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In my youth I played lots of piano, for over 10 years, and became quite good at it. During college, however, I just didn't have the time to keep it up.

It looks as if I'll soon have access to a piano again, and of course I want to pick it up again. Now I fear that this might be hard, because of course I want to play the great and amazing but difficult pieces I played back in the days. To give you an idea of my peak performance, it was Chopin's Ballade 1 in G minor. I couldn't play it perfectly, but decently.

Now, of course, my technique is pretty rusted. The fast runs and arpeggios make my wrist muscles cramp, my aim is off, etc. But I also don't want to go back to square one.

What is a good way to re-enter and refine technique?

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6 Answers 6

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Since you've only been away for a few years, your skills are probably largely intact. The problem then would be largely physical, not mental; your muscles simply aren't as refined as they used to be.

The solution to that is to play a lot. Scales and arpeggios are great; in fact, I wouldn't even try playing any songs initially apart from the very basic. Then start with some moderate songs after a week perhaps and work your way back to the hard ones. Take care not to play them at a speed you're not ready for — if your muscles don't have enough control to play "properly" (smoothly etc.) at full speed then you can do a lot of damage. It sounds better to play slowly and well than quickly and poorly, and you'll be able to regain your skills much more easily if you don't have to fight bad habits.

Taking lessons — if you have the time, opportunity, and a good teacher — is always a good idea. They can assess where you're at and should know how to address any flaws that show up as you redevelop your technique, helping you "recover" quickly. But I do think the most important thing is to start playing so again without rushing yourself.

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+1 for not rushing back into old pieces. I've had to completely re-learn many a half-remembered piece because I was too impatient –  Babu Jun 19 '11 at 22:24

A longer break in playing is always frustrating, but - like a lot of problems - it can also be seen as an opportunity, if viewed in the right light.

The feeling of picking up an instrument for the first time is something that is hard to replicate. Most of us pick up playing habits over the years and they aren't always good ones. Getting rid of them is hard, as I've learned on more than one occasion.

You're starting with something of a clean slate and here's a chance to take your playing further than before. You no doubt remember a lot of the basic skills - and so do your fingers - but getting your playing in shape is going to take some work. Take this opportunity to really work on the fundamentals.

Finger mobility and strength, conditioning, stretching, technique — all these things you'll probably find are a bit rusty. That's good! Get a good technique book or two and devote some time every day to working through it. Try to really pay attention to the details. It will take some time for your hands to get back in shape, so fast technical playing will probably be out of the question in the beginning. Focus on slow, deliberate practice and working things out step by step. You might find that you'll emerge a better player. (The same ideas apply to other body parts if your instrument uses them!)

Of course, all practice and no play makes Jack a very boring musician, so don't forget to set some time aside for music. What did you use to play? Revisit some of the tunes that were a major part of your repertoire in the past. Start with the easiest ones first (maybe some you stopped playing, because they were no longer challenging — now's the time to reacquaint yourself with them) and move on to the more difficult ones as you regain confidence in your playing. What are you listening to now? No doubt, you've picked up some new music along the way. Try to get some new tunes under your belt, if you feel up to it.

You have the opportunity to reinvent yourself as a musician — taking the best of what you used to play and bringing in new inspirations and your development as a person. Just take your time and allow your playing to gradually reach a satisfactory.

No different than teaching a music student, except that in this case the student is you.

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No different than teaching a guitar student, except that in this case the student is you. Just amazing –  Ahmad Kayyali May 25 '11 at 6:50

This may be less apposite for guitar, but it works well for me on the violin: take lessons. Lessons will not only help you to correct any bad habits that have crept in over the years but I find, although my teacher specializes in late returners and understands the time pressures on adult life, knowing I've a lesson helps motivate me to practise, even when I'm busy with work or home stuff.

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Start slow, gently with lots of feelings that your hands and feelings can muster; then limber up as you repeat; and finally go for the real performance with a gusto once your limbs and body are tuned to it! :-)

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I had the same problem with bass guitar some 15 years ago. What I did was playing along some records for a few months, especially good and fast Punk records, like 'Planet Punk' by Die Ärzte (very funny german band). That meant playing simple but fast and tight songs which helped me concentrate on my technique. Then, of course, I liked it so much I joined a punk band myself :-).

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As with everything, you will not lose skill over the years, you will just lose shape. All you have to do is get back the shape and your body will remember the skills it self.

So, just spend some time playing every day and you will be back in no time.

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