A self-study of practice: words versus action in music problem solving

Lisboa, T. and Chaffin, R. and Logan, T. (2011) A self-study of practice: words versus action in music problem solving. In: International Symposium on Performance Science 2011, 24-27 August 2011, Canada.


This study explores the strategies, thoughts, and artistic behaviors involved in learning a new piece for memorized performance. It discusses how an experienced cellist (the first author) prepared the Prelude from Bach’s Suite No. 6 for cello solo, BWV 1012, for performance. The paper describes her experience and insights as a musician studying her own practice in collaboration with psychologists. This longitudinal case study took place over a period of 3.5 years during which the entire process of learning, memorizing, and giving ten public performances of the Prelude was recorded and analyzed. The results highlight the contrasts between thoughts (articulated in words) and actions (demonstrated through playing). Although a large number of comments were on technique, practice was shaped by general musical understanding, from very early stages of learning. Expert music learning can, therefore, be compared to theories of expert problem solving: identifying underlying principles, developing a deeper understanding of the issues before proceeding, taking steps toward solving the problem guided by a big picture. This is in line with Neuhaus’ suggestion that a musician’s first goal in approaching a new piece should be to develop an “artistic image” of its musical shape.

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