A&HHE Special Issue August 2016AHHELogo-300x300

Practice Methodology: mastering the performer’s real-time ‘navigation’ in the musical process

László Stachó
The Liszt Academy of Music, Budapest


Practice Methodology (PM) is a detailed pedagogical methodology for developing the ability of real-time ‘navigation’ in the musical process by the performer. To achieve this, PM focuses on developing three seminal skills for the musician, regardless of the musician’s instrument and including singers: first, the ability to form a clear cognitive and affective map of the forthcoming structural units (including estimating the durations of the forthcoming – usually hierarchically embedded – structural units through feeling their length); second, to form a clear mental image of the preceding musical units to which the subsequent ones are to be measured; and third, to feel the present moment deeply. The Methodology can be used with considerable success from the very beginning up to the most advanced levels of music education, yielding a uniquely powerful toolkit for the developing artist. This short report outlines the theoretical basis of PM and the pedagogical context within which it has been developed.


Practice Methodology; performance education; phenomenology of musical performance; attentional processes in music performance; mental training.

Important insights into some of the pedagogical challenges associated with musical learning emerge from a central theory of musical expressivity. Hans Heinrich Eggebrecht, one of the leading European musicologists of the 20th century, noted that in the history of thinking about Western art music two opposing approaches in understanding the nature of music have tended to prevail (Dahlhaus and Eggebrecht, 1985: 32–42). While the first approach viewed music as principally expressive of emotions, the second approach considered music essentially in formal and computational terms (Eggebrecht characterised this approach with the ancient Greek term ‘mathesis’).

Music teaching in the 19th century appears to be related to the latter approach: for the major part of the century, instrumental pedagogy was predominantly concerned with technical training on instruments.[1] Later, towards the end of the century, it turned its focus on the technique of expression as well, and particularly on the rules of expressive performance determined through descriptive analyses of expressive performances.[2] These approaches to pedagogy often prioritized instrumental technique over musical content, or focused on the musical output (i.e., how something should sound) rather than on the mental processes involved in making the music (that is, how to achieve the desired output). It seems, therefore, that the ‘mathesis’ approach dominated both instrumental pedagogy and solfège (i.e. aural training), right up to the highest levels of musical expertise, and that the domain of the ‘emotional’ approach – which is much more difficult to operationalize and measure than the ‘mathesis’ side – was rather left to the discretion of the performer and to the act of performance itself. As the institutionalization and social dissemination of music pedagogy spread, extensive instrumental technical training became the norm (I shall refer to the burgeoning of etudes and finger exercises that formed a major part of teaching materials).

Having said all of this, it is absolutely clear that in fact ‘emotional’ and ‘mathesis’ dimensions are far from mutually exclusive in music. On the one hand, musical structures are profoundly impregnated with emotions – every piece of structural information is subjectively linked to feelings: we express the structures through feeling them. On the other hand, emotional expression is highly structured through musical composition. Pedagogically, these dimensions can also be integrated. Based on the above considerations, an effective pedagogy of music performance ought to acknowledge the fact that music involves expressing and empathising with feelings, and that it occurs in real time. Making sense of a piece of music relies on the ability to associate its elements with feelings, emotions and thoughts. Since mere cognitive-analytic recognition or reproduction of these elements is insufficient for a full understanding of a musical process (Searle, 1980), the associations must be based on felt (indeed, embodied) experiences for both performers and listeners. Consequently, output focus in performance teaching, coupled with a focus on instrumental technique, fail to explicitly address two seminal questions in music pedagogy: what kind of feelings, emotions, and thoughts to express, and how to do it in the process of a performance. I believe that a genuinely 21st-century music pedagogy should aim at giving answers to the following basic question that unites the two questions above: how can the readiness to express and empathise with the feelings to be expressed in a performance in real time be efficiently fostered? This requires a cognitive approach, with a focus on the mental processes of the student.

