Practicing perfection: how concert soloists prepare for performance

Chaffin, R. and Lisboa, T. (2009) Practicing perfection: how concert soloists prepare for performance. ICTUS Music Journal, 9 (2) pp. 115-142.


Musical performances by concert soloists in the Western classical tradition are normally memorized but there is little agreement between musicians about how this is done. To find out, we have studied concert soloists preparing new works for public performance. The musicians’ reports about their musical decisions provide the key to understanding what they are doing in practice. Practice, in turn, provides a window into the musicians’ problem solving strategies. Combining musicians’ subjective reports with the objective record of what they do in practice and performance provides insight into how they memorize. 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.

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