Pieces Declining

June 26, 2020, 1:17 PM · Hello,

After I learn a piece, I can keep it at a performance level for a while, and then it starts to significantly get worse. No matter what I do, I can never get it back to performance level again. Sometimes, it gets worse before I can even finish learning the piece.
Is there anything I can do to prevent this?

Replies (12)

June 26, 2020, 2:13 PM · How much time do you spend on foundational studies, like etudes and scales?

How do you go about learning a piece? Is it primarily by ear, or do you study the sheet music?

What level of music are we talking about here?

June 26, 2020, 2:22 PM · In am hour to two-hour long practice session, I spend about fifteen to thirty minutes on scales and ├ętudes.
I study the sheet music.
I finished Seitz's Third Concerto and am currently working on Portnoff's A minor concerto and Bach's A minor concerto. I finished the Seitz concerto a few months ago but now it sounds terrible.
Edited: June 26, 2020, 2:51 PM · My guess is that you're going through the motions rather than working on the piece in detail. It's a very common tendency when a piece gets familiar. I'm definitely guilty of that myself sometimes.

If you're having trouble focusing, it may be worthwhile to put the piece aside for a few weeks and come back to it refreshed.

June 26, 2020, 2:37 PM · While I would not put in quite so stark words I recognize the feeling. I believe there are several effects at work here:

The more progress you make the more critical you become and the more you demand of yourself. Which means that you may still play something as well as you did a year ago but you can no longer call this performance level.

A second factor will be that your technical and musical preferences develop as you go along--even if you don't take lessons and make no significant technical progress any more, just because you get older and "grow up" as a musician. This means that you question decisions you made the first time you studied a piece and need to start over entirely or partly.

Moreover as you enlarge your repertoire you will lose detailed memories of pieces you don't work on any more. Without at least some work you won't play a piece well that you haven't looked at for a long enough time.

For myself I have found that I can get back to the "old" level fairly quickly and then progress beyond the level of the last time I worked the piece. I do not quite understand your statement that you fail to get back to the old level "no matter what you do", except that you may be too impatient.

Edited: June 26, 2020, 3:10 PM · At first I thought, "no way, what you're describing doesn't make sense" and then I realize that I'm going through something quite similar.

I'm current going back to a piece recently that I learned a year ago. It was OK last year; It's not sounding great but I didn't have trouble with the notes and rhythm. I played it at the very basic level - all notes in time (may be slightly rushed) and rudimentary dynamics.

Now I started and stopped all the time and could not play through without a stop for more than a line since we revisited the piece a few week ago. I have improved quite a lot in the past year; this probably getting me more and more self-conscious and that self-consciousness has been extremely counter-productive.

I pretty much locked myself into some strange loop - say, this happened in the last lesson:
1. After the opening chord, I stopped because I didn't like the tone and the intonation was worse than I'd like. So I asked my teacher if I could start again.
2. On the second chord, I didn't like my bow change, string crossing and timing. So I tried to start again.
3. Then I started crushing my sound when I didn't like my double stops.
4. I stopped counting when all these things happening - so the rhythm went out of the window.

So I'm essentially producing a far worse rendition of the same piece than last year even though I am at a better overall skill level than I was.

June 26, 2020, 3:28 PM · Albrecht Zumbrunn - I agree with you, but my decline usually happens when I'm learning the piece or right after I finish learning the piece. By "right after" I mean maybe one or two days after I finish the piece. This is not enough time to have significantly developed as a musician or to have lost detailed memories of the piece.

Catherine Ty - Since you are going back to a piece that you did a year ago, it will definitely take some relearning. Perhaps you are also more critical of your playing now.

June 26, 2020, 3:29 PM · Samwit,

One would think that, once you've got it, you've got it forever. Doesn't work that way. While I'm not a professional musician, I was a professional speaker for a living. I hated it when clients would request a talk I had not presented for some time.

For a lot of reasons that old talk just wasn't fresh because I had added to my knowledge base, changing some conclusions, was fascinated by other topics and most importantly, had not practiced the talk for quiet a while. All my current talks were great because they were done often and well rehearsed.

