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Reviving Old Works: What to Expect and Not Expect

I am currently preparing for my faculty concert at Miami University next month. Part of the program will include Brahms Sonata in C Major, Op. 1, a work that has been with me for a very long time. I first learned it during my college days at Juilliard and later at the Cleveland Institute of Music. It has accompanied me in countless recitals, juries, auditions, and competitions. In 2014, I recorded the Sonata as part of an all-Brahms disc for Centaur Records, which was released last spring. Since then, I haven't performed it, figuring that I needed some time away from the piece. When bringing back this piece for the first time last week, I was pleasantly surprised at how many of the physically/technically-taxing passages came back to me with ease. Also, the piece felt like it was such a breath of fresh air while having the familiarity and comfort like I was revisiting an old friend. With these positive emotions and experiences fresh in my mind, I want to share a few brief thoughts, in no particular order, on how to bring back an old work and what to expect and not to expect.

Pretend that this is the first time learning the work

Well, OK, I lied. Perhaps this is the most important thing that I can recommend. I cannot tell you the number of times I have heard students play a piece really well one semester, set it aside for the next, and when bringing it back later in the following term, they are frustrated at why the things we worked on previously don't seem to come back with ease. Of course, the logic seems sound: one spent so many hours before practicing the work to attain a high standard; therefore, it would seem plausible that the piece comes back to one's fingers easily. But many of us forget to take into account that music pieces, like many things in life, can get stale if not maintained properly. How does one keep things fresh then?

When bringing back old works, we must prepare the piece with the same intensity and purpose as we did from day one. This means working out all of the fundamental musical and technical details as well. By taking on this particular approach, I have found that often times, I would make new musical discoveries or I might rethink how I might play a certain passage. This certainly was the case for me when bringing back the Brahms this week and it brought back such excitement. I could not remember the last time that I was this excited in bringing back an old work!

One of my former teachers said it best: the process of bringing back an old piece should not be like reheating food in a microwave. Like cooking fresh food, all of the musical details need to be carefully thought out and prepared, so that it sounds fresh and spontaneous as if you are performing the work for the very first time.

Do not expect that our fingers will help us re-learn the piece quickly

In my opinion, muscle memory is the least reliable when it comes to learning and memorizing a piece. In the initial stages of reacquainting yourself with a work, the fingers might remember how the piece goes, but if no further work is done to fully comprehend the work, it could very well deteriorate. For example, in the last movement of Brahms (see below), I always had a hard time with this passage in the LH. When I sat down earlier this week to re-work this into my fingers, I found that I had retained much of my previous technical work. I was weary, however, to not allow this optimism to give me permission in neglecting the fundamentals that I have worked on many years before: the timings of the roll and the logistics of getting from one chord to another.

Do not underestimate the time it takes to revive a piece

Assume nothing. Do not expect that the piece should come back easily even if you have performed it hundreds of times. Indeed, a work should come back quicker if you had it longer, but without proper preparation, you will be second-guessing yourself throughout the performance. This tip might seem obvious, but you would be surprised at how many times we are at fault with this one.

Have an open mind

"We are products of our past, but we don't have to be prisoners of it." —Rick Warren

Try to go in with the mindset that you are willing to change any of the previous musical decisions and interpretations if necessary. This will allow for self-improvement, growth, and maturity. Most importantly, have fun. To me, this process gives one the opportunity to further investigate and become more familiar with a work. We must be constant learners, right?

I hope you enjoyed reading this post and that you found it informative. I would love to hear your thoughts. Happy musical reviving!

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