The real-time navigation in the musical process

Based on these critical issues, I sought to develop a pedagogical approach that brings the emotional and mathesis elements into dialogue in practical and accessible ways for musicians of all ages and stages of development. My approach stems from the performer’s perspective, as meaningfulness and quality of a performance seems to rely on two basic factors: first, the richness and depth of associations of feelings to the elements of the music by the performer, and second, the performer’s readiness to express, or communicate, her interpretation. Mental abilities connected to both of these basic factors simultaneously involve expressing and empathizing feelings, associated with the music, in real time. But what kind of mental computation is involved in this affective process?

When we immerse in a piece of music (or a reading, a mathematical problem, or the like), phenomenologically, we enter an imaginary realm and begin to explore it; we navigate in it. Living through this process is often characterized as ‘being in the zone’ or in ‘flow’ (Csíkszentmihályi, 1990) and likened to a dream (sometimes also to ‘magic’). This phenomenon appears to be quite complex, and the altered states of consciousness associated with the exploration of an imaginary realm typically involve a vivid and active process of imagery during performance. This imagery is strongly connected to feeling and builds on moments of deep immersion within the ‘zone’, or ‘flow’. It can be carried out voluntarily and with ease once the performer has mastered a specific mental imagery skill to be applied at certain points of the musical process. According to initial experience, deliberate practice of this skill efficiently and quickly opens the way to feeling in real time with full concentration. Based on concepts taken from pedagogical practice, sports science (especially from recent research of attentional control in sports, e.g. Singer et al., 1996; Savelsbergh et al., 2002), as well as from my own empirical research including tentative analyses of hundreds of video-recorded performances, I proposed the following model of the performer’s phenomenological processes which constitutes the basis for Practice Methodology (Stachó and Holics, 2011), aiming at developing and enhancing the imagery skill connected to the cognitive navigation in the musical process.

Positioning into the present, past, and future

The model of the performer’s phenomenological processes posits that moments of deep immersion, connected to the musical imagery process, embrace the three temporal dimensions and have multiple functions.

First, they allow the musician – and, through empathy or emotional contagion, the musician’s audience – to fully enjoy the present sounding moment. This enjoyment is definitely one of the most important functions of music. We may refer to this ability to immerse, or ‘lose oneself’, in the present musical moment as ‘mindfulness’. Without it both a performance and a listening experience tend to be superficial and ‘reserved’, and the performer may not be able to capture the listener’s attention. Furthermore, this kind of momentary mindfulness, lasting usually for a fraction of a second, has specific functions related to music theory (such as marking tonally important moments or immersing into the character of the music) and cognitive processing (such as clearing the performer’s working memory). I believe that a seminal task of a cognitive music theory would be clarifying which moments in a musical process may be subject to this affective immersion.

A second function of moments of deep immersion is retrospection: at certain points of the musical process the performer is reflecting back to the portions of the musical process that have just faded away. Typically, it is a retrospection to a previous musical unit: within a time frame of a moment, the performer recalls in her imagination the feeling of the length and tonality of the motif, phrase, or even longer section – by immersing herself into this very near musical past.

The third vital function of moments of intensive imagery, correlating with an in-depth immersion, is to position into the future, typically by anticipating the duration of the upcoming – usually hierarchically embedded – structural units through feeling their length. Usually, it occurs by cognitively measuring the subsequent units to the previous ones to ‘fit’ them together.

It is worth noting that a similar ‘navigating’ mental imagery, including directing the attention forward (that is, anticipating) and backward (i.e. retrospecting), is a core ability leading to excellence in sports as well. For example, an outstanding football player, in contrast to a less experienced footballer, is able to anticipate where the ball is going to move rather than looking only at the ball.[3] A strikingly similar mental processing occurs during an outstanding musical performance. The performer sets the musical goals for herself and feels them (note that is quite useless only to know where to aim at in the musical process, without feeling the aim in the appropriate moment): she feels in advance where the motif, the phrase or the larger section will end before she attacks it.

The basic cognitive and affective imagery skills to anticipate, immerse oneself, and retrospect in real time build up the musician’s ‘GPS’, and help the musician to feel security and comfort during performance.