As I musician, just like you, I bring out pieces that I played well at another time but getting that old piece to measure up to my memory of the last playing as well as having more understanding of the music and sometimes just thinking "what if I played this section in second position instead..." The next thing you know - it is worse than I remember.

I know a few professional musicians who tell me that they have to work hard to keep their current pieces fresh and focused.

Keeping focus and keeping the music fresh requires almost constant practice and rehearsal. I had to do that with my speaking business and musicians have to do the same. You cannot expect to just play music you played a long time ago perfectly if you haven't maintained it.

Musically, I run into this every week as I teach from Doflein (what I learned) and now teach the same stuff that I played the first time over 40 years ago. Sometimes I find that I make the very same mistakes I made way back then because I never maintained that music as fresh.

Go easier on yourself and don't expect miracles of memory.

Edited: June 26, 2020, 3:55 PM · George Wells - Of course. If I pick up a piece that I have not played in a long time, I will have to relearn it; I know that.
In my original question, I was not referring to my old pieces. I was referring to new pieces. My pieces decline when I am learning them or right after I finish learning them.
June 26, 2020, 4:28 PM · What can happen; Your hearing, perception, standards, can improve faster than your technique, so that you think you are getting worse while you are actually improving. A piece can get stale, worn out, from too much mediocre repetition; just put it back on the shelf for a few months while the music percolates in the back of the brain.
June 26, 2020, 7:34 PM · Joel's on the money, I think.

When we practice, we establish habits. If we're not careful about the way we practice, we can practice-in problems that become habitual, and it becomes difficult to truly consistently play those things correctly without really reducing things back to fundamentals and essentially relearning. (I find that it can be useful to mix up what you're doing in order to break bad patterns. Refinger the passage, change the bowing, etc., so it seems different to your brain and you force your cognitive processes to operate actively and consciously.)

Also, as we become comfortable with a piece, we hear more and analyze more. Less of your brain is occupied with the basic tasks of playing, so you become more self-critical.

Try recording yourself daily. When you feel something has suddenly deteriorated, go back to the previous day's recording. This will tell you if it has ACTUALLY deteriorated or you're just hearing better. If it's actually declined, you can sit down and analyze the video of today and yesterday, and try to figure out what's changed overnight.

Conversely, as we get to know something better, we stop paying as much attention, and that can cause things to fall apart, or we inadvertently develop new bad habits from careless practicing.

June 26, 2020, 8:21 PM · Joel is correct, of course. It's the catch 22 of (more improvement) = (noticing more problems) = (us perceiving ourselves as worse before).


However, I think another significant factor is just that you haven't been playing that long. It sounds like you've played about 3 years based on your profile description. It's hard to gain a true level of *consistency* on an instrument in that time. Yes, we can make rapid progress and perhaps even play relatively complicated music, but the *consistency* tends to come with more years played. And I've found this to be true regardless of how much practice time happens. So even if you practice 10 hours a day, it will still take a certain amount of years before you really feel like you can go back to old pieces and play them as well as you did when they were fresh. Some things just take time, like aging a fine wine.

June 28, 2020, 7:32 AM · Samwit,

Thank you for the clarification. I think I understand the problem as well as a potential source. You are growing rapidly in your abilities with the violin and you are moving from piece to piece following a path laid out by your teacher. My guess is that some of the pieces, if not all, overlap. As you are finalizing one, you have already started on the next. Like climbing stairs there is always that moment when you are on both the lower and higher at the same time. In order to progress you have to keep leaving them behind no matter how much you enjoy them, no matter how proud you and others were of the accomplishment.

This is growth. Someday you may circle-back and re-learn a favorite piece so that you can perform it for yourself and/or others. If/when you do circle back, you will, at first, not have it all-together but you will bring more skill to the piece so that, in the end, it will be better than the original.

FWIW: Last night I listened to a program of in-home music making by professional musicians during the lock-down. A husband/wife pair of violinists played some of the Bartok duets. These are largely pedagogical pieces that they probably haven't played in years because they aren't ticket-buying audience material. Yet, they played them together at home just for the joy of it. A long time ago I also played these same duets with my teacher in his studio. Obviously last night's rendition was way better than I ever played them in my lifetime.


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