Deliberate Practice, Not Just Reps

Over the last few years, I have thought a lot about how we approach improv training, and I think we can do much better than we do. To develop mastery in any art form takes practice, not just reps. What is the difference?

Deliberate practice means focused, challenging exercises with specific goals, led by a coach or teacher who knows how to encourage you to be better. It means nudging students to get to that sweet spot of learning where they are reaching just beyond their current capabilities. Truly effective training is hard, it should leave you mentally tired. But when you practice like this, you get better.

Summer intensive programs shouldn’t just be about filling a notebook with ideas that you might practice later. They should be about getting better now. You should be able to walk away on the last day knowing that you acquired skills that you can put into practice the next time you improvise.

If this kind of training sounds intriguing to you, think about taking my Improv Bootcamp at Under The Gun Theater. It’s 5 days of intensive training in Chicago, July 11th-July 15th. It’s the same workshop I’m teaching in New York in June and in Washington DC in August. Those bootcamps are sold out, the improv bootcamp in Chicago still has room for you.

Thoughts about coaching and teaching improv

As, I tweeted a while back, almost every teacher and coach (including me) talks too much. We should all talk a lot less and let our students get more reps in class. If possible, we should give them a chance to try it again immediately after getting a negative note. If your students can keep track of how many scenes they have improvised in your class, you have failed as a teacher.

Research on the effects of cardio vascular health on neurobiology seems pretty clear. The fitter you are > the fitter your brain will be > the better you will be at learning and the better you will be at the kind of executive functions that make good improvisors. So get your ass out there and exercise every day.

Exercise also has immediate short term benefits in learning environments, which means I’ll be starting rehearsals that I coach with active warmups that get people moving and their heart rates up. Be ready for it.

Keep things simple and focused. Work one muscle at a time in rehearsal. Repeat exercises from rehearsal to rehearsal or class to class. A student must practice a given skill many times for it to become second nature and useful on stage.

Also, you can’t really practice two things at once and certainly not three. Let students practice something over and over and until it becomes at least partially unconscious, before you add other layers on top of it.

Let students practice things slowly. Too often we are pushing people to do things fast before they have succeeded in doing them slow. In fact, force them to go far slower than they are used to sometimes. Then speed them up. Then slow them back down again.

For the first time in my life, I’m doing movement/physical theater classes. It’s silly and ridiculous and queer, but it’s also fun and playful and ultimately quite useful. I recommend it.

Get it into your body

I’m learning to play guitar. It is a tough, slow process. If I have a new chord to learn, it takes a lot of repetitions before that chord becomes second nature. I have to practice that shape with my fingers many times. I have to practice changing from chords that I already know to the chord I’m learning. The goal is to play that chord as quickly and as easily as I might say a phrase or sing a melody. But it doesn’t come with one lesson or with one or two practice sessions. It takes many sessions over many days and weeks and sometimes months for me to learn to play a chord with that kind of ease.

Sometimes I think we expect improv to work differently. Continue reading “Get it into your body”

Kissing asphalt

I got back from New York late on Wednesday and yesterday was my first chance to ride my new bike. My friend Erik picked me up and drove me over to the dealer to pick it up. We got my new plate on the bike and drove off, looking for a parking lot where I could practice for a while. The plan was to go over some of the test exercises and then head to the DMV to get my license.

We decided that the high school would be a good place to practice since school was still out. We were heading to the main parking lot, but when I passed one of the side parking lots, it was empty and had a fresh new pavement laid down with nice bright lines. Perfect, I thought, let’s practice there.

Continue reading “Kissing asphalt”