Returning to old repertoire can be extremely satisfying, and one often discovers new things about the music when returning to it after a break. I also recall all the reasons what I like about the repertoire and why I selected it in the first place.

My teacher has cautioned me about reviving repertoire I learnt as a teenager. This is good advice, for despite a gap of over 30 years, all the impetuous errors of youth seem ingrained in the piece and the fingers, and undoing these problems can be nigh-on impossible. Against my teacher’s advice, however, I revived Schubert’s E-flat Impromptu for my ATCL Diploma in 2011, because I needed a “fast piece” in the programme. I had not touched the piece seriously for over 30 years, yet I was pleasantly surprised at how much of it I could remember (it must be said that this is not a particularly difficult piece to memorise, being constructed from repeating patterns and motifs). But working from the old Editions Peters score I had as a teenager meant that all the errors were still there, as well as my then teacher’s annotations. In order to learn the piece carefully, I ditched the dog-eared score and purchased a new Henle urtext edition. In effect, I started again from scratch with the piece: I learnt new fingering schemes, thought carefully about the structure and atmosphere of the piece, and was delighted to have it described as “an assured and stylistically accurate performance” by the diploma examiner. Having taken the trouble to re-learn the work carefully, it is now very securely lodged in fingers and memory.

People often ask me whether it is “hard” to revive old repertoire. In general, I have to say I have found it relatively easy to return to previously-learnt repertoire, though this isn’t always the case (the ‘Toccata’ from Bach’s 6th Partita will take some careful work if I want to revive it). However, one can take steps to ensure that once learnt a piece can be revived and made ready for performance relatively quickly.

Lately, I have been enjoying revisiting some of Szymanowski’s Opus 50 Mazurkas, the first two of which I played for my ATCL recital. The pieces felt different without the pressure of an exam hanging over me, and I felt I was playing them in a freer way as a result. I am also working on Rachmaninov’s G minor Etude-Tableau (Opus 33, No. 8), for my debut in the South London Concert Series in May (the piece will be paired with Szymanowski’s Mazurka no. 1). It is a mark of how carefully I practised the piece in the first place that within an hour of practising earlier today, I felt it coming back together nicely. Of course there are elements that will need some careful, detailed work (the cadenza, for example), but overall, it is still in pretty good shape. Getting it “concert ready” should not take too long.

Professional pianists will have many pieces “in the fingers” which can be downloaded and made ready for performance in a matter of days. This may include 20 concertos or more, most of Beethoven’s 32 Sonatas, many of Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues, plus other pieces which are ‘standard’ repertoire: Mozart and Schubert sonatas, works by Chopin, Schumann, Brahms and Liszt, much of Debussy and Ravel etc., and popular ‘standards’ from the 20th Century repertoire by composers such as Messiaen, Bartok, Stravinsky, Ligeti, Berio, Berg, and Schoenberg. Careful learning and preparation mean that repertoire can be learnt, revived and kept going simultaneously. It is this kind of deep, thoughtful practise that is essential for ensuring repertoire remains in the fingers (and brain) even if one is not practising it every day.

Some thoughts on reviving repertoire successfully:

  • Recall what you liked about the pieces in the first place. What initially attracted you to the pieces? Rekindle your affection for the pieces when you revisit them
  • Don’t play through pieces at full tilt. Take time to play slowly and carefully.
  • Trust your practise skills. Be alert to issues as they arise and don’t allow frustration to creep in.
  • Look for new interpretative and expressive possibilities within the music. Try new interpretative angles and meaningful gestures.
  • Don’t hurry to bring the piece up to full tempo too quickly. Take time to practise slowly and carefully.
  • Schedule performance opportunities: there’s nothing better to motivate practise than a concert date or two in the diary.

This post is inspired by an article on the Terribleminds blog of Chuck Wendig, a novelist, screen writer and games designer, which I found on Twitter. Although the original article is about the habit and practice of writing, I found much of what Chuck says chimes with the musician’s routines and practice of practising.

Practising is a habit. If we are serious about our music, our progress with our repertoire and our technical and artistic development, we need to establish good and regular practising habits, as regular as cleaning one’s teeth. No one, not even professional musicians at the top of the game, is born with an innate talent which negates the need to practice and to hone one’s skills. Regular practice equals noticeable progress.

The days when you don’t feel like practising are the days on which you should be practising. Even it it’s nothing, or it’s awful, or you feel you achieve little, it’s important to do it, to prove you can still do it, and that you are constantly feeding the artistic temperament, whetting the gears, keeping the grass growing.

