Practice Makes Perfect, But How?
New Book Looks at Music and Memory
ow does a musician go from the first halting rehearsal to a flawless performance in front of an audience? Most music fans are content to sit back and enjoy a concert without giving that serious thought, but two UConn psychology professors and a professional pianist have joined to form a more complete picture of music and memory.
They found that there are several distinct stages to the process.
In the book Practicing Perfection: Memory and Piano Performance, professors Roger Chaffin and Mary Crawford and concert pianist Gabriela Imreh attempt to unravel the mental processes involved when a performer is learning a new selection. With the book,
The trio hope to understand the process of memorization for performance and thus comprehend memory expertise in a new domain.
"There had never been any work with this kind of memory that has a strong artistic component and a strong motor component," Crawford says.
"The biggest surprise is how important the performance aspects were right from the beginning. Gabriela was thinking about performing even as she learned what finger went where," Chaffin says. "We were also surprised at how similar memory for music is to memory for tasks like chess."
Imreh described her learning in five distinct stages: Scouting It Out, Section by Section, the Gray Stage, Putting It Together, and Polishing.
In the first stage, she simply sight-read the entire piece to get an idea of the large-scale structure. In the Section-by-Section Stage, Imreh was concerned with finding the correct fingering for the piece, which she did by playing the selection in small sections.
In the Gray Stage, an automatic response was developing but wasn't yet fully reliable. "The Gray Stage is, in some ways, the hardest," Imreh says. "It is frustrating. Your memory is starting to be accurate but the playing is not so good yet. You don't yet have the good coordination between mind and fingers. You want to be in control, to be out in front. But your fingers (motor memory) can go much faster. The conceptual representation is much slower."
In the Putting-It-Together Stage, Imreh focused on learning to play from memory. By the end of that stage, Imreh could play reliably from memory.
"She had put together a schema for the overall structure of the piece that could be used to guide its recall from long-term memory," the authors write. "The retrieval scheme provided the 'reference places' or retrieval cues needed to monitor the progress of the motor program. The motor program was by now largely automatic, but conscious attention was still needed to retrieve the various chunks or sections from memory and to initiate their execution."
The final 12 sessions were devoted to maintaining the piece until it was recorded for Imreh's Bach CD, which was released by Connoisseur Society in 1996.
Before they began the study, the researchers were interested in determining whether principles that had been developed to account for expert memory in domains in which motor memory and aesthetic considerations are minimal applied to piano performance. They were also interested in what pianists thought about while performing.
"So the answer to our first question about how a concert pianist memorizes is that she practices using performance cues as retrieval cues until they function rapidly and reliably," the authors write. "Their operation must be so sure that they not only guarantee note-perfect performance, but also permit recovery from distractions and mistakes.
"The answer to our second question is the same. What the pianist thinks about during performance is retrieval cues that have been carefully selected and practiced to produce a performance that is both reliable and expressive."
"Our message is an optimistic one," the authors write. "Gabriela's performance of the Presto was not simply the product of unreproducible and unattainable ingredients - talent, genius, and inspiration. It was the product of long hours of hard work, efficient use of practice time, focus on each problem to be solved, and an effective use of sophisticated practice strategies. This is good news for those who are not 'born musicians.'
"While we may never match Gabriela's technical ability, dexterity and individuality of interpretation, we can emulate the process by which they were created in improving our own skills."