Practice Methodology

The most efficient means to develop these skills is to practise them separately through specifically designed exercises. Practice Methodology (PM) is an implementation in performance teaching of the above model of the performer’s phenomenological processes. This detailed methodology for enhancing in performers the ability of real-time navigating encompasses the readiness to mentally position into each of the three temporal dimensions. PM was gradually developed, and constantly updated, during the past decade at the Liszt Academy of Music (Budapest) and at the Faculty of Music of the University of Szeged in Hungary. The Methodology leads the student through a series of specifically designed musical exercises, generally based on visuo-spatial metaphors: it incorporates, but is not limited to, systematic exercises of visualisation and shaping connected to each of the three imagery abilities, as well as to their connections to each other.

For example, a vital part of the toolkit of the PM consists of exercises specifically aiming at developing mindfulness, a performer’s mental readiness to ‘fall into the moment’, which can be easily achieved through for example focusing on a concrete quality of the sound (e.g. intonation, timbre) or through the use of specific visuo-spatial and gestural metaphors. PM exercises related to the mental retrospective process during performance involve directed musical imagery, visuo-spatial imagery exercises, as well as gaze guiding. In turn, efficiently fostering the readiness to anticipate during performance can be realised through PM exercises based on visuo-spatial imagery and gestural metaphors (e.g., ball throwing to different distances). These exercises are applicable both during the process of instrumental or vocal practice of a piece and independently of it, thus constituting a specific training for developing a mental ‘readiness’ which actuates the real-time mental navigation in the musical process. While the methodology can be used alongside with a more traditional practice regime, complementing it and functioning as an enhancer to it, the most often encountered challenges so far are connected to individual differences between performers such as willingness, as well as initial susceptibility, to quickly position themselves within the different temporal and emotional perspectives.

Discussion and implications for future practice

Since 2013, the Methodology has been introduced into performance curricula at the tertiary level in several institutions in Hungary. Experience to date in primary and secondary level music schools, alongside with the results of its introduction at the tertiary level, showed that PM can be used with considerable success from the very beginning up to the most advanced levels of music education. The acquisition of this toolkit, which is proposed to be one of the core tasks of the process of instrumental and singing practice, enables the musician to ‘let go’ in the moment and to be emotionally deeply engaged with music (enabled particularly through the mindfulness exercises), but also to take expressive risks and to deal with mistakes while performing (enabled through mental readiness, developed through the PM exercises, in which the performer feels herself secure in the musical process and becomes able to react to mistakes without impeding the integrity of the musical process). Moreover, enhancing musical understanding on the grounds of the PM typically results in overcoming a significant amount of technical constraints by mastering the ability to give herself enough time to get ready to solve technical problems in real time. Finally, one of the most important benefits of the toolkit provided by the Methodology connected to originality and creativity appears to be that it is able to quickly open the way to the performer’s spontaneity (typically, while avoiding its negative aspects) facilitating authenticity and feeling of ‘ownership’ over the music. These initial results stem from pedagogical evidence, thus they require further empirical support. Behavioural and neurological measurements of the effects of PM are in progress, focusing both on its effectiveness (involving an exact long-term evaluation of the effects in different instrumentalists, personality types, and age groups) and on the study and understanding of the neural basis of its effects.


[1] For a detailed review and analysis of the predominance of technical training in instrumental teaching in the nineteenth century see Stachó (2013): 43–62.

[2] See the many treatises of musical expression written in the era (among the most influential ones were Hauptmann, 1853; Riemann, 1884; Lussy, 1884; Fuchs, 1885; Klauwell, 1883; Christiani, 1885; and Goodrich, 1899).

[3] See especially an intriguing case study with Cristiano Ronaldo (McDowall, 2011).


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Goodrich AJ (1899) Theory of Interpretation Applied to Artistic Musical Performance. Philadelphia: Theodore Presser.

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Singer RN, Cauraugh JH, Chen D, Steinberg GM and Frehlich SG (1996) Visual search, anticipation, and reactive comparisons between highly-skilled and beginning tennis players. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology 8(1): 9–26.

Stachó L (2013) Bartók’s Models and Ideals of Performing Practice. PhD dissertation. Budapest: The Liszt Academy of Music.

Stachó L and Holics L (2011) Practice Methodology (coursebook, in Hungarian). Budapest: The Liszt Academy of Music.