I have noticed a lot of players seem to think that, once they have learned a piece they should be able to play it from then on in, whenever they desire. If only we could do some work on a piece, put the genie in the bottle and uncork it the next time we felt like playing it. Wouldn’t it be great if it worked like that?
It is easy to hear when a student has been playing through something without attending to the ongoing maintenance necessary to keep it in good shape. I might take a duster to my piano one day and it looks great for a day or so, before the dust gradually returns. Even an unused room will gather dust, ask Miss Havisham (from Dickens’ Great Expectations).
I liken performance, or playing through to spending, and practice to investing, or saving. This is especially true of old pieces we haven’t played in a while. So what does maintenance or revision practice look like? We go back to many of the practice tools we used to build the piece in the first place, when we first learned it. The great Russian pianist and teacher, Alexander Goldenweiser describes this vividly:
Another grave problem occurs with pupils underestimating the importance of detailed study when they come to revise pieces that they have already played. Yet it is vital to remember that work done on a new piece one is just starting to play and on something one has played for a long time should be basically the same. The difference lies only in the amount of time involved, but the type of work should in each case be completely identical. When you play through something you have performed earlier, everything at first may seem to fall into place. But once you begin probing, it turns out that some things are no longer clean, others are inaccurate, and yet others have been forgotten. Alexander Goldenweiser: Advice from a Pianist and Teacher (The Russian Piano School, trans. and ed. by Christopher Barnes, p. 63)
I love to tell the story of Rachmaninov’s practice habits, where the speed of his maintenance slow practice (of a piece he had performed many times before) was so slow that a colleague did not recognise it. The way we practise determines how we play – slow practice is of course just one practice tool. If practice can be likened to encoding, then decoding is what we do in performance. If a computer programmer allows sloppy stuff to happen in the coding process then bugs and all sorts of problems are bound to occur when the programme is up and running and in use.
William Westney has some words of wisdom on this matter:
In the world of practicing, every choice we make has some effect. If we play through a piece rather idly, with nothing particular in mind, the effect is not neutral. In fact, practicing in this way can be detrimental: we lose a bit of technical security when we play things through too frequently, although this may not be obvious at the time. In other words, if we’re not actively making things better, chances are we’re making them worse. Athletic coaches often tell their teams the very same thing. There’s no neutral ground. That may seem harsh, but it’s accurate. This explains why people so often seem to “peak” right after they’ve been working hard at technical mastery of a piece. As they complacently play through what they now assume they know, technical components start to deteriorate little by little from lack of the sort of maintenance we have been describing. Think of technical achievement as a sort of bank account. Each performance spends some money out of the account, and constructive maintenance work puts deposits back in. ( William Westney: The Perfect Wrong Note: Learning to Trust Your Musical Self p. 94)
We might think of a piece we have spent hours working on as an asset that needs regular attention. I like to bring back an old piece not only by approaching it as though I were learning it from scratch but I also never stop working at accuracy, control, tone quality, colour, sound, pedalling, and so on. And I never get bored or stale in my practice because this is so much variety I bring to it. Each time I practise is like a voyage of discovery!
Motor skills get dirty when used repeatedly and when we don’t practise we cannot expect to be in shape. Obvious, right? But you would be surprised how many pianists forget this, and are surprised when their performance falls short of their ideal. Practice takes time, energy and commitment.
Maintenance of expert pianists’ motor skills was strongly influenced by practice quantity. A minimum daily practice time of 3.75 hours was sufficient to allow successful maintenance of motor skills in the selected motor task in professional pianists. (From Music-related motor skills in pianists: Predictors of skill acquisition in childhood and of maintenance in adulthood)