Spontaneity in performance: effects of thinking on expressive variation in tempo

Lisboa, T. and Demos, A. P. and Chaffin, R. (2015) Spontaneity in performance: effects of thinking on expressive variation in tempo. In: International Symposium on Performance Science, 2-5 September 2015, Kyoto, Japan.


Background: One of the difficulties in teaching musical expression is that we have little understanding of its sources. In a recent case study, we noted that a student spontaneously began to play more expressively as a result of learning to attend to her own thoughts as she played. This suggests that musical expression may be a spontaneous product of thinking about musical intentions. Here, we examine the effect of thoughts during performance, i.e. performance cues (PCs), on the spontaneity of expressive timing. Aims: Experienced performers maintain a balance between the automaticity required for technical proficiency and the spontaneity required for a compelling performance. An important goal of practice is to move beyond automaticity and be able to respond spontaneously to the opportunities and demands of each performance. To test this idea, we examined the development of spontaneity in a series of 24 performances as a musician prepared a piece for performance. Method: As part of an earlier study, we recorded the entire practice (38 hours) and public performances of an experienced cellist (the first author) as she learned and performed the Prelude from J.S. Bach’s Suite No. 6 for solo cello, over a two-year period. Using half-bars as our unit of analysis, we measured tempo for 19 practice and six live performances. For this study, we measured spontaneity by taking the mean absolute difference of tempo from other performances. After the last performance, the cellist rated technical difficulty (by half-bars) and reported the location of the sections and subsections of the musical structure and of her PCs, i.e. the features she attended to during performance, distinguishing PCs for expression, interpretation, and basic technique. Mixed effect models evaluated the effects on tempo and spontaneity of musical structure, difficulty, practice, and PCs. Results: The correlation of successive performances with each other and with the final public performance increased across performances, showing that, overall, tempo became more stable over time. The cellist played more difficult passages with less spontaneous variation in tempo, and played passages that received more practice with more spontaneity. There were tempo arches at multiple levels of hierarchical structure; arches within phrases were nested within larger arches across sections. Spontaneity followed the opposite trajectory: lower at beginnings and ends of phrases and higher in the middle. Tempo slowed and spontaneity increased at PCs for interpretation. Conclusions: The cellist combined automaticity with spontaneity, relying on automaticity in more difficult passages and working to achieve spontaneity through more practice in other places. Spontaneity was higher and tempo slower at beginnings of sections and phrases and at interpretive PCs. We suggest that slowing at these locations provided time to settle on the interpretative nuances of timing and dynamics for the upcoming passage. By collecting her thoughts, the cellist created both the temporal grouping of notes into phrases and the variation in timing that signals spontaneity to an audience. This suggests that students might be taught to play more expressively by learning how to develop interpretive PCs.

Actions (login required)

View Item View Item