UConn News HomeUConn News

Pyschologists Explain Memory's Role in Performance
(Released: May 9, 2002)

By Allison Thompson, Office of University Communications

STORRS, Conn. -- How 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 University of Connecticut psychology professors and a professional pianist have joined to form a more complete picture of music and memory.

In the book Practicing Perfection: Memory and Piano Performance, professors Roger Chaffin and Mary Crawford and concert pianist Gabriela Imreh uncover the mental processes involved when a performer is learning a new piece of music. Through the book, the trio hope to shed new light on the process of memorizing for performance and extend psychology's understanding of memory expertise to a new domain.

"Psychologists have never done any work with musical memory, which has a strong artistic component and a strong motor component," Crawford says.

In order to study music and memory, the researchers decided to follow Imreh as she learned a new piece of music that was difficult to memorize. Imreh, who first met Chaffin and Crawford when she taught their son to play the piano, chose the third movement (Presto) of J.S. Bach's Italian Concerto for the study. All of Imreh's practice sessions - from the first time she opened the score until the final, polished performance - were videotaped, resulting in 33 hours of practice taped during a 10-month period.

"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 playing music from memory is to tasks like playing chess from memory."

Imreh's efforts to learn the piece went through 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 choosing fingerings for the piece, which she did by playing the selection in small sections.

In the gray stage, the ability to play automatically was developing but wasn't yet fully reliable. 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.

Having the Presto memorized allowed Imreh to focus on refining her performance during the polishing stage. According to Imreh, her goals in that stage were to build her confidence for the trouble spots, define the emotional architecture of the piece and check her memory. The polishing was the longest of the five stages, lasting from session 18 through session 44. Part of this stage's length can be attributed to Imreh's decision to speed up the tempo of the piece, which she decided to do in session 31.

The final 12 sessions were devoted to maintaining the piece until it was recorded for Imreh's Bach CD, which was released by the 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."

Chaffin and Crawford think the book, to be published this month by Erlbaum of Mahway, N.J., will appeal to other psychologists and musicians as well as members of the general public, particularly those who enjoy performing.

"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."

May 2002 Releases
UConn News Homepage