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Ring Out the Old, and Usher In the New? Not So Fast...

It's that season . . . time to wrap up the old year and prepare for the new.

We like to think ahead to future possibilities, don't we? For current pianists and students, our minds may turn to thoughts of new repertoire to study; technique to perfect; fresh piano adventures to explore, like composing or improvising.

Then there are many of us past and current players who have a personal library full of various pieces of music we studied years ago --- music that has not seen the light of day since our teachers stopped writing their titles/page numbers in our assignment notebooks.

Do you ever wonder what to do with that music? Leave it? Revisit it?

Let me ask the question this way:

After all the years we've invested in piano lessons, wouldn't maintaining the favorites from our old repertoire, so that we can play something well at any time, be worthwhile?

Repertoire Study the Old Way

Now, if you're like many students, past or present, learning piano meant working on each piece for a certain length of time, then dropping it from your practice routine, never to be played again unless you thoroughly loved the music.

Think about that process.

Learn a few pieces. Stop playing them. Learn others. Drop those. Rinse and repeat for five, ten, maybe more years than that.

What do we have to show for all those years of study, when each piece was left behind to move on to new ones?

Probably very little or nothing we can play well on the spot when requested to do so. ("You play piano? Hey --- let me hear you play something!")


There is a better way to get the most from your musical investment over the years, and that is to periodically play your favorite old repertoire and keep it in your fingers.

But I can't play any of my former pieces. Is it worth the time and effort to relearn old repertoire?

My answer to that question is a resounding yes! With the possible exception of the most difficult pieces you've ever played, generally much less time is needed to bring a previously-worked-up piece back to an acceptable playing standard than it takes to learn a new piece well.

The fundamental elements of old repertoire fall back into place sooner, and a side benefit is that previous mistakes may become obvious when the piece is returned to with fresh eyes.

Additionally, any time we return to a piece, whether beloved or hardly remembered, we bring a new level of musical maturity to our interpretation, which can add joy to the piece. It is a great delight to discover, sometimes for the first time, "Wow, I love this music!"

Why would I want to spend time playing my old pieces when there's so much new repertoire I've never studied?

A valid question. Many of us are limited in the amount of time we can spend on music, and repertoire review in particular.

Repertoire Review: A New Approach

Whatever your current piano-playing status (playing regularly, infrequently, or not at all), the best way to approach repertoire review is to keep things simple.

Don't we sometimes just love to launch into new endeavors with a big, exciting but complicated plan, only to face overwhelm once we get a few steps into the journey?

If you are currently studying piano, and/or sightreading new pieces to add to your repertoire, then there will be less time for old music review, and revisiting old repertoire would probably best be devoted to a small number of review pieces.

But even if you're currently playing nothing, and wish to reintroduce yourself to the piano via your old repertoire, starting slowly is still a good option, to keep from developing project fatigue.

In order to determine which pieces to revisit, it is helpful to ask yourself the questions of who, what, where, when, and why about your previous repertoire, to categorize and prioritize which pieces you'll select for review.

Who were the composers of the music I most enjoyed?

Consider starting your repertoire review journey by picking your favorite composer and taking up his or her works again.

Or research when familiar composers were born, and choose a composer of the month, based on birth date. For example, it might be fun to play your old Mozart repertoire in January, Mendelssohn in February, Chopin in March.

What style period do I like best?

If you've got a vast array of past literature you've studied, perhaps you'll want to limit your review repertoire to your favorite style period.

Do you love Baroque music? Dig out your old Bach and Scarlatti music.

Classical? How about Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven?

Romantic? Impressionist? Modern? You get the picture.

Where did I play my previous repertoire?

Was it for public performance, or simply for your teacher and yourself?

If you performed a specific piece for a recital or competition, you probably spent a lot of time preparing it. This repertoire is excellent to revisit because it will usually come back into your fingers more easily since you'd likely learned it thoroughly to begin with.

But also consider the repertoire you studied only briefly. There may be some gems in there that you would enjoy revisiting at a deeper level now. Perhaps one of those now-lesser-known pieces will become one you'll love to play for others as well as yourself.

When did I previously study my favorite works?

If it's been many years since you've played, and your skills are rusty, consider starting your review with easier pieces from early on in your study. The process of bringing old repertoire back will flow more efficiently if you don't get bogged down with challenging repertoire. Begin modestly.

If you have been playing regularly through the years, but were laying aside your pieces once mastered, it may be helpful to start with your most recent repertoire. You will probably still remember a lot from the pieces you played last year, for example, compared to those from five, ten, or more years ago.

Why do I want to revisit this particular piece, and not that other one?

There are no right or wrong answers with this one. Some music will grab you; some will not.

If a piece brings you delight or motivation, add it to your review repertoire! If not, let it go without guilt. It's okay to view some of your music as having been a stepping stone along the way that served its purpose at the time.

Consider also, though, that our musical tastes often change over the years, so it can be beneficial to periodically go back and do a brief reading of representative portions of your previously-studied pieces. (Well, probably not from your first year of study, but you know what I mean.) :)

Repertoire Review Plan Possibilities

To summarize the above who-what-where-when-why ideas, here, then, are some possible study plans for plugging select review pieces into your practice:

Plan One: previous performance repertoire

Plan Two: favorite style period

Plan Three: composer of the month

Plan Four: one type of piece (e.g., preludes by Bach, Chopin, Rachmaninoff)

Plan Five: create your own eclectic plan! Maybe it's your one signature piece!

Review Schedule?

This is where it gets tricky to give guidelines. How long should one continue with daily practice on any given piece before giving it a brief rest, and still ensure that one can play it well when rotating it back into repertoire review?

There are no definite answers, only personal observations that can be made based on the music's difficulty, how much time one can devote to review, and many other factors individual to the player and the nature of the music.

One thing that is known, though, is that the longer you've played a piece, the longer break period you can take from it and not forget how to play the music. Learning (or relearning) it thoroughly helps.

Remember: start simply. You will be more likely to stay with your repertoire review plan with a thin, manageable layer of meaningful music upon which you build your repertoire base.

The Benefits of Lifelong Learning

While most of us don't take piano lessons our whole lives, music itself is forever. When we've invested vast resources of time, money, and effort into our piano studies, there are benefits to keeping former repertoire alive. We grow as musicians, bringing new insights to bear upon the pieces that shaped our musical roots.

Let's restore the past to the present by bringing our treasured repertoire along with us through the years.

What is your favorite piece to play?

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