Have you ever practiced something so much only to think in the moment,
“Wait, how do I do this?”
Photograph: Martin Barraud/Getty
The phenomenon of “choking” in a performance, suddenly forgetting everything you’d committed to memory, has a scientific explanation.
Whether it’s a piece in a foreign language, an amount of lines you didn’t know you could memorize, or even just the difficult act of singing itself, these ingrained motor skills that we can easily lose under pressure can be categorized as:
Our amazing brains have the capacity to store what are known as procedural memories, which are reserved for tasks that we know so well that we don’t have to think, we just do. Studies have shown that when we do something technically difficult with ease like singing, the motor and reasoning areas of our brains have to communicate less.
That means that when we’re singing with ease, there is very little putting us in our heads, a lot of trust happening in our bodies, and therefore more artistry coming from the heart.
Committing a task to procedural memory is not as simple as uploading data to a hard drive.
Creating a procedural memory should be done with self-nurturing and care. Effectively doing so is determined by our environments, the conditions under which we learn, and the way our individual brains organize new information. However, once we’ve ingrained a procedural memory, it is rarely forgotten, which is why people with Alzheimer’s disease are often still able to still sing or play their instruments.
So if we’ve done all of this, why in performance do we still sometimes “forget how to sing?”
Procedural memory utilizes our motor skills. And when we feel the pressure to perform, what are usually the first things to be affected? Our motor skills.
Here’s what happens:
First, our brains try to steer.
Under pressure, our brains scramble and start to focus on the actual execution of the very skill we’ve practiced so much that we don’t have to think about it.
Then, the flow is disrupted.
When we focus on, “Wait, how am I doing this?” the natural flow of the procedural memory is disrupted.
And finally, we end up driving stick shift instead of automatic.
By focusing on how we’re singing, we slow down what should be an effortless, unconscious execution of the skill, making it instead clunky and deliberate.
Luckily, there’s a way around this.
Evidence demonstrates that the more automated a skill is, the less susceptible it is to choking under performance pressure. So how do we get free singing as automated in our procedural memories as possible?
We need three things:
1 - Repetition and practice.
When we’re gaining new skills in our singing, there is an encoding process that eventually leads to storing the skill as a procedural memory. In order for that to happen, though, we need to practice the action and repeat.
2 - Sleep and rest
The process of attaining a procedural memory has been shown to be enhanced when we begin our next practice session after a sleep (whether a full night or a nap)!
3- Patience and simplicity
Science shows us that when we’re learning a new skill and encoding it, if we introduce a second similar new skill too quickly, the first one won’t encode as deeply into our procedural memories.
Here’s the deal: singing requires a lot of ourselves.
When we sing, we’re melding motor skills, perceptions, and cognition to create our fullest artistic expressions in the moment.
So as you continue on your journey towards your freest singing, remember that the more you repeat the action, get some sleep, and keep it simple, the more that free singing will becoming embedded in your procedural memory and less susceptible to the dreaded question,
“Wait, how do I do this?”