in were much smaller and more subtle.

So, with this in mind, I went on a hunt, and came up with just the exact article on the subject I needed:  Increasing Human Efficiency in Business: The Rate of Improvement of Efficiency by Walter Dill Scott.

In the article I read about what happens when a person trying to develop a skill reaches a plateau.  It seems that in the beginning days of acquiring a new skill, rapid initial progress is made -- often astounding progress.  These periods of improvement are followed by stages of stagnation or retrogression called "plateaus."  Not only that, these "plateaus" were a necessary part of the learning process, and played an important role in the assimilation of smaller skills up to that point of progress.

What happens is that after all easy improvements have been made, and at the point where problems outside the experience of the learner presents themselves, the plateau will be encountered.

A plateau is a period of "incubation" where new habits under formation may have time to develop.  This reminds me of what my voice teacher said about a "settling-in" time.  According to Mr. Scott's Efficiency article
"Time must be taken out to allow the formation of a habit or the organization of this new knowledge or skill"

The writer uses a beautiful example from nature to demonstrate this process of  rapid growth followed by a plateau:

"All trees and plants have periods of growth followed by periods of little or no growth.  In May and June the leaves and branches shoot forth very repidly, but the new growth is pulpy and tender.  During succeeding days or months, these tender shoots are filled in and developed.  In learning and in habit formation a similar sequence is lived through.  We have days of swift advancement followed by days in which the new stage or method of thinking and acting takes time to become organized and solidified.  The nervous system has to adjust itself to the new demands, and such adjusting requires time."

Although it is true that each individual will arrive at some time to his/her personal peak or maximum efficiency, it is important to realize that one has not yet necessarily reached that personal peak just because a plateau has been encountered.  A certain amount of trust, faith, and patience should be mustered up to continue, even if it appears no further progress is being made for the moment.

I think it is very important and comforting for someone working to master a skill to reflect on these concepts, and learn about the psychology of acquiring skill.  After the initial period of enthusiasm for the project wears off and the novelty is gone and all easy improvements have been made, the learner must find ways to keep going.  Knowing that one has not necessarily reached the end of one's ability to improve when one hits a plateau can be part of keeping on track.  The reward for staying the course will be the acquisition of automatic skill and efficiency.
Click here to listen to this week's selection from 24 Italian Songs and Arias:  "Alma del core"

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