The Art of Review: Making New Progress with Old Pieces

August 7, 2019, 7:43 PM · When learning the violin or another instrument, exactly why is it necessary to review and repeat music that you already know? Don't you...already know it?

rainbow flow of repetition

"Knowing" a piece is actually just the starting point - then comes the real work. After knowing a piece, the next goal is to master the piece. And in mastering many pieces, you grow your level of fluency on the instrument.

So what exactly is mastery, and what is fluency?

Mastery is when the physical skills of playing something become a series of easy motions, executed without mistakes. Fingers land in the correct spots at the correct times, and shifts occur seamlessly. There are no lingering questions over bow direction, and articulations are clear and decisive. In most cases, the music, when mastered, is also memorized.

Fluency a step beyond mastery. Musical fluency - similar to fluency in a language - is when the music flows freely and easily, expressing something meaningful to the listener. Any troubles related to producing the music are behind you, freeing you to shape the music in the moment, as you connect with your listener.

Think about how you developed fluency in your own language. Or better yet, think about a struggle for fluency in a foreign language. Fluency is developed by using the language a lot, by saying phrases over and over. In the beginning, just saying the words can be difficult. As you get past that, you start forming phrases, clumsily at first. Over time your phrases make more sense. You start to understand not just the general meaning of the words you speak, but all the subtleties of putting them together in different ways, to suit different situations and meanings.

And what fosters this process? Repetition.

It's the same in music. The more we play a piece of music, the more adept we grow with our performance and expression.

Learning new pieces is a necessary part of our growth. Most of us understand that. But playing old pieces is also a necessary part of our growth. If you are always playing a "new" piece, then you are always playing something you aren't quite good at, yet. The "old" pieces are where we can dive deep and find that competent, sophisticated voice. You can't be competent and sophisticated when you are still struggling over the notes!

So if you find yourself unable to make progress on a new piece, try balancing your practice by making progress on a piece that you already know well. The goal will be to gain or re-gain mastery over it, and after that, fluency.

So what exactly are you supposed to practice, if you already play a piece very well? It involves asking yourself a couple of very simple questions:

Does this actually sound good? Does it sound the way I want it to sound?

This kind of practice takes more thought and intention than you might think. Listen for these kinds of things:

Happy practicing, and feel free to add to this list!

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August 8, 2019 at 02:37 PM · Thanks for this Laurie!

I have been reviewing the pieces from my recital in January of this year and am thrilled with the increased level of mastery-fluency. I'm so happy that I am able to make more of the sound/phrasing that I desire, and that the music flows with greater ease. Of course, having the pieces memorized helps with your "things to question" list! (I am not good with memorization, not for lack of trying!, so what I do have memorized I'm very grateful for.)

I recently started rotating into my practice schedule a review of previously worked on pieces, and it's been a lot of fun. It's also interesting how some areas that were initially really, really hard flow easily, and which areas are still challenging. I like working on a lot of new material, but you are right: you are always learning something you are not good at yet, so it's good to return to the things you are good at so you have the opportunity to get great at it.

August 9, 2019 at 12:43 AM · Another side of musical fluency can occur in environments where improvisation is part of the process. For me, this happens in bluegrass jams. Rather than trying to master passages written out in classical sheet music, I come up with progressions that fit a chord structure and melody (however loosely).

In a good session, I become one with my instrument, and call up sounds on the fly that enhance the music the group is making. This is probably because I'm not interpreting notes on a page, but playing what comes up in my mind. It's a totally different world from playing classical repertoire, but a worthwhile adjunct to it. At least for me - after stumbling over a difficult piece, there's nothing that restores my self-confidence like joining a jam and improvising something pretty (if undisciplined).

August 9, 2019 at 11:46 AM · Great article! Thank you.

It’s SO hard to convince a 6 year old and his “keen” parents why reviews are the priority.

August 9, 2019 at 09:41 PM · Charlie, being able to play whatever comes into your head is a wonderful ability, definitely an aspect of fluency that I'd love to improve in my own playing!

August 10, 2019 at 04:57 AM · Thank you very much for this important reminder! I'd like two things that are important to me.

1. Reviewing "old" repertoire is a very joyful occupation. I have had the habit of going back to "old" pieces for a very long time; if I remember correctly I did it already as a teenager (I do think that a 6 year old is not obliged to do this). In my case this goes along with sight-reading stuff that I never had time to properly work on which is also highly enjoyable. I guess I don't do enough disciplined practicing...

2. One of my teachers predicted that I would play "this piece" (if I remember correctly it was the Bach double concerto) very differently if I took it up again in a few years. He was so right! It will happen to you too if it hasn't already. But this means that your mastery (as defined here) needs to be at least partially recaptured. You'll want to change fingerings (almost certainly), bowings, articulations, even the tempo (in the case of the Bach double for example I want to play all three movements faster than I used to. Plus I want to play the first faster than the last).

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