Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Old Habits

A colleague and I were discussing what can happen when you go back to a piece you learned some time ago. If the acquisition of the piece happened when you were still gaining technical skill, you may find yourself having some of the same old problems that you had the first time you learned the piece. I recalled a piano concerto I had worked on during my freshman year at the conservatory. Having grown up in a small town and then entered the conservatory deficient in formal training, I made a lot of progress, particularly during my sophomore year. When I returned to the piece after a period of a year in order to play it for a competition I had a nasty surprise waiting for me. "Oh no!" I exclaimed. "My wrists were like bricks!"

In the meantime I had learned a much more fluid way to treat my entire playing mechanism. And that endured so long as I was playing anything for the first time. But returning to an old piece before the improvement was like opening a time capsule. My body reverted to all sorts of old habits.

This is presumably why musicians sometimes express regret at learning pieces of music too soon. It isn't impossible, in my experience, to unlearn all of those old habits, to update one's approach to an old piece, but it does take a lot of conscientious work.

This is also one of the many helpful things about having a good teacher. Besides teaching you technique in the first place, they are able not simply to curb the enthusiasm of young people who want to learn the most challenging pieces before they are able to play them, they can suggest synonyms--pieces that have some of the same challenges and hopefully the same attraction, and that will prepare the student to play the piece they (and every other young charge on the planet) want to play.

There is hope in the process. Any great piece of music is worth visiting time and again, putting away, returning to, playing it in recital and for friends, putting away again, returning to it years later. Over time we should have refined our approach, learned new things about interpretation and how to use our bodies most effectively for the musical presentation. As an organist I am more aware of this process than as a pianist, for my organistic journey is newer. Nonetheless, I am sharing the piece below, one of the fun pieces in the organ literature, which I first learned a year and a half ago, and recording about six months ago. I play it better now. I played it better a week or so after the recording! But it's not a bad start on a somewhat challenging piece, and having already played it in concert once and to conclude a couple of church services and for a lecture recital, I look forward to many more occasions to journey through time with this exciting piece of music. Enjoy!

Vierne, Louis. Final from Symphonie no. 1

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