Practice and the Unconscious: What have you practiced today?

Edge Studio

We all know the answer to the question, “How do you get to the announce booth at Carnegie Hall?”

Just as with getting to the stage, the answer is, “Practice, practice, practice.”

Edge Studio students are taught not only the importance of vocal practice, but also how to go about it. Yet, it’s still so, so, so easy to overlook your morning practice session, or to give it only lip service (pun sort of intended), or to put it off till tomorrow … except that tomorrow should already have its own practice session.

It’s important. Really. Without practice, you would be a total mess.

Think back, wayyyy back … As an infant and toddler, you practiced virtually every waking moment. Without having practiced, you’d still be trying to grasp a cup. You’d step forward and fall flat on your face. And speaking wouldn’t have been in the cards for you, let alone doing VO.

To coordinate movements, the brain needs to have rehearsed them, again and again. Eventually they become automatic, and the brain can focus on other things. Research shows that (whatever Millenials might think), the brain is lousy at multitasking. Maybe it can “multiplex” – focus on various things intermittently – but it’s not so hot at doing different things simultaneously. That’s why, when a task is complex (involving various simultaneous actions), it’s essential that some of those actions be “automated.”

We were recently reminded of this by, of all things, a short article in Road & Track magazine (September 2015, pg 96), about how racing drivers accomplish their role, which is undeniably complex. It involves proprioception: an awareness of where parts of your body are, in relation to other parts and space in general.

As babies, we reach for a toy, learn to gauge the distance, how tightly to grasp it, how and where to lift it, push it, bring it to our mouths, whatever.

As drivers, we know where the shift lever is and how to manipulate it, know to look far ahead, and move the steering wheel to get there, what to make of all the sensory input our body receives. A race driver unconsciously measure the G forces, the engine sounds, and some sensory sources that we ordinary drivers may not even be aware of. But in truth, we all benefit from having experienced whatever sights, feelings, sounds, etc. are around us. Aware of them or not, they go in to our “automation database.”

As voice actors we see words and, having practiced, we automatically enunciate, modulate our voice, portray a character, and do all the many things that go into a professional voice over performance. One of the benefits of practice is to establish good habits, so that you can easily apply whatever habits are relevant … all the things that are standard procedure in virtually every script in your chosen genre. Don’t “mail them in” but do let them run on autopilot, so your conscious brain can focus on what’s specific to the particular script. That way, you can think the thoughts you are expressing, without having to think (much) about all the other performance elements involved. In other words, you’re no longer “reading,” you’re “speaking.”

Neuroscientist Dr. Peter Whybrow (director of UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior) observes, “Only about 20 percent of what we do every day is actually driven by conscious awareness.

However, that assumes you have actually done the other stuff. And we might add, in another sense, that you have done it every day.

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