Repertoire Restoration: How Do You Keep Up?

August 18, 2015 at 05:23 PM · Violinists know a lot. I don't mean to say we are smarter than others or all geniuses or anything, I mean that we literally have a ton of information stored in our heads - techniques, exercises, phrasings, musical advice, repertoire, and lots else besides.

But repertoire - that's where it gets tricky. It takes a certain amount of brain power to learn a piece, but what about retaining it? We've all been there: we try to play a piece that we knew super well, but haven't played in a while, get a few lines into it and crash. It's demoralizing, frankly. Often I feel untalented and inadequate after one of these train wrecks. So how can this phenomenon be avoided?

There's obviously not enough hours in the day to practice (or even play straight through) all the pieces one learns, so how do you keep your repertoire from slipping through your fingers? When you're always learning new material, it's easy to forget about the pieces from the past, but none of us can afford to lose repertoire out of laziness or unsure practice habits.

This is why I need your help: how do keep up with it all? What is your practice schedule for refreshing old repertoire? Is it a rotating schedule, or do you block out specific days each week/month to work on restoring those pieces to their former polish? How polished should you keep those old pieces? How do you navigate the wonderful and shifting world of violin repertoire? Any advice would be most welcome, so please chime in! Thanks!!!

Replies (10)

August 18, 2015 at 10:25 PM · What an interesting question, and I would say for myself that most of my review is limited to those pieces that I'm required to perform or teach, as they come up. Certain pieces I'm always teaching (Mozart concerti, Bach, etudes) so they never really "go away". But for example, I'll be performing Wieniawski d minor in October and I haven't really worked on that since I was 16. So there will be a "restoration project"!

In all the discussions of adult beginners, this is one unfortunate truth that doesn't get brought up very much. The pieces you learn when you're a teen and younger are the ones that stick with you the longest. Ask just about anyone who has played since a young age. The pieces that I learned when I was in my 20s, even though I was a much better player when I learned them, are just harder to bring back. That's the reason for many teachers exhorting their pre-teen pupils to race through as much rep as possible. There are real risks that way, of course. But when it works, it really works.

Anyway, all is not lost in any case. The best advice I can give is to learn each piece from memory the first time. For some this is second nature, for others very difficult. But the pieces you have memorized just come back more easily.

August 18, 2015 at 10:37 PM · Greetings,

actually I don't really see it as a very difficult issue. Just put aside one day a week and play through some of the works you have learnt. If you have enough you can even do a kind of quasi recital. Don't really stop and practice anything except perhaps a few minutes on a difficult passage that really needs some remedial work.

When you have a lot of repertoire you will need to make an organized schedule and make sure you are rotating things efficently.



August 18, 2015 at 11:04 PM · You could call it 'time machine Tuesday' or 'way back Wednesday'. Right up there with 'metronome Monday'. With one group, we take summers off. I cycled through the rep holding over problem pieces.

Stay Pawsitive,


August 19, 2015 at 01:13 AM · I think we should be aware of the distinction between "forgetting" and "inability or slowness in recalling". What most people call "forgetting" is actually a failure to recall a memory immediately, but with time and/or the right context or stimulus a memory can often be retrieved.

A startling example of this a few years ago was when the Portuguese pianist Maria Joao Pires expected to be playing Mozart's piano concerto K467 in a public lunchtime concert in Amsterdam. However, when she sat at the piano in front of the audience (there seems to have been no prior rehearsal) to her horror the orchestra started playing concerto K466, which she hadn't played or looked at for a long time. But as the orchestral introduction proceeded K466 came back to her complete and she gave a fine performance. See the video:

August 19, 2015 at 01:59 AM · Also realize that at some level, you're not trying to recall unique patterns, but rather ones that have been practiced regularly.

August 19, 2015 at 05:12 AM · I think part of the key to repertoire is listening. I'm pretty sure that I can play the entire Suzuki repertoire through book 6 from memory even now, 35 years from learning it and not having looked at it since, from a combination of the fact that it was memorized in early childhood and it was cemented through constant listening to the recordings. I never deliberately memorized any of it. It just happened.

If you have something securely memorized, you can probably hear the whole thing in your head, mentally, which means that you need to cement into your brain some mental performance of the work.

But you also don't need to hold all the repertoire in your head all the time, and you might not actually want to if you're not playing it perfectly at the time you learned it.

You probably want to have some "go to" repertoire memorized -- what you can play off the cuff if when someone asks you to play the violin. Meditation from Thais and Czardas, say, which sound decent unaccompanied and which are audience-pleasers, and the Meditation is useful for any occasion from a wedding to a funeral. A movement of solo Bach (the first movement of the E-major partita, perhaps). Perhaps a crowd-pleasing fiddle tune or two -- Ashokan Farewell, the Orange Blossom Special, something like that. The exposition of the first movement of Mozart 4 or 5, maybe the whole movement, for orchestra auditions. The first movement of a major romantic concerto, also for auditions.

But you only need to keep a lot of other repertoire in your fingers if you're routinely performing recitals where you need a grab-bag of rotating repertoire. (Presumably if you're teaching in the future, you'll end up keeping that repertoire in your fingers, too.)

August 19, 2015 at 09:19 AM · Do you really have repertoire you need to keep under your fingers at all times?

If you do, it's probably worth your while to check out the technique known as spaced repetition or spaced rehearsal.

It's a well validated learning principle based on the concept of the forgetting curve. A hundred years of research has shown that topping up your memory at increasingly widely spaced intervals will eventually embed the learning into long term memory.

The better the recall when you review, the longer you can leave it before your next top-up.

In the context of music, a top-up might be a simple play-through, a visualisation based on a review of the score, or work on the more difficult passages.

There are a number of ways to keep track of your reviews using software or a card index - a quick google will show you the options. In this context, I suspect a simple Leitner system would work best, and you can gradually get a feel for your own forgetting curve.

One key element of spaced repetition is feeding in the correct amount of material for the time available for review. Some quick back-of-the-envelope calculations should be enough to work out how many pieces you can cope with at the start. As the gaps between reviews increase, you can gradually feed more pieces into your system.

Eventually, reviews become infrequent and you should be able to keep a reasonable number of works in shape long-term.

August 20, 2015 at 08:49 AM · Just imagine you're learninig the piece from scratch: except that it will take days rather than months!

August 21, 2015 at 04:55 AM · I put aside 5-10 minutes a day, most days, to review. I go through the shelves in alphabetical order. (That's because I like alphabetical order.)

Some pieces are rusty, and get played under tempo. Some are okay. I've been doing this awhile, and it works alright. (I think this is a Buri-idea I picked up along the way, but maybe not?)

August 21, 2015 at 06:43 AM · greetings,

No, it's not mine.;)

I think it is quite common for younger students who are passed the 'useful but not likely to perform it in public again' repertoire to lose track of major works even after learning them quite well . So when a younger player comes for a lesson and tells me they have studied Mendelssohn, moat paginini and so on I always ask to hear one or two to make the point.



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