This Bulletproof Musician article has been making the rounds, and it’s a good one:
Some degree of time and repetition is necessary to develop and hone our skills, of course. But we also know on some intuitive level that to maximize gains, we ought to practice “smarter, not harder.”
But what the heck does that really mean anyway? What exactly do top practicers do differently?
A group of researchers led by Robert Duke of The University of Texas at Austin conducted a study several years ago to see if they could tease out the specific practice behaviors that distinguish the best players and most effective learners.
Seventeen piano and piano pedagogy majors agreed to learn a 3-measure passage from Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1. The passage had some tricky elements, making it too difficult to sight read well, but not so challenging that it couldn’t be learned in a single practice session.
Liszt in concert (1842), by Theodor Hosemann (source)
It’s not memorizing that’s the problem, a friend said once. It’s having to perform from memory. This 2013 New York Times article discusses the controversy surrounding the de facto requirement of playing works from memory, raising the valid point that, up to the time when overachiever Franz Liszt decided to play concerts memorized, most concerts were performed with music.
In earlier eras there was composed music, which was always played from the score, and there was improvised music. Since performers were almost always composers as well, as Mr. Hough explained, for a pianist to play, say, a Chopin ballade from memory would have been considered the height of arrogance, as if the pianist were suggesting that he had composed the piece.
Read the rest of the article here.
What do you think about the tradition of playing by memory? Is it helpful, or harmful, or becoming obsolete?
Although directed toward people in the business world, this article by Scott Stossel in the Harvard Business Review addresses some points about performance in high-pressure situations that are equally as relevant for us musicians.
For those who choke during presentations to board members or pitches to clients, for example…the best approach may be one akin to what Beilock has athletes do in her experiments: redirecting your mind, in the moment, to something other than how you’re comporting yourself, so you can allow the skills and knowhow you’ve worked so hard to acquire to automatically kick into gear and carry you through. Your focus should not be on worrying about outcomes or consequences or on how you’re being perceived but simply on the task at hand. Prepare thoroughly (but not too obsessively) in advance; then stay in the moment.