Saturday, April 17, 2010

Book Review: The Science and Psychology of Music Performance

Parncutt and McPherson have collected a wide range of articles regarding music research as it relates to learning and performance. Each chapter is authored by two clinicians or researchers so that there is always one scientist and one musician representing a chapter. The book is meant to be multidisciplinary and cross cultural so that views from music psychology, education and acoustics are all represented, but not any one country within the music of Western Civilization is dominant. The main thrust of the book is to help teachers and performers apply research findings to the actions of creating and making music. The book is divided into three parts: the developing musician, sub skills of music performance, and instrument and ensembles.

The first part of the book describes issues that may impact a performer from early childhood all the way through professional musicianship. Research is discussed about identifying musical potential in young children and how to nurture and build on early musical skills that are discovered. Key ideas in this section include the finding that musical preference for the type of instrument and musical style are much more important as an indicator for future success as a performer than technical skill. The phenomenon of performance anxiety can also be increased or attenuated early on through performance experiences by the young musician. The authors of the chapter on performance anxiety urge teachers to carefully screen young performers who seem to be equating self-esteem with their identity as a performer.

The first section of the book also emphasizes the role of environment on musical learning by presenting research that the brain is most flexible early in life. The authors recommend that teachers look for opportunities to involve as many aspects of music as they can during childhood in order to capitalize on the brain’s power to network and make associations among its different parts. They recommend, for example, that singing and moving should accompany all instrument playing lessons. The idea that the brain is linked together is a common theme throughout the book and is referred to during discussions of memory, sight reading, improvisation, and instrument-specific technique recommendations.

The second section of the book covers the individual skills that are necessary for music performance. This ranges from sight reading to memory and improvisation skills to the structural elements of expression. The chapter on sight reading admits that sight reading is not emphasized in contemporary music education, but argues that professional musicians could benefit from better sight reading skills because they could learn music faster and potentially find more frequent paying jobs. The authors of the chapter on sight reading and improvisation both agree that performers can increase their skill by combining theory, analysis and memorizing of rules and patterns. They also espouse a need for more research into the idea of group creativity.

Memory is a central feature to many sub skills of performance and figures prominently in the book. Several chapters recommend, either directly or indirectly, that teachers should explore methods of memorizing based on understanding of the material and not just through rote learning. The research reviewed in the book reveals that most students tend to compartmentalize theory from playing and ultimately end up memorizing by rote, but that most successful solo artists use a thorough analysis of a musical work to help them memorize the notes.

The final section of the book examines the individual disciplines of music performance. The editors have included almost every genre of performance except for percussion and dance. Each chapter, whether on the solo voice, piano performance, or choir singing, tries to explain how new research in acoustics and physiology may be helpful for the teacher and student in each setting. The chapter on solo voice, for example, examines the anatomical design of the voice and its function in singing. It provides pedagogical implications for teachers and singers based on new research made possible by advances in medical technology, particularly the MRI and X-ray. Many of the authors in this section lament the fact that much of current teaching methods rely on anecdotal or experiential evidence for their instruction rather than on empirical findings.

Overall, the book is well presented and easy to read. The editors have included all the bibliographic information at the end of each chapter for easy reference while reading. The authors and editors seem to have a strong desire to bridge the gap between research and practice. Many of the chapters offer intriguing insights that can be immediately integrated into private lessons in almost any performance area. There is definitely something for everybody in this book. Violinists to pianists to singers will all find research-based knowledge that can be transferred into practice during rehearsal.

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