The activity of playing and practising creates momentum. There is negative momentum in not practising. Miss a day, or two days, or three, and you might start to wonder why you bothered in the first place, whether this activity really for you? You stop being a pianist and turn into Not A Pianist. The more you don’t do it, the harder it becomes to convince yourself that you should be doing it, and the more likely you are to procrastinate.

Fight inertia with activity. Go and practise! Practising is energising. The physical activity of playing the piano releases endorphins, the same ‘happy hormones’ which produce that feel-good glow that comes from a good training session, or a race well run.

You could argue that forcing yourself to practise will be counter-productive. Believe me, it’s not. Even if you’re just doodling, improvising, playing chords, scales, cadences, it’s the act of doing that is important. When I was learning to drive, as an adult in my early 30s, my instructor told me to get as much time at the wheel as possible, whether I was practising three-point turns or simply experiencing the activity of driving. Piano practise is the same – and you don’t have to be working on set repertoire to be doing useful practising.

Practising is an act of doing, creating, living with the music. It defines who we are as musicians and gives us a reason for being. Live and breathe your work, begin every practise session with the question “What can I do that’s different today?”. Feel excited and stimulated by your music. Fall in love with it.

Remind yourself that it is a huge privilege to be allowed to play these great works, works that rank alongside Aristotle and Shakespeare in their magnitude and importance. One can feel like a conservator, or a gardener, taking responsibility for them, sharing them with others. It is a cultural gift, a gift to oneself, and a gift to those who love to listen to the piano.

On the days when it’s hard to practise, that’s when it’s most important to practise.

The days when you don’t feel like writing

An interesting programme broadcast on BBC Radio Three in which concert pianist Stephen Hough talks about the activity of practising, memory, how to balance perfection in practise with a sense of “letting go” in performance, and much more. With contributions from Nicola Benedetti, Joyce Di Donato, and Julian Bream. Many interesting insights from top international artists which have relevance to musicians of all levels.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03lzrsk

 

 

My students don’t believe me when I tell them there is a book called The Perfect Wrong Note. Nor do they believe me when I tell them that mistakes are good, that mistakes make us better musicians.

The desire for perfectionism is all around us in our modern society, from the need to produce a perfectly cut and edited film or CD, to the pressure to achieve the “perfect body” (whatever that is!). Very young children are immune to this pressure: they learn from mistakes, often made during play, and by doing so gain a huge amount of knowledge about the world around them before they have stepped foot inside a school environment. But from the moment they are in school, they are encouraged not to make mistakes, and through the demands placed upon them by teachers, peers and parents, they develop a certain moral judgement and become self-critical. They learn that not making mistakes wins praise, while making mistakes results in disapproval.

Being a musician, particularly a professional musician, is highly demanding, and the training required is extremely rigorous. Music students strive for mastery and perfection in their playing, because they know that being well-qualified in this respect will earn them merit and recognition, from teachers, peers, audiences and critics. As musicians, and teachers of musicians, it is important that we set ourselves high standards, but constantly striving for perfection can promote false or impossible standards.

As pianist and teacher Charlotte Tomlinson says in her excellent book Music from the Inside Out, people frequently – and wrongly – equate perfection with excellence. While perfectionism is negative and damaging, excellence is achievable and positive.

When I’m teaching students, and when I’m practising myself, I never see a wrong note as a mistake. Wrong notes and mistakes are instructive – and we can always learn from them. When an error occurs, we need to ask ourselves some key questions:

  • Do I know where the mistake happened?
  • Do I know why the mistake happened?
  • Do I know how to put the mistake right so it doesn’t happen again?

All mistakes happen for a reason and it’s important that we understand why a mistake happened and what we can do to prevent it re-occurring. Sometimes it may be something quite simple like a poor or awkward fingering scheme; but sometimes mistakes, particularly those that recur in the same places, may be the sign of a more deep-seated issue, technical, physical or psychological.

When students come to lessons with me, many of them play their pieces with slips and errors – and many of them stop to correct these errors, despite my saying “keep going!”. I try to encourage students to “play through”, to keep the flow of the piece going by not stopping to correct each and every mistake. Look at any exam report, for whatever grade, and you will see that “flow”, or rather lack of flow, is a constant gripe of music examiners. Constantly stopping to correct mistakes becomes ingrained in the muscle memory to the point where one will always stop at the same point, even if the mistake is no longer there.  I worry when students play blindly, not taking notice of what they are doing, not listening, because this is when mistakes get overlooked, and keep cropping up, week after week. Mistakes such as these are hard to correct and need careful, detailed practising to put right. Mistakes made from poor conception and understanding, lack of preparation or careless practising need consistent work to put them right. But mistakes made from off the cuff inspiration and insight can be wonderful and exciting.

