Learning about learning in a musical: The power of deliberate practice in a whole setting

April 30, 2013 at 1:43 am 5 comments

I am working set crew for a musical for the last two weeks and through this weekend. This is my third year doing it, so I’m not quite the novice I was when I first wrote about the experience.  We’re doing “Curtains” which is a show-in-a-show musical — the setting is a theater in Boston where a Western musical is being readied for Broadway, when murders start backstage.

Again, I’m struck by the complexity of musical theater.  The actors have been at it since January, and everything they have to learn amazes me.  As stage crew, I only owe them three weeks of every evening, but I still have had a lot to learn in a short time.  In part of Act Two, I’m setting flats, then racing back to help actors with their quick change (it’s way harder to button someone else’s shirt buttons than your own), then lift a globe into place (turning it sideways to fit through door frames), before racing back to set up a river in the next scene.

What’s particularly striking me this year is how we have not only learned some fairly complex activities, but we have learned them well enough to self-monitor and invent.

  • During one performance this last weekend, I was the last crew still on stage when the stage manager whispered to me, “The rope!”  The rope that held the globe still had come loose and was dangling.  I grabbed it and dove behind a riser — just as the lights came up.  I was trapped.  (Not seriously, of course.  The worst that would happen is that the audience would see a guy in black crawl by at the back of the stage.  But the whole point of theater is to maintain an illusion, so you avoid those kinds of incongruities.) The stage manager whispered to me to climb up the ladder behind the globe without being seen, and tie the globe down, which I did.  Now, I’m trapped on a ladder behind the scene and thinking, “What do I do next?”  In the next scene change, I was to be a real stagehand acting like a stagehand.  “Curtains” is a play about a play, so at a few times in the show, someone yells, “Clear the set” and we stagehands come out (in the lights! in front of the audience!) to clear the set.  When Lt. Cioffi yelled, “Let’s bring in the river,” I ran out to bring in the river scene — from behind the globe.  Nobody would have noticed or cared where the stagehand came from, so the illusion was maintained.
  • During last night’s performance, the trap door that drops the heavy sandbag (an attempted murder) didn’t work.  One of the actors on stage invented dialog to get around that flub and keep the story going  — that was quick thinking.  The trap door failure created a challenge for the set crew.  Why didn’t the trap door work?  Was it going to get unstuck and drop a weight during the middle of another scene?  While one member of the set crew started crawling around to check the trap door, the rest of the stagehands covered his chores.

I could go on and on.  A prop is missing, a costume breaks, someone flubs their line or doesn’t get on stage quick enough.  Things happen, and people have to think on their feet.  Let’s compare this to introductory computer science class, where  students famously have difficulty figuring out one way to do something in 10-15 weeks of practice.  Or when they do something the one way that they can figure out, it just barely works and the code is frequently awful — ugly and hard to read.

What we see going on in the musical is complex learning, with flexibility. It’s not quantum physics, but it is complex.  If you’ve ever learned a dance or martial arts, you know that remembering and recreating a sequence of physical moves can be challenging.  Now combine that across multiple scenes, with rapid timing (quick changes have to be completed before the orchestra finishes the song), with lots of people involved, and it’s complicated.  I just bought the “Curtains” soundtrack and am impressed.  Our actors and singers can hold their own with the original cast recording.

How did everyone involved in the musical learn so much, so well, in such a short amount of time?  And why doesn’t that happen so often in formal education?  There are lots of things going on.  Here are two that I’ve been thinking about:

  • I’m currently listening (in my work commutes) to “Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking,” where she talks about Anders Ericsson’s work on deliberate practice.  I’m not suggesting that the actors or stagehands in the musical have put in ten thousand hours or are experts (though I would not be surprised if some of our top actors, who do a lot of theater and commercial work, may cross that threshold).  I am suggesting that Ericsson’s conditions for developing expertise are present here: “The most cited condition concerns the subjects’ motivation to attend to the task and exert effort to improve their performance. The subjects should receive immediate informative feedback and knowledge of results of their performance. The subjects should repeatedly perform the same or similar tasks.”  We do the musical over-and-over.  We are motivated to get it right.  The directors critique, and we critique ourselves.  “That didn’t go well,” or “we could do that better.”  That doesn’t happen in formal education so much.
  • I’m reading David Perkins’ “Making learning whole,” where he talks about how we tend to teach piecemeal in formal education, but in informal education (in his introduction, it’s learning baseball), the learner knows what the end product is supposed to look like.  The actors and stagehands in a musical know where we’re going.  We have a complete picture of the role of each piece.  We know what a good show looks like.  We focus on this number here, and this set change there, but there’s no question that everything is supposed to fit together.  It’s not like “We’re learning recursion, and I’m not sure why I’d ever want to do this.”  Students in formal education often don’t understand the relevance of what they’re learning, of how it all fits together.

P.S.  If you’re in Atlanta, there are shows this Friday and Saturday at 8 pm, and Sunday at 4 pm. Come see it!

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Phillip Kent  |  May 1, 2013 at 4:03 am

    A good post and well said. It reminds me most about Ivan Illich and ‘convivial learning’ (see ‘Tools for Conviviality’). His perspective was radical. He spent years working in South/Central America in the 1960s/70s and was convinced that those who did not have access to conventional schooling did not need ‘schooling’, they needed socio-economic structures to support convivial learning. Whereas the model of development which wealthy countries have always forced onto developing countries is ‘schooling’. Whatever else this does, it maintains the power relationships between the wealthy and the rest (and nice contracts for educational consultants). Conviviality is about harnessing the educational potential of people to develop themselves.

  • 2. Justin Whiting  |  May 1, 2013 at 10:10 am

    I love your thoughtful consideration of these activities as both complex and informal learning. Practice is sometimes shunned and misunderstood and I think you raise some good points about how deliberate practice makes a lot more sense to learners when they understand the whole picture. Now if I can just get my 7 year old daughter to realize why practicing the piano is important in the big picture…

  • 3. Learning from theater | Gas station without pumps  |  May 25, 2013 at 1:31 am

    […] I’ve been thinking about Mark Guzdial’s post from about a month ago, Learning about learning in a musical: The power of deliberate practice in a whole setting. […]

    • 4. Mark Guzdial  |  May 25, 2013 at 8:44 am

      What a great post, Kevin! Thanks! My experience with theater is much more limited than yours. My sense of how aware everyone is of how it will all fit together is different since I’ve been set crew the last two years — I only start working the play after everyone else has been doing it for two months already, so they do have a sense for how it will all go together. I particularly agree that motivation is key here.

      • 5. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  May 25, 2013 at 8:49 pm

        My personal theater experience is mainly as an audience member (and volunteer videographer). My son is the actor, but I did have him check to see whether what I said about his theater classes matched his reactions. The plays my son has been in have been the culmination of 2-week intensive summer classes or of 2- to 4-month once-a-week classes, so no one is joining the crew 2 months in.


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