Focusing on Expressive Musicianship Strengthens Musical Development

The Whole Enchilada:
Focusing on Expressive Musicianship Strengthens Musical Development

By NAfME members Sarah Allen, Robert Duke, Amy Simmons, and Carla Cash

The goals of practice encompass the creation, refinement, and strengthening of procedural memories, the basis of musicians’ ability to perform music fluently and confidently. The way musicians perform during rehearsal directly influences how memories are formed and how well they are retained over time, and since repetition is a cornerstone of skill learning, everything musicians do during practice should be an intentional act reflective of their ultimate musical goals. Surprising research findings about how the brain encodes and refines skill memories not only make the process of music learning and practice more understandable and interesting, but also suggest ways to make practice a more positive and productive experience for musicians.

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The behaviors illustrative of expert practice are straightforward, understandable, and learnable. In our numerous observations of musicians engaged in practice, we have learned that what sets experts apart from younger or less developed musicians is the mindfulness or thoughtful intentionality with which experts approach their practice. The actions of experienced musicians are guided by a clear auditory and physical image of what it is they wish to accomplish, to achieve, to sound like, and to feel like in performance. Every decision and subsequent action are deliberate attempts meant to bring to life this mental image. Perceived outcomes that do not match conceived intentions provide focus and guide the correction of error.

As part of our session in Grapevine, we’ll present recorded examples of effective music practice and discuss the connections between strategies that work and the underlying mechanisms of the brain that explain their function in human memory. Here are some of our main findings:

Goal Setting

When asked to define their practice goals, many young musicians respond, “Thirty minutes.” Of course, expert musicians don’t think this way at all. It seems odd to us that music is perhaps the only subject in school in which “homework” is assigned in terms of time spent rather than goals accomplished. A mathematics worksheet, for example, is assigned with the expectation that it will be completed by the due date, irrespective of how long it may take individual students to complete it. The goal is mastery of the underlying operations or concepts represented on the sheet. Assigning a time goal, not uncommon in music rooms around the country, doesn’t account for individual differences in the time required to complete learning goals and actually contradicts what we know from cognitive psychology.

Photo: Howard Rockwin, Music Memories Photography

Practice Session Structure

We now understand that the brain continues to organize, stabilize, and refine skill memories long after active practice has ended. It is somewhat surprising to realize that the brain is covertly at work in the hours following active practice, even when our conscious attention is directed elsewhere. It is even more surprising that our brains “rehearse” what we’ve practiced while we sleep. The sequence in which we practice the various exercises, etudes, and repertoire that are included in most practice sessions influences how and where our brains focus attention and invest energy as they work “off-line” (without our conscious attention). Thus, when we practice what we practice influences how well we remember what we do.

Strategic Repetitions

Once goals are identified, questions arise as to how best to accomplish them. Although there are generally accepted approaches that are often broadly applied in music practice (e.g., play more slowly, play with a metronome or tuner), it’s clear that different kinds of problems require different kinds of solutions. Unfortunately, many younger or less developed musicians repeat material in less than efficient ways, during which errors may be played repeatedly or the music may be performed with little conscious involvement. To satisfy a need for efficiency and a desire for higher levels of engagement, experts have learned to make each repetition count, leading to practice experiences that are productive, engaging, and enjoyable. Each repetition of the task involves active adjustments from the preceding repetition that in turn provide feedback about the proximity to the intended goal and suggest what additional adjustments are necessary.

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The Ultimate Goal of Music-Making

Our results reveal that artist-level musicians focus attention on the expressive intentions of music-making during practice in ways that serve to unify the physical components of music performance. Our data from behavioral observations and interviews illustrate that the processes that underlie music learning are enhanced when musicians retain the integration among the multiple aspects of playing and focus primarily on the accomplishment of expressive goals. Thus, the expressive aspects of music performance are not something “added later,” once the technical demands of playing have been met. Instead, expression serves as the unifying element around which all of the physical and perceptual tasks cohere.

violin Wiktor Rzeżuchowski

Our session will conclude with time for questions from attendees. Following the session, we will post all of our materials, including all our video examples, on the website of the Center for Music Learning, so that teachers and students may refer to them or share them with others after the conference.

About the authors:

Expressive Musicianship Sarah

NAfME member Sarah Allen is Associate Professor of Music Education at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, where she currently teaches courses in instrumental music education and pedagogy, as well as graduate music education and research courses.

Expressive Musicianship Robert

NAfME member Robert A. Duke is the Marlene and Morton Meyerson Centennial Professor in Music and Human Learning and Director of the Center for Music Learning at the Sarah and Ernest Butler School of Music at the University of Texas at Austin; he is also a member of the faculty of the Colburn Conservatory.


NAfME member Amy Simmons is Senior Lecturer of Music and Human Learning at the Sarah and Ernest Butler School of Music at the University of Texas at Austin. Dr. Simmons’ research includes studies that characterize expert teaching and illuminate memory processes in musicians’ learning.

Expressive Musicianship Carla

NAfME member Carla Davis Cash is Associate Professor of Piano and Piano Pedagogy at Texas Tech University. She is an active solo and chamber recitalist and her research interests center on the development of motor skill and procedural memory in musicians.

Sarah Allen, Robert Duke, Amy Simmons, and Carla Cash presented on their topic “The Whole Enchilada: Focusing on Expressive Musicianship Strengthens Musical Development” at the 2016 NAfME National Conference in Dallas, TX. Register today for the 2019 NAfME National Conference!



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Catherina Hurlburt, Communications Manager, October 11, 2016. © National Association for Music Education (