How Can I Keep Old Repertoire Sounding New and Fresh?

You know that magical time in a new relationship with your car, when it has that new car smell? When every little detail, from the pounding bass of your stereo, to the thunking sound your power windows make when they meet the top of the door frame, brings a smile to your face?

And how a couple months later, the smell has faded away, and your car is just a hunk of metal that gets you from point A to point B?

Whether it’s a car, a new apartment, or barefoot running shoes, inevitably the newness wears off, and our shiny new toys are no longer as exciting as they once were. Psychologists call that process of getting bored with things “habituation.”

The same thing can happen to music as well. After all, if you’re on the orchestral audition track, you’ve been working on the same excerpts for years, if not decades.

So how do you keep things fresh? How do you avoid habituating to your rep?

Rediscovery

I attended a chamber music intensive almost 20 years ago (egad!) where pianist Leon Fleisher was one of the coaches. One day, after my trio finished playing, he asked us to read the words on his t-shirt and tell him what we thought it meant.

He was wearing a plain taupe-ish colored t-shirt with the words “Subvert the dominant paradigm” in simple white letters.

His point was that weren’t thinking for ourselves. That we were blindly following convention, and the tradition we gleaned from recordings, instead of taking the time to look at the score with our own eyes and making our own decisions.

He explained that what we were doing was akin to the “telephone” game many of us played as children.

The telephone game

Telephone is a game of sorts, where a group of people sit in a circle, and the first person whispers a sentence to the next person, who whispers it to the next person, and so on, until you get to the last person who repeats the sentence out loud. Of course, by the time you get to the last person in the circle, the sentence is totally garbled or at the very least, significantly distorted from the original.

A similar phenomenon tends to occur in the music we repeatedly play. We listen to a recording, take a few liberties here and there, and as time goes on, the piece drifts further and further away from what the score actually says. Yet, it simultaneously becomes a little boring, as the learning and exploring process slows, and we put both the technical and musical evolution on autopilot.

Go back to the source

Fleisher’s suggestion was to look at the score again with fresh eyes, with no preconceived notions, and to play it exactly, literally, as it is written in the score. To wipe the slate clean, and then build it back up again with our own ideas, uncolored by tradition and the artistic choices of others.

In doing so, he said that we may discover that we never really knew the piece at all.

If you make reworking pieces a regular habit, you’ll find that with continued growth and maturity as a musician, there will always be something new to discover no matter how many times you’ve performed the work.

Indeed, pianist Menahem Pressler, who has been performing the piano trio repertoire for over 50 years, noted that he still finds new ideas and new ways of approaching the repertoire every time he goes back and reworks a piece.

The one-sentence summary

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” ~Marcel Proust

photo credit: Michael Taggart Photography via photopin cc

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.

Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills, and perhaps a few other tweaks in your approach to practicing too. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

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Comments

4 Responses

  1. A few blatherings:

    1) A nice way to keep old rep fresh is to write a little of your own. You start to see the old piece as the composer saw it. Now that’s probably a conceit when it comes to super-killer-top-ten composers, but still — you see a piece as a set of active choices and not as tablets from the mountain, and that is reflected in your playing.

    2) Paying real mind to a variety of genres also gives one a new way of seeing the old stuff. Listening to a lot of stadium rock immediately before listening to Tchaik or Rach changed EVERYTHING in how I heard it. I still want to get good enough on the viola (eventually, after I get more composing under my belt) to do “Thais” a fifth down or the Glinka Dm in pure rock-belter-Freddie-Mercury-meets-Steve-Perry style. I’m positive it would sound fantastic. 🙂

    I remember hearing Mark Wood and his crew say something similar — that when they exposed students to Metallica on strings that it changed the way they performed and thought of the standard rep, that playing Hendrix enabled them to really feel what it meant for the government to meddle in Shostakovich’s music.

    It’s a huge step for anyone to realize that Vivaldi’s music, for example, wasn’t written 300 years ago. It was written now, in that everything happens now. Putting the music of the present on one’s instrument helps one see that it’s all “music of the present.”

  2. More directly, development is endless. My personal view on the subject and more fitting to who I am as a person.

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