Mistakes show we are human, and fallible, that it’s ok to have an off day when your playing and practising may not go as well as usual. Giving ourselves permission to make mistakes allows us to be fulfilled by our music and to feel positive about our practising. A willingness to make mistakes teaches us to be self-critical, but in a positive, productive way.

An excellent performance may not be a perfect performance – but the excellent performance will almost certainly be the one which conveys the meaning and emotion of the music, which tells the story, communicates with the audience and allows the listener to be carried away by the music, to the point that the performer almost becomes invisible. Some of the greatest pianists of all time made visible mistakes in their performances – Liszt, Anton Rubinstein, Paderewski, Cortot, Hofman, Moiseiwitsch, Horowitz, Richter, Gilels – but these people remain piano legends because of the beauty of their playing, their insight and communication, and interpretative skills. I have been to concerts by some of the top professional pianists in the world and have heard mistakes – split notes, a smeared run, a missed chord. I’ve even been party to a few memory lapses on occasion. Did these spoil the concert experience as a whole? Of course not, because the performer played with conviction, emotion, musical understanding, passion.

We need to learn how to free ourselves from the tyranny of perfectionism to become more fluent, confident, convincing and expressive musicians. We should strive for the “ideal” not the “perfect” version in our music. And as Charlotte Tomlinson says in Chapter 3 of her book, sometimes we just need a “f**k it switch”, to free us from stress and allow us to stand back and see the bigger picture.

Further reading:

Music from the Inside Out – Charlotte Tomlinson

The Perfect Wrong Note – William Westney

The Inner Game of Music – Barry Green

The Musician’s Way – Gerald Kilckstein

This article originally appeared on my sister blog Frances Wilson’s Piano Studio.

1. Practice within your scope of ability

In the words of Robert Schumann, “Endeavour to play easy pieces well and with elegance; that is better than to play difficult pieces badly.” In other words, know your limits and keep within them. You may want to learn the Mephisto Waltz, but if you are not technically, physically or intellectually ready for it, you will feel frustrated.

2. Record and film yourself.

Recording and filming practice and performance is a crucial tool in evaluating how we are progressing. Our music sounds different when heard away from the piano. Never listen to a recording as soon as you’ve made it: wait a few days and then listen. Be positively critical and assess what you like and dislike about your performance. Make notes on your recording in your score or practice diary, away from the piano.

Don’t just listen once. Use repeated listenings to evaluate aspects such as rhythm, intonation, tone quality, expression, dynamic range.

A video is helpful for checking posture (in particular stiff or raised shoulders), gestures and mannerisms, grimacing/smiling, and stage presence.

3. E is for Excellence

When we practice, whatever we are practising, we should aim for ease, expressiveness, accuracy, rhythmic vitality, beautiful tone quality, focused attention. Do not play forcefully through difficult passages or at a tempo which is beyond us.

4. Mistakes are helpful!

Errors highlight gaps in our preparation, providing crucial feedback. Remember – there is a ‘perfect wrong note’! Isolate the problems, understand why they happened, and strive to solve them so they do not occur again.

5. Ask others for feedback

The views of teachers, mentors, colleagues and friends are all useful. Get into the habit of playing for others and actively seek their feedback. What did they like or dislike about the performance? We should ask others to critique not just our playing but also programme notes, concert attire, stagecraft and presentation skills. Take on board all comments and do not be perturbed by negative feedback; rather, use it positively to improve the performance.

6. Don’t cloud the vision

Most of us engage in music because we care passionately about it and love what we do. However, when evaluating our work, it is important to retain a degree of detachment, to stand back from the music and view it dispassionately, as if reviewing someone else’s performance.

Consider what you liked and disliked about this or that phrase, the ornamentation, dynamic colour, expressiveness, phrasing, use of rubato, etc.

I am posting a link to pianist Alisdair Hogarth’s excellent recent blog article in which he discusses concert preparation and overcoming performance anxiety. The article contains much useful food for thought, for both professional and amateur musicians, who may be preparing for a concert, exam or similar performance experience.

The title of Alisdair’s post comes from Barry Green’s acclaimed book The Inner Game of Music, in which the author offers helpful strategies, drawn from tennis coaching, to apply the “inner game” to learning and performing music.

Alisdair will feature in a forthcoming Meet the Artist interview.

The Inner Game of Music