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I am a piano and pipe organ student. I find that when I begin work on a new piece, I can be very attached to the piece and really "feel" the music. As I learn the notes, I have sometimes been rushing through the process in my excitement, but I've made good progress on defeating that behavior.

With the past couple of pieces I've learned, I have found that when I can finally play the piece at a really high level, I soon deflate and playing the piece seems more and more chore-like. My energy sputters, I become discouraged, and I forget what the meaning of the piece is. The resulting frustration makes the music sound even worse... Soon, the music becomes non-art. This always happens when I am 99% technically able to pull it off! If I leave the piece alone for an extended period of time and return to it later, I find myself wonderfully reacquainted with the music, perhaps even in a different way.

I was wondering if anyone has tips on keeping pieces "on ice", as my dear piano teacher used to call it. In other words, not getting bored with a piece once it's at a level where you can just about express the music the way you want to.

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3 Answers 3

The same thing has happened to me; as part of my learning process I tried to play Bach's 2-part Invention #1 on the Stick, but I got stuck about halfway through, despair took over and I abandoned the effort for a few months, until one day I gave it a try, just out of the blue, to see if I could even remember it... and wow, it felt great! I'm still not able to play it but now I feel like I could really pull it off with enough practice.

To avoid getting bored with it, I am not making it my primary target when I practice; rather it's something I do on breaks, when I get stuck or tired with whatever I'm really practicing for. So maybe you can try that: work on two (or more) pieces at a time, and maybe the one that's not your main objective (if you have a main objective at all) will be the one you pull off first. Or at least now when you get bored or tired of one piece, you'll have a backup piece to practice in the meantime, and you can alternate between them...

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That's great advice. Thanks. What do you mean by "on the stick"? –  Richard Oct 13 '13 at 17:35
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I mean I'm trying to play that piece on my Chapman Stick. It's an instrument. stick.com –  Chochos Oct 14 '13 at 15:14

What are you practicing for? Why are you spending so much time and effort learning about the piece and the myriad ways to interpret a meaning behind the piece? What is it all for?

That was a bit more dramatic than I originally intended. But your question is hard to answer, because it lacks context. Do you have an upcoming performance and you find that you're burning out? Or did you find a cool piece that you want to save for a future performance but can't motivate yourself to finish? Or are you imagining music at a level that you simply cannot replicate on your instrument?

Let me instead share my approach to my music. I'm goal-driven, and I have two goals: to discover music, and to share music. I play a lot of music, mostly for myself. I love getting into the composer's mind (right now, I'm working almost exclusively on Tchaikovsky for some reason). I love finding meaning behind the work. And I love trying to match up the music I produce on the piano with the music I hear in my head. I never actually succeed, because my technical proficiency is not up to snuff. But like you, I eventually get bored with a given piece after a few weeks. This usually coincides with a lack of improvement in the piece. I'm not gaining any more insight, and I'm not playing the piece any better than I was before I started practicing, and I don't have a teacher to give me a kick in the pants. So I move on. When it comes to honing my skill on the piano, it doesn't really matter which specific piece I'm working on, as long as I'm strengthening the conduit between my mind and my fingers and my piano.

When it comes to preparing for a performance, I typically don't have an issue with motivation. I focus on a message I want to convey for a piece, and I work on honing my performance to deliver that acoustic message as clearly as possible. It feels kinda like improving a powerpoint presentation. It's often not fun work, but it absolutely must be done, and the payoff when everything goes well is fantastic. I don't know if by your standard, my music is "on ice" or "off ice"; when I have a choice in what I prepare (which is very rare), it really doesn't take me very long to re-learn the music-- maybe a few days. The rest of the time is spent working on my presentation.

But that's really because I don't frequently forget a piece. Every so often, I'll sit down and at a whim, start playing music that I haven't practiced for years. If I find one of my old anthologies, I sit at the piano for hours reminiscing. Some of the music is so easy that I can sight-read it now. Some of it I can stumble through. Others I barely limp through. And sometimes, I'll decide that maybe it's time to rediscover one of those old pieces and see what else I can learn from them.

I think this is a good point to stop rambling. I don't know if this answers your question, but hopefully it's useful. I think my take-home message is that for me, it became really easy to decide how to spend my practice time when I focused on what I want from my music.

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I often have the same problem. Some ways that help me in these situations are:

  1. Record it. When I listen to a recording of me playing I often notice that I play much worse than I thought. All kinds of little inaccuracies in dynamics and timing, or illogicalities in general, which I couldn't hear suddenly jump out. I'm not quite sure about the reason but I think it has something to do with the piece being fixed in muscle memory and/or having to concentrate on mechanics when playing. This can actually be a kind of substitute teacher when you're experienced enough.

  2. Perform it. This is similar to recording; I'll notice that I can't play it as well as I thought. I also often just hear the piece differently when I perform. First of all the acoustics and instrument are often much better than in the practice room so I hear new details and can control them. Secondly, when I'm nervous my brain works a little bit differently and quite often I actually get new ideas during performance. I can then implement them right away or start practicing them.

  3. Try a new interpretation. You might try just exaggerating everything or you might try to come up with a completely different way of playing. This keeps things more interesting. You can also try different ways to do things technically.

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I'll employ all three points you made, thank you! –  Richard Oct 13 '13 at 17:36

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