It seems such a shame to spend all those hours learning a piece only to forget it after the exam or the recital. A piece, once learned, is an asset for the pianist and will need just a little maintenance every now and again to keep it in the fingers, to keep it alive.

Maybe we can think of old pieces like departing friends whom we have come to know well. We have hung out with them and yet now it is time for them to leave. Do we escort them to the door with a sense of good riddance, or might we feel sad they are going and pledge to keep in touch?

It depends on the piece of course, and probably our experience of playing it. I think our examination culture has a lot to answer for here – so often our associations are negative or stressful ones. As a professional pianist there have certainly been pieces I have learned for a specific occasion only to shelve them afterwards, but actually not that many! If I have liked or loved a piece, I will want to continue my relationship with it.

I have an old filing card system near the piano, a sort of geriatric Rolodex now rather outdated. One of these days I will get around to putting it onto my computer, but in truth I’m rather fond of it. Each card contains the name of a work and the composer, and any important details (year of composition, etc.). I write the date I started learning it, and then the date and details of each performance. This way, I keep a living record of my repertoire. Each week I remove a card from the file and leave it lying around on the piano, with a view to spending a bit of time with that piece during the week. At the end of the week, I replace the card and take out another one. Sometimes I do this at random, other times I feel drawn to a particular work. And I never put any expectations on myself as to what I should have achieved by the end of the week – anything I do is fine.

(Here is a good app, and it’s free: Text Block Writer)

I try to be creative in my brief contact with this old piece. For the first couple of days I will be content simply to play sections of the work slowly. It’s not necessary to play through the whole piece anyway – just the fact of reconnecting with it will cause memories and associations to come back. It would be enough to take a movement, or even a section of a piece.

With my younger students, part of the process of learning a new piece is to get them to do some sort of research, to find out some background on the composer and on the piece. A while back I was giving a class and someone had brought in Schumann’s “Des Abends”. All the notes were there but the character wasn’t – at all. I asked her what the title meant and she told me she didn’t know. Biting my tongue, I explained it was German for “of the evening” and that it was a gentle picture of dusk where atmosphere, a sense of calm and stillness are paramount. Perhaps because this was an exam piece, she had not bothered to do the most basic bit of homework or to personalise her copy of the music.

Martha Argerich plays Schumann “Des Abends” and “Aufschwung” from Fantasiestuecke, op. 12

It’s also good to keep newspaper clippings, postcards and so on in the score, for inspiration. In my score of  “L’isle joyeuse”, I have a postcard of the painting that inspired Debussy to write it (Watteau’s “L’embarquement pour Cythere”). I keep the picture out on the piano desk whenever I practise it.