Violin School: Resurrecting a Piece When Fingers Forget

July 8, 2019, 1:13 PM · "I forgot all my songs!"

My young student was playing her review pieces for me, and her dismay was growing as her fingers failed to fall in line for an otherwise very familiar "song" from Suzuki Book 1.

It was mid-summer, and the early summer had been filled with vacations, trips and activities. She had to admit it, she hadn't been practicing as much, and definitely not reviewing old pieces.

forgetful fiddle

Don't get me wrong, sometimes we have to take a break or take a vacation. There are legitimate reasons for missing practice for a while, and reasonable breaks can provide much-needed physical rest and mental renewal. But when you come back to the instrument, frustration may set in. You might find yourself forgetting music that was once memorized, stumbling over once-easy passages, forgetting bowings and playing a little off-pitch.

That was certainly the case here. At the end of the last school year, she had been able to breeze through a half-dozen review pieces. But now she was hitting snags in every single one. This had never happened to her, and that made the problem even more upsetting.

"I have to learn them over again!" she said, near tears. No doubt she remembered the time and effort it took to learn these pieces in the first place. Would we have to do that all over again? How long would that take?

"There's a very simple way to solve the problem," I said. "It's just practice. And it will not take you nearly as much time to re-learn your pieces as it did the first time you learned them. You just have to be very patient with yourself. Let me show you how easy it is."

For this short piece, I suggested that we play it five times in a row, and I got my dominoes ready (set up one for each time, then knock them down at the end). The first time, she made a lot of the same mistakes. Afterwards I asked her to tell me what went wrong: a wrong finger there, a forgotten string crossing there, a missed rhythm, etc. We were very specific about it. And then I gave her a list. "So this time, remember that finger, remember to cross the string, do the rhythm" etc. The second time, she still made a mistakes, but far fewer. And she knew how to correct them. By the fourth and fifth time, she was playing it with no mistakes at all.

"That doesn't mean you won't make any mistakes tomorrow," I said, "you'll still have to do this all week." But pieces once-learned tend to come back pretty quickly, with patience and methodical practice.

Here are a few of the key things that are important when resurrecting a piece, whether it's a simple piece or very advanced:

So if you "forgot all your songs" or are finding frustration coming back to a piece you once knew well, don't despair! With patience and practice, you can get it back.

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July 8, 2019 at 08:23 PM · "Songs my mother taught me that my fingers forgot" ?

July 8, 2019 at 09:02 PM · I've had a recent experience of this very problem. One of my violin students moved to the next teacher and switched to the viola at the same time. He still likes to play duets and I remembered that I used to play duets for violin and viola with my teacher a very long time ago. I have a set of duets arranged from a set of Mozart duets for two horns.

They aren't overwhelmingly difficult but they have their tricky shifts and crossings and because they are in "F" I once dabbled in playing them in second position. Now, decades later, I'm dusting them off and tripping over some of the same spots I worked through a long time ago.

Laurie's tips are spot-on. I never though I'd ever be playing these again but the universe has a different idea. Thanks for the reminders on how to regain old pieces.

July 8, 2019 at 10:28 PM · I sometimes find myself perplexed regarding the effects of non-practice versus practice. At various points in my life, I've studied the Beethoven violin concerto. For a few weeks until this past Wednesday, I devoted several hours per day to the first movement. Then, after all of that practice, I thought I really had it down, so in the evening of that very same Wednesday, I tried playing it with a pianist, and I had a terrible time. The only part that sounded any good to me at all was the end of the first movement--the tutti section after the cadenza, which I successfully played in tune, even though it was accelerando. Because of the increase in tempo, the end may be the most difficult part of the first movement, though I've often neglected it in practice. Why did this part go really well, and the rest did not? I have absolutely no explanation. On the other hand, often, when I have not practiced, I end up playing extremely well. For example, due to discouragement, I left the violin alone on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, and performed several pieces (not the Beethoven) in church on Sunday morning and then at an assisted living center on Sunday evening, and in both cases did so nearly perfectly; everything sounded really great, and everything seemed much easier to play than usual, yet I have absolutely no explanation as to why this should be, since I hadn't practiced at all.

July 9, 2019 at 02:02 AM · @George, I think it should be fair game to recast a duet for two horns in a more violin-friendly key.

July 9, 2019 at 05:04 AM · I am mostly a mariachi fiddler that tries to do classical music. All of the song arrangements are memorized, very little is written. My lifetime problem is not connecting the title with the first notes, and not remembering the key, which changes with different singers anyway. What usually happens is that I hear the lead trumpet start, then something clicks in my brain, "Oh, that one--", then I am OK for the rest of the piece. I will never be the lead violin, always on the harmony part.

July 9, 2019 at 04:07 PM · Joel that's an interesting description. First of all, I wonder if you have considered committing any of the best arrangements to paper because I bet these would be quite welcome among those hoping to gain an introduction to mariachi music through printed scores.

When you wrote, "something clicks in my brain, 'Oh, that one--'," I was reminded of a game invented by the piano teacher that I had in high school. He played a long house-pianist gig (solo, 4 hours per day, 6 days per week, for 18 years -- imagine doing that) at a very swank restaurant, so of course, he knew thousands of songs. The game was called "Bart's Bridges." Essentially, he would play the bridge of a standard show-tune, and customers in the lounge had until the end of the bridge to shout out the name of the tune. The game became extremely popular, which obviously made his employer very happy, because he was "filling the till" quite routinely. But he told me stories of how customers would be tearing their hair out (figuratively) trying to come up with the name of the tune, and of course once he got back to the A section, then the main melody (and the lyrics) come into your head and you can name the tune much more easily.

July 10, 2019 at 12:56 AM · I feel like I spend most of my time resurrecting pieces lately, probably because shoulder injuries have forced me to take time off repeatedly over the last two years. (The initial shoulder injury was probably from lifting sheetrock while helping my parents with home repair after Hurricane Harvey, and for a while it was being aggravated by a too-firm mattress. But playing viola has probably been responsible for some of the re-injuries.)

The frustrating thing is that I had a handful of pieces I continued to practice occasionally in order to keep them in permanent short-notice repertoire (Bruch Romanze, Brahms E-flat sonata, Schumann Adagio and Allegro), and I know resurrecting them will now take a lot of work.

It's also been a problem because I first injured my shoulder when I had literally just started working on the Walton viola concerto, which is both my first major concerto and the piece that first inspired me to start playing viola -- and so far, in the process of learning it, I've spent much more time trying to recover lost progress after long breaks than actually making progress with it.

July 10, 2019 at 04:39 AM · --Paul D. Thanks for that suggestion. Off-topic for the rest of you. I do have my personal notebook. I won't pretend to understand American copyright law, much less that of Mexico or any current reciprical agreements. Like American Pop/commercial music, the difinitive versions are the recordings, and on-paper arrangements will be sitting in the producers' closet, or maybe a lead-sheet on file at the copyright office. The published versions that I have purchased have been disappointing. The all-important background ("adornos")parts are missing and the characteristic close harmony 3-violin parts are incomplete. I think what is going on is that the original melodies and text are old enough to be public domain, but the arrangement is current, protected. A perfect example of that are the two albums of Sones done by M. Vargas in the 1960's. All of the original songs are old and anonymous, But Vargas and Ruben Fuentes claimed the rights to all of them.

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