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
"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
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
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
"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
"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
May 2002 Releases
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