Where I currently live there are several amateur groups who each put on a pantomime at Christmas. The pantomimes are very good and have been running for many, many years. People come from far and wide to see them and each group visits the other groups’ shows. The competition between the groups is huge and, despite being amateurs, the amount of money spent each year to make each show bigger and better is incredible.
Last year one of the groups decided to put on a newly written version of ‘A Christmas Carol’ instead of their traditional pantomime. This would be the Scottish Premier of the new show and the pressure for it to be a great success was huge. Out of the blue I was called by their director and asked if I would consider being their vocal coach for this new show. I sent them a copy of my Terms and Conditions along with a note of my fees for the duration not expecting for a minute that they would agree to them but the call came back to say that everything was fine and when could I start.
Despite them being amateurs they were paying me and so I worked them just as hard as I would the professional actors and singers that I work with. For twelve weeks the people in the show rehearsed three nights a week whilst still doing their day jobs and other hobbies. Obviously professionals don’t have other day jobs to worry about and so the cast of this show had to work even harder to balance everything
Traditionally in pantomimes when the whole company sings together the songs are sung in unison (everyone singing the same thing) whilst standing in a line. The soloists mainly sing their songs to the audience and ad libbing goes on everywhere. Not so in a musical.
In musicals the songs sung by the chorus are in four part harmony and, for a group of people who had never had to do this before, it’s not the easiest thing in the world to master, especially in only 12 weeks! Not only that but pantomime songs are generally well known – the songs in this musical had never been heard before. They had to learn to act and also to dance whilst singing which, although I shouldn’t say it, provided me with hours of great hilarity. The soloists had to learn to put emotion into their songs so that the audience would be drawn in to the story. There is no ad libbing in a musical. Nothing can be changed without the consent of the people who wrote the words and music. All in all it was a pretty tall order for the cast and me however, when it was time for the public performances, the show was a huge success with compliments from everyone who saw it and great reviews in the local papers.
“Ok!” I hear you say. “Great story but what does this have to do with the ‘Four Stages of Learning’?”
Well, when learning any new task or skill there are four stages you have to go through in order to become competent. It doesn’t matter whether it’s learning to drive a car, swim, ride a bike, knit, sing, act in a musical; the four stages are the same no matter what.
This is where you don’t know how to do something and it doesn’t matter. You are not aware of the fact that you can’t do it at this stage. As far as the musical was concerned the people had turned up on the first day not knowing what to expect and completely unaware of how much hard work it was going take to get them to the required standard. They were seasoned pantomimers and thought that this would be much the same. This happens when you start to learn any new skill. You’ve never done it before; other people make it look easy so therefore it can’t be that bad.
This is where it hits home that you actually haven’t got a clue as to what you are supposed to be doing and consequently, this is when most people will just give up. How many times have you started to learn a new skill and then decided that it was too difficult or impossible or that you will never manage to do this? You suddenly realise that it’s not as easy as it seemed and in order to get to where you want to be it’s going to take a lot of hard work. This stage is where the frustration sets in however, if more people realised this and accepted that it is just a natural part of the learning process and that it will, in time, get easier then they wouldn’t give up so easily. During this stage of the musical rehearsals I had two people walk out, another one who refused to sing in the chorus and so many bouts of tears and tantrums that I lost count eventually. Luckily most of them stuck with it.
This is the stage where things start to get a bit easier. You can now do whatever it is that you set out to do fairly competently although you really have to think about it. It doesn’t come easily to you – yet. You still need a lot of practice but you are aware that you can actually do it. This is as far as I got with the cast of the musical given our limited time. They knew what they needed to do to act, sing and dance at the same time, they had enough musical skills to sing in four part harmony and their acting skills had improved no end but it took a lot of effort to do all this. It didn’t come naturally and sadly because of the limited time in which they had to learn these skills and the fact that when the run of shows ended they went back to their normal lives, they didn’t get the chance to practice them often enough in order to reach the final stage.
This is the stage where you know you have finally made it. You can carry out the skill without thinking about it. It now comes naturally to you. It’s probably taken a lot of hard work and a fair amount of time but it will have been worth it. Bear in mind though that there is always room for improvement and you need to keep practising the skill so you don’t get rusty but once you have mastered it you never completely forget how to do it. A great example of unconscious competence is seen when driving a car. Most people (not all unfortunately) who have been driving for a long time have reached this stage. You don’t have to think about what you need to do to get the car to move or to stop – you just do it. Learning cycle complete!
So there you have the Four Stages of Learning and next time you decide to learn a new skill and you reach that stage where it just feels too difficult or too much like hard work, remember this. You are probably at stage 2 and you will get through it.
Until the next time,