Learning any new craft is a lot like learning a foreign language. We often want to be awesome at it straight out of the gate, but that rarely — if ever — happens right away.
What really happens is that we end up looking and sounding like a frustrated toddler, stamping our feet and grunting like a caveman because our thought process is much more elegant than our language ability and vocabulary.
And that translates (no pun intended) into other skill sets, too — rookie dancers look stiff or robotic, rookie speakers sound hesitant or lose their confidence in the face of the crowd, rookie actors forget their lines, and so forth.
Immature skill levels always shine through in one way or another.
When I was an exchange student, I had studied Russian and Czech for an entire academic year before going to live in those respective countries. So one would assume that I had a pretty solid footing; but when I got there, I realized very quickly how little I actually knew.
Studying and doing are two totally different things.
When you’re reading a textbook, you can take your time and grab a dictionary and look up words you don’t know before you have to move on to the next sentence.
When you’re in a metro station trying to find your way around town during rush hour and people are pushing you into the train, you don’t have the luxury of spare time. It’s do-or-die, and you have to figure things out on the fly.
Live performance is a lot like that.
You have to learn to think on your feet and trust your instinctual memory more than your rational brain because everything is happening in real-time and you’ve got to go with the flow or you get left behind.
You’ve got to know how to tune into your conversation partner (in performing arts, that’s the audience, as a collective whole) to read between the lines of what they’re saying, as well as interpreting nonverbal cues, idioms, slang, and the tone of their voice.
Is what you’re saying getting through? Also, are you understanding what they’re trying to tell you?
It’s a fluid, dynamic exchange that never stops going back and forth. It’s never just a one-way directive style of communication.
So how do you know when you’ve become “fluent” in a skill?
Whether that skill is a foreign language or dance or public speaking or whatever…
The best way to bridge that vast gap from beginner to expert is to practice — a lot. Live the language. Live the art form. Do it every day if you can, or as often as possible if that’s not realistic.
The more you build a regular, disciplined practice of your skill into your daily routine, the more quickly you will get really good at it.
It’s just like martial artists going through forms every day. You build body memory or muscle memory by doing through the motions so that you condition your reflexes.
Reflexes are triggered by instincts, and so to strengthen your reflexes you have to do it. Not just think about doing it.
When your natural instinct kicks in without thinking too hard, you know you’re on the path to fluency.
Even visualization techniques become more effective when you can anchor them in real experiences by using body memories and sensations to make the vision come alive. And you either have to have one hell of an imagination to do that, or you have to actually know what it feels like to do what you want to do. The more acutely you tune into those feelings, the more powerful the visualization exercise will be.
To give an example from foreign language study, my professors always said you were fluent when your second language was the first thing out of your mouth in the morning, as opposed to your native tongue.
I didn’t realize I was truly fluent — even though my friends had nicknamed me “the walking dictionary” and my professors had actually skipped me ahead one whole year in the language classes — until I was on my plane ride back home from Russia, after my Overseas Studies program had concluded.
There were so few people on my outbound flight from Moscow that I had the entire row to myself — on both sides of the aisle. So I stretched out and fell completely and soundly asleep (which if you know me, you realize how unlikely it is that I could sleep on a plane at all).
The British Airways flight attendant came to wake me and to let me know that I needed to buckle up, because we were landing. My groggy response was, “I know, I know… I’m getting up.”
But it didn’t come out in English. It came out all in Russian.
The poor woman looked completely baffled for a split second, like she didn’t know what to do with me at all.
Then when I realized what I’d done, I switched over to English and said the same thing. She looked so relieved that I actually giggled a bit. I felt a teensy bit bad for sending the nice British lady into a panic.
Here’s another example of instinct kicking in:
As you may know, I spent many years performing with a circus. When we’re practicing, acrobats have to spot one another, in case we fall while learning a new trick.
So we spent a lot of time “switched on” and ready to catch someone if they came tumbling down off a piece of equipment or a human pyramid.
But those instincts don’t stay on the stage alone. They go with you anywhere and everywhere else, too.
We were at a family dinner function one night, and I was seated on a sofa, talking to someone on my right while there was a baby sitting on the lap of someone just to my left.
That someone got distracted and the baby fell toward me and was going head-first toward the floor.
My left hand shot out and I caught the baby by the ankle before his head hit the ground.
It happened so quickly — seriously, we’re talking fractions of seconds here — that everyone in the room sat there with their mouths open and all conversation stopped for a moment.
It was just like that scene in “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” where Brad Pitt dropped the wine and Angelina Jolie caught it, even though she could only see it in her peripheral vision. Except I had caught an infant.
“How did you do that?” someone asked me.
That, my friend, I could only credit to pure reflexes.
You will hone the same kind of reflexes by practicing your craft on a regular basis. The skill moves from one part of your brain to another, more deeply-rooted part and it becomes something that you don’t have to struggle with any longer.
Fluency develops through regular, disciplined practice.
It will become easy to recover if you lose your line in a play or your train of thought in a presentation, or if you mess up your choreography.
When you can go on like you meant to do it that way, like nothing bad happened, and keep the audience engaged with what you’re doing or saying, that’s when you know you’ve become fluent.
True mastery in performance doesn’t come when you never make mistakes. It comes when you can make mistakes undetectable to the audience.