PRACTICING PERFECTION: HOW CONCERT SOLOISTS PREPARE FOR PERFORMANCE
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Musical performances by concert soloists in the Western classical tradition are normally memorized. For memory to work reliably under the pressures of the concert stage, the performance must be practiced until it is thoroughly automatic. At the same time, the performance must be fresh and spontaneous in order to communicate emotionally with the audience. The resolution of this apparent contradiction is provided by longitudinal case studies of concert soloists preparing new works for performance. Like expert memorists in other domains, experienced musicians use highly practiced retrieval schemes to accomplish their extraordinary feats of memory. Performers have a mental map of the piece in mind as they perform that tells them where they are and what comes next - a series of landmarks, hierarchically organized by the sections and subsections of the music. The musician attends to these 'performance cues' in order to ensure that the performance unfolds as planned. Performance cues are established by thinking about a particular feature of the music during practice so that it later comes to mind automatically. Performance cues help the soloist consciously monitor and control the rapid, automatic actions of playing, while adjusting to the needs of the moment. During practice, the musician attends mostly to 'basic performance cues' representing critical technical features (e.g., fingerings), and 'interpretive performance cues', representing phrasings, and changes in dynamics, tempo, and timbre. During performance, the musician hopes to attend mainly to 'expressive performance cues' representing the musical feelings to be conveyed to the audience (e.g., excitement). We illustrate this analysis with a typical case study of a concert pianist learning J.S. Bach's 'Italian Concerto (Presto)'.
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