Practicing Perfection (book review)

Practicing PerfectionLast year, in search of clues to help me memorise 40 minutes of solo piano music for a recital, I read “Practicing Perfection – Memory and Piano Performance”. This detailed academic text describes a joint project between concert pianist Gabriela Imreh, music psychologist Roger Chaffin and social psychologist Mary Crawford to study the processes involved in memorising the Presto from Bach’s Italian Concerto. Through the analysis of practice diaries, annotated scores and numerous videos, the book offers an in-depth account of the year-long process of memorising a piece of music to concert standard.

The book begins with a review of memorising strategies described in published articles and interviews with almost 50 concert pianists, including such piano luminaries as Alfred Cortot, Percy Grainger, Jorge Bolet, Martha Argerich, Claudio Arrau and Alfred Brendel. Although many observed that memory seemed to form unconsciously without deliberate effort, many spontaneously identified different types of memory – conceptual, motor, auditory and visual (for the score and hand positions). Conceptual memory was almost universally employed, either through formal/harmonic analysis or mental rehearsal, but there was enormous variation in the reported usefulness of the other types of memory. Tellingly, motor memory was often described as being “dangerous, insecure, not to be relied on”.

The rest of the book is devoted to the case study. Imreh herself describes four stages of learning: initial ideas and analysis; dealing with technical problems section by section; rehearsal, putting the sections together and polishing; and maintenance. During the practice sessions, she spent disproportionately more time on difficult sections, such as technical problems and “switches… points of structural ambiguity where the same passage occurs at different points in the piece”. Intriguingly, Imreh actually chose to schedule a 3-month hiatus during her preparation of this piece, to force herself to relearn it and thus solidify her memory.

As a result of their analysis, Chaffin and colleagues assert that musicians use a hierarchical retrieval scheme for memorising music, much like expert memorisers in other domains. This hierarchy is based on a mental map of the piece, dotted with key landmarks of different types:

  • structural performance cues, e.g. movement, section, sub-section, bar, etc.
  • expressive performance cues, e.g. feelings such as surprise, mystery, excitement, etc.
  • interpretive performance cues, e.g. phrasings, tempo, dynamics, etc.
  • basic performance cues, e.g. fingering, pattern changes, flourish in left hand, etc.

Hypothetical hierarchical retrieval scheme:*

These performance cues act as memory retrieval mechanisms that allow the musician to access the relevant part of their long term memory while playing, providing a mental map of the piece that unfolds in real time during the performance. In a subsequent academic publication*, Chaffin suggests that only the basic performance cues are likely to be instrument-specific; the rest should be equally applicable to all musical memory. When tested over 2 years later, Imreh was able to accurately write out 65% of the score from memory – pretty impressive! Interestingly, recall was best around structural boundaries and expressive cues, and worst around basic performance cues, where conscious recollection seemed to interfere with the unconscious procedural memory.

The book also highlights the paradox of playing accurately from memory while still achieving a fresh and spontaneous performance. The former requires many hours of extended, meticulous practice, while the latter necessitates a unique, expressive interpretation. How can both be possible? The phenomenon of ‘going stale’ as a result of over-practice is something most music students will have encountered at some point. Although the bulk of practice time is spent on basic and interpretive performance cues, focusing primarily on expressive performance cues during performance allows the musician to respond personally to the “opportunities and demands of the occasion to achieve the maximum possible impact on the audience”. World-class performers are able to discover new ways to interpret and communicate these expressive cues while delivering dazzling technical mastery, so as to delight and transfix their audiences.

As far as I can tell, case studies as illuminating as this one are few and far between.

*Key reference: Chaffin, R. & Logan, T. Practicing perfection: how concert soloists prepare for performance, Advances in Cognitive Psychology 2 (2006); 113-130


About Caroline Wright

pianist, composer, scientist
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One Response to Practicing Perfection (book review)

  1. Pingback: Practicing Perfection: Memory and Piano Performance | Piano Street's Classical Piano Blog

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