On leaving and returning to familiar repertoire

240_f_103173724_1wrksn0coxd91de5mebzkmiywytpkm1cI’ve recommenced work on Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata (D 959 in A), following a few months’ hiatus due to family health issues, during which I was unable to give the music my full and proper attention. Regular readers of this blog will know (along with my husband who works at home and hears me practising every day!) that this sonata has become something of an obsession for me since I embarked on a study of it in autumn 2014 (read more about this here.)

This is not the first time I’ve taken a break from the sonata. In the immediate aftermath of receiving my (disappointing) diploma result last September, I wanted nothing more to do with the music. The score was consigned to the back of the bookcase in my piano room, firmly hidden away. I needed time away from the music, to reflect and regroup. At the time, I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to go near the piece again, but as a pianist friend of mine pointed out, “You just need to let it ‘marinade’ for a few months“. And gradually during that marinading process I found myself returning to my books and articles on Schubert, to listening to his music again, absorbing new details, new thoughts about the sonata, allowing his distinctive, highly personal idioms to seep into my musical consciousness.

Some works reveal their subtleties, depths and complexities more slowly than others. This is certainly true of Schubert’s music which has so many details to be unearthed and explored that one cannot expect to cover all of them in one go – nor even two or three. Rather like the layers of an onion, these details are peeled away over time and through repeated “returns” to the score. For example, in my latest work on the sonata, I am finding more interesting bass details and inner voices/instrumental lines to be highlighted. Whether these details will find their way into a final version, I cannot say, but the process of exploration definitely throws light on other aspects of the music and throws up new ideas for consideration.

 

Another satisfying aspect of returning to a piece after a rest is finding that certain passages which previously seemed intractable or particularly challenging can now be played with ease and suppleness. This may seem curious, since one has spent weeks not practising the music at the instrument, but it strikes me that one needs time away to allow technical and musical details to embed in one’s mind and fingers. A rest also encourages one to practise differently: I have found myself returning to very simple practise in some areas of the work, stripping the music back and then rebuilding it.

When working on very complex repertoire one can reach a state of saturation where it becomes impossible to take in new ideas, nor even process existing ones. At this point, you may find yourself making silly or careless errors – this is usually the time to put the music aside and give it, and you, a rest.
There is plenty of useful work to be done while the music is resting – listening, reading (both score and books/articles about the music and composer), thinking and reflecting. If, like me, one is focussing on one specific composer or work, “listening around” the work in question is always helpful, in my opinion. I have a very large Spotify playlist of late music by Schubert, including string quartets, the ninth symphony, songs and other piano music, in addition to some works by Beethoven which have a connection to the Sonata I am studying. And of course while some music is resting, other repertoire can be explored and enjoyed. In fact, I find playing music which seems almost diametrically opposed to Schubert (20th century minimalism, for example) incredibly refreshing, allowing me to return to the Sonata with renewed enthusiasm.
There is such a thing as “over-practising” (though some students don’t believe me when I tell them this!). Over-practising can kill a piece of music, as we become complacent about the work and inured to errors, which are then very difficult to erase. Over-practising can also lead to boredom, which can make us careless in practise, and can cause injury which may leave us unable to play for weeks or months. Then an enforced rest from the music and instrument may be necessary, though one can still continue with work away from the keyboard as described above.
When I recommend taking a break from the music to students, they usually exclaim that they will “forget everything” when they return to the music. In general, this is not the case. Music which has been thoroughly and thoughtfully practised and is well learnt remains in the brain and fingers and can be brought back to a good standard very quickly. Returning to a work after a rest can be a wonderful experience, like reacquainting oneself with an old friend, while also making new friendships.
A work can never truly be considered ‘finished’ and thus resting and returning to the same work many times becomes an ongoing study. Often a satisfying performance of a work to which one has devoted many hours of study can be said to put the work ‘to bed’, but only for the time being. Rest the work and return to it, and suddenly new things come to light, informed by our reading, listening, life experience, and so forth. American pianist Bruce Brubaker, in his sensitive and thoughtful blog Piano Morphosis, describes this as a process of “continuing”. Thus, one performance informs another, and all one’s practising and playing is connected in one continuous stream of music-making.

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.

Revisiting a work one learnt last month, last year, or 20 years ago can be a wonderful experience, like reacquainting oneself with an old friend, while also making a new friendship. Picking up a piece again after a long absence, as I have been with Mozart’s melancholy late work, his Rondo in A minor, K 511, often offers new insights into that work, and reveals layers and subtleties one may not have spotted the first time round.

My experience with my studies for my Performance Diploma taught me how to practice deeply, to the extent that I was on intimate terms with every note, every phrase, every nuance, every shading in all of my exam pieces. After I had performed the pieces for the exam, I might have considered them “finished”: certainly, on the morning of the exam, my thought was “I have done all I can. There is nothing more I can do”. But that was then, on 14th December 2011, and now, mid-February, picking up the Liszt Sonetto 123 del Petrarca again ready for Richmond Music Festival, the piece feels very familiar, yet certainly not “finished”. Of course, it needs some finessing for its next performance in just over two weeks’ time, and some reviewing in the light of the examiner’s comments, and, yes,  it is “all there”, in the fingers. But it has changed since I last played it: it’s more spacious and relaxed, gentler and more songful. It won’t be quite the same piece as before, when I play it in the festival.

The Mozart Rondo K 511 is multi-faceted: it prefigures Chopin in its rondo figure, a weary yet songful and at times highly ornamented melody, and harks back to Bach in its textural and chromatic B and C sections (a more detailed analysis of this work here). This is actually my second revisit of this work: I first learnt it before I started having lessons with my current teacher (about 5 years ago), and then revived it about two years ago. So, third time around, I am finding more subtleties in it, while also being struck at how cleverly Mozart manages to express his entire oeuvre in the microcosm of a piano miniature: there are arias, grand operatic gestures, Baroque arabesques and chromaticism, Chopinesque fiorituras, extremes of light and shade, sometimes within the space of a single bar. All the time when I am working on it, I find aspects which remind me why I picked it up in the first place, while also discovering new things about it.

A work can never truly be considered ‘finished’. Often a satisfying performance of a work to which one has devoted many hours of study can be said to put the work ‘to bed’, but only for the time being. The same is true of a recording: rather than a be-all-and-end-all record, maybe a recording is better regarded as a snapshot of one’s musical and creative life at that moment. As a pianist friend of mine once said “it’s always the way: you commit a work to a CD then discover all sorts of new things about it….”. American Pianist Bruce Brubaker, in his sensitive and thoughtful blog Piano Morphosis, describes this as a process of “continuing”. Thus, one performance informs another, and all one’s practising and playing is connected in one continuous stream of music-making.

Here is Mitsuko Uchida in Mozart’s Rondo in A minor, K 511. For me, this is a peerless interpretation of this work.

Mitsuko Uchida – Mozart: Rondo in A minor, K.511