In 2009, Robert A. Duke, Amy L. Simmons, and Carla Davis Cash got together a group of seventeen pianists to study how their practice affected their performances. These musicians were all advanced undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Texas at Austin. They were given a short passage of a Shostakovich concerto to learn. The students were allowed to practice the passage as long as they liked, with practice lengths ranging from 11 to 57 minutes. The next day, they returned and performed the excerpt fifteen times. A committee of piano teachers was brought in to observe the practice sessions and performances. The performances were ranked based primarily of notes and rhythms, but some consideration was given to phrasing and articulation as well.
Through analysis of the pianists’ practice and performance, it was found that the biggest predictor of a successful performance was the percentage of repetitions that were correct or nearcorrect. The other important variable was the total number of incorrect repetitions, which had an inverse relationship with an effective performance. The total number of correct repetitions, surprisingly, had little connection with a confident performance. Neither did the total number of minutes practiced.
While analyzing the performances, there were three pianists whose playing stood out from the others. When the practice habits of these three were analyzed, the committee found that these musicians performed the excerpt fully early on. In the study, they reference playing handstogether, but for a string player this might mean considering including the correct bowing, dynamics, and articulation early on. The practice was analytical, in that the performers paused to consider each spot before they commenced playing it. They anticipated the difficult areas and paused to work them out before continuing. When a mistake occurred, they addressed it immediately, and were able to pinpoint the exact source of the issue and work on it in detail.
The biggest predictor of a commendable performance was a varied practice speed. The three top players were more likely to practice slowly, and speed the spot up gradually, rather than continuing to rush through it.
For a young player, it’s especially important to practice carefully, so they experience a lot of success and learn to enjoy playing! Some good practice techniques to utilize these ideas at home are:
Information from It's Not How Much; It's How: Characteristics of Practice Behavior and Retention of Performance Skills, Duke et al, published in 2009.
- Shannon Jansma, published in the October 2015 issue of the Ann Arbor Suzuki Institute newsletter