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I recently started to swim again after some years. IT WAS EASY as if I had done my laps only yesterday. I wish the same were true for bringing back old repertoire.
Unlike swimming, which comes back easily and instantly even after years of a break, our old repertoire is not as reliable. Our fingers will remember a piece, but our minds second-guess what we are doing. As we are looking at our hands effortlessly performing an old piece, we suddenly and in mid-concert start to think. Our brain asks things like "was it always the second finger here?", "what size skip was it again?", "did the piece really go all the way to the low C-sharp?" And this is exactly where memory lapses happen.
"There are no old friends in music" - John Perry
I often get asked to include an old piece in an upcoming program, maybe something I performed a few years ago in the same venue, something the audience particularly enjoyed. As I prepare for a performance, I treat particularly those old repertoire works with utmost respect. I love this quote of my musical mentor John Perry: “There are no old friends in music.”
What might have been a well-learnt work some time ago, can quickly drift into the background of our awareness. I have seen terrifying performances of pianists trying to ‘swim’ through an old piece, hoping for their fingers to remember, whilst struggling with basic structural elements like the key of their recapitulation. What a nightmare!
Why old pieces?
Only during the conservatory years do we perform whole recitals of entirely new repertoire mostly because we don't have a large stash of old pieces, a treasure which is being developed during those very years. Once the professional performing life begins, we face a couple of new scenarios:
- LESS TIME: The days of open-ended practice hours start to become a much longed for, but rarely experienced thing of the past. Touring and traveling, and life in general take up much of our days. At the same time we have to tackle more repertoire than ever.
- HIGHER EXPECTATION: Perfection becomes the expected norm. No longer are we students who ‘do quite well’, no longer are we evaluated on the 'glass half full' level. Now we have to present professionally polished and (if possible) note-perfect performances all the time.
This is a good time to go into that treasure chest of old pieces and see what we have accumulated there over time.
How to revive old repertoire - The GOOD news and the GREAT news
I like to treat old repertoire as if it is new: I look at all events carefully as they unfold. This means slow, even extremely slow work. My constant mantra is: "First think, then play". This process seems to duplicate the beginnings of learning a piece, so where is the joy of quickly dusting off an old piece and dashing through it in the next concert? The good news is that the re-learning process is quicker than the original learning process. The great news is that the process is easier, so much so that it becomes quite a rush to revive those old notes.
5 things to consider before reviving an old piece:
- DETERMINE EXACTLY HOW OLD IS 'OLD'
What is the age status of the repertoire work? A quick look at old programs can help to determine, when the piece was last performed. A friend of mine writes all performance dates into her scores, a method I wish I had started earlier.
Is the piece a quick study of many years ago, was it brought back already once or twice, is it one of your true ‘war horses’? I like to compare the status of an old piece to flying. Just like a pilot needs to maintain a large amount of flying hours to maintain his or her license, a pianist needs to have a significant amount of hours spent with a piece before being able to perform it. A piece with more hours 'on its back' will come back more easily than that frantically studied competition piece from those early undergraduate years. Simply stated more hours are better, and a piece we spent more hours on will come back more quickly.
- MAKE IT PART OF THE ROUTINE
Repertoire maintenance should be part of our practice routine. I set aside a daily segment of practice time for the review and upkeep of old repertoire. As most pianists, I like to carefully plan each of my practice days using a percentage rate per piece (20% of my practice time for that day on a particular piece etc.). On a side note one of my favorite pianists Dinu Lipatti was known to plan his practice work not only for the day but for many months ahead. This might be worth exploring!
- USE THE OLD SCORE
I prefer to revisit the score I used when learning the piece. Any marking can be an indicator of a memory anchor, a learning device for a particular measure, a chord or an articulation. Fingerings – especially odd or awkward ones – can be a great help in reviving and solidifying our memory. Even the overall page layout is a great help in booting up those old memory files.
- MAKE IT NEW
Don't settle for the old performance, but instill the work with new musical ideas. The time between now and the original performance of the piece was likely filled with life events and musical experiences. All of this can be applied to the new version of the piece, which can take our interpretation to the next higher level of inspiration.
The treasure chest of old repertoire is the joy and pride of a musician. Using it wisely and with a good plan is not only rewarding, but it is necessary for our artistic growth and inspiration. What a great opportunity to create an unforgettable performance experience for our audiences - and for us.
What a joy to own such a beautiful treasure chest!
Thanks for reading my article on reviving old repertoire. You might also enjoy my post on How to choose repertoire.