Keeping repertoire alive

If playing music is a big part of your life, it’s likely that at some point you’ll be asked to play in front of people – friends, family, colleagues. While some people relish the opportunity, and ultimately make a career out of performing, others struggle with the sudden terror generated by this apparently innocuous request. In such situations, many of us can feel immediately out of our depth, and start making excuses –  “Oh, I haven’t got my music!” or “I’m just between exams right now and don’t have a thing to play!” If only we all had a few suitable pieces tucked away, ready to be aired at a moment’s notice without causing any stress.

One of the things that frustrates me most is how quickly seemingly well memorised pieces seem to fade from memory. It seems such a waste. After all those loving hours of practice culminating in triumphant performances, familiar pieces all too frequently fall by the wayside in favour of learning exciting new repertoire. Ideally we would all have a piece or two up our sleeves that we can play comfortably, whenever and wherever.

Which begs the question of how to keep memorised repertoire alive. Although most of us can probably hash through a few bits and pieces without any practise, keeping a piece at performance standard requires regular work. Like DIY, there’s always something that needs fixing. For most of us, every well memorised piece is probably lying dormant somewhere in the memory, so the challenge is simply getting at it. In particular, playing the whole piece from start to finish – rather than recalling just a few over-practised chunks – requires regular work to keep the retrieval cues in long term memory active, so that we can quickly access the memory of the entire piece. I’m certain for most pieces this work could be primarily mental rather than physical (although tricky technical bits probably require time at the instrument).

While it would undoubtedly be wonderful to have an enormous repertoire permanently at my fingertips, the reality is that I like learning new things, only have finite time, and no one is paying me to give umpteen performances of anything! So I’ve recently decided to start small, and try and keep just two pieces permanently in a state of readiness, to be performed at the drop of a hat. One is Brahms’ glorious Intermezzo in A, Op.118 No.2 that I played for my ATCL a few years ago; and the other is Chopin’s sublime Nocturne in Db, Op.27 No.2 that I played for my LTCL last year. Both are well within my range, and lack any technical pyrotechnics whilst pleasing most audiences. I have played the Brahms on-and-off for years, and often bring it out as my stock piece upon request; I find the contrapuntal melodies endlessly fascinating, and regularly alter my interpretation to breathe new life into the piece. In the Chopin, I constantly strive to achieve long lyrical melodies in the right hand that float over a peaceful harmonic sea of broken chords in the left, and to strike a balance between heart-wrenching drama and the essentially ethereal nature of the piece. This me playing the Chopin Nocturne last year…

I’m trying to play these pieces every week or so, and occasionally use them as a musical warm-up in place of my usual technical one. I can still play both pieces from memory, but with frequent panicky moments where everything threatens to fall apart. I’ve found the only way out of this is to focus on the sound and the harmonic structure – if I know in my mind where I’m going, everything works out fine; in contrast, if I just play and hope that my fingers will ‘remember’, disaster can strike at any moment! I want to get (back) to situation where I can sit and think my way through each piece, really knowing every note, harmony, dynamic and phrase. This strategy has the added benefit that I can never be without the pieces and can practise and enjoy the music in my head whenever I like.

Although I’m busily working on lots of new repertoire, hopefully I’ll be able to add more favourites to my permanent repertoire list in due course…

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About Caroline Wright

pianist, composer, scientist
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