So, you’ve managed to play the piece that you always wanted to learn. You indulged in it’s harmonic sequences and you grasped it’s inner world. You loved everything about this piece, even trivial details, such as, who played it the right speed, which famous pianist messed up it’s recapitulation or in which part of a recital it should be played.

Still, somehow you reached a point where you felt that you didn’t play it how it should be played, and that you actually couldn’t improve it. “How is that possible?” you said to yourself. “Why this piece doesn’t get any better?”, you asked your fellow musicians with angst. However, could it be possible that you can’t improve a piece? Well, yes, it can.

Here’s a few reasons for why your piece has become stale:

A) You compare your playing. You think that your interpretation doesn’t hold a candle to a performance from a favourite pianist. Well, if you compare your playing with an admired pianist’s performance you will always feel that it falls short. Unfortunately, I’m afraid that it may well be the case that your favourite pianist is vastly better that you; otherwise you wouldn’t like him, would you? It’s only natural. Every pianist has had this problem at some point in his pianistic journey. You Just need to withdraw yourself from such comparisons and accept that every pianist is unique and everyone has their own limits and positive things to add to music. It doesn’t necessarily mean that your performance is inferior to that of a favourite pianist but it may well mean that it’s just different. Remember, that every pianist has strengths and weaknesses. So, take heart and embrace your own strengths and if possible advocate them to the world. Your eccentric ritenuto, for instance, or your vastly broad climactic approach to a recapitulation, maybe give you the edge over other pianists and it could even catapult you to fame. Who knows? So, stop comparing.

B) You have reached a pianist’s “block”. Borrowed from the expression “writer’s block”, it means that you currently don’t possess the necessary technical or musical ability to improve the piece. If you feel, for example, that in that passage you can’t play fast enough the scale to reach with “dignity” the next bar, then perhaps it means that you are inadequately technically prepared. Maybe you need to go back and practise a few scales or studies to strengthen your technique before coming back to tackle the problem. At the same time, if you think that the piece just doesn’t sound “right”, even though the technical ability is there, then perhaps it’s time to give the piece a fresh look or improve your musical understanding of the composer. As a suggestion, you can find papers written for the piece or ask a teacher that you admire to show you his views on the piece. You can even play to your grandma after lunch. Even she might have some interesting points to make; you never know.

C) You are bored of it. You are already practising that piece for six months for an exam or an audition and now you can’t make yourself sit down and practise. Again, no wonder why it doesn’t improve. A piece is not like an ice cream that you would always have an appetite for, (hopefully), A piece needs “pacing” and it needs nurturing before it reaches it’s maturity. So, take a break from it. Play some other repertoire. Find something contrasting repertoire to practise. For instance, if you play too much baroque music then perhaps it’s time to play a little Richard Clayderman or if you concentrated too much in romantic composers, then why don’t you have a look at this piece from Cliff Richard that you always wanted to play? You can always explore repertoire that offers different technical and musical challenges. This way you will come back afresh to rediscover your piece. If necessary have a break from the piano for a few days. I promise you that when you return to your practising routine that piece will sound much better.

D) You don’t practise it properly. Yes, believe it or not this may well happen; sometimes, pianists practise wrongly too. Perhaps your “whole” ten minutes a day of practising the Hammerclavier are not enough for that important concert or playing Rachmaninov’s second piano sonata with the right hand where the left hand is and vice versa is not a sensible thing to do. However, fun aside, if we don’t approach a piece correctly from the beginning then it’s really difficult to get on with and finish it. But, take heart. Your teacher will be able to see your “shenanigans” and try to correct them. The reason to practise properly from the start is that it’s very difficult to shake off bad technical habits later on. (You may read more on that on my articles “starting a new piece”,  “which pieces to practise daily?” and  “which passages to practise daily?”). So, do ask yourself if you are practising the piece correctly before asking why it doesn’t improve.

E) A last reason I would add (for now), is that your piece doesn’t improve because you haven’t set any targets for it. Setting targets will miraculously improve a piece. Sometimes, playing just for our enjoyment in our living room (albeit not wrong), may not help us in our quest of “perfecting” a piece and, dare I say, of becoming fine pianists. You may argue that you always practise a piece to the best of your capacities even when you practise it for yourself, however, you will find that somehow your performance of a piece gets vastly better when you target it on an event, such as an exam or a concert or even a friends’ gathering. Yes, your piece will improve this three to five per cent if you had to play it at Carnegie hall the next evening, for instance. So, try, as much as possible, to have targets when you start a piece. Say to yourself: This piece is going to be for a recital, or an exam or just for my enjoyment. However, even though I like when people play just for leisure, I would have to admit that “enjoyment” alone is not enough to make us great pianists.


© Nikolaos Kokkinis 21/10/2012.

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