Confronting the past: Can I learn to play old repertoire after retraining?

In short: Yes, maybe, no, it depends. There is no short answer.

As this issue has arisen several times recently in my studio,  I would like to share some  examples.  Firstly, let me introduce Lucy, a highly advanced player, who retrained years ago in the Taubman Approach. Her struggles with playing-related injury are long in the past, and repertoire such as Chopin’s first Ballade are among her party pieces (which she plays really well).  Recently, she decided to return to Chopin’s Revolutionary etude, to learn it properly. She hadn’t played this piece since her student days, and it had always brought many problems. Strangely, despite rotation now being second nature in her system, her left hand was completely confused with whether to play left or right,  single or double rotations.  The physical imprint was so strong that even after twenty years, her hand almost rejected another way of approaching the choreography. She is gifted, with a flexible mind. With time and patience, I’m sure she will be able to successfully rework this etude. My feeling is  that we need to check  every note together in the lesson, and practice in between lessons should only consolidate what we have done together.

Another interesting example is Kevin, who came back to the piano five years ago after decades of playing high-level organ in his spare time. Like Lucy, the new elements of his technique are firmly in place. His playing steadily improves from week to week, and he has taken on ambitious projects such as Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata, the complete Chopin preludes, 3rd Ballade and the  Polonaise in Ab, Op. 53. It was in preparing this last piece that things began to go off track. Kevin performed the Polonaise in his lesson, and was disappointed. His hand felt terrible and fatigued, and passages that are normally fine were unusually messy. We dug a little, and I quickly saw  he was taking 1-3-4 over the chord Eb-C-Eb in one section. The interesting thing is, he knows now not to take a minor third with 3-4.  Despite his large hand and easy tenth, he now also avoids playing octaves with 1-4, and is the first to testify what a killer this fingering is, even for him. Why was this happening? It turns out that Kevin used to play the piece 40 years ago, which was so far in the past that he hadn’t believed it to be worth mentioning. Once he replaced this twisted and stretched fingering with 1-3-5,  his hand was able to slip back into how it functions in 2015, instead of 1975. One (repeated) chord unravelled him. 

Finally, some time ago I received a call from a pianist who had found himself in trouble after revising Prokofiev 7 from his university days. He was an already brilliant pianist before being introduced to the Taubman Approach. Now he complains that playing feels too easy. Yet when I saw him playing the Prokofiev, I almost didn’t recognise his hands. The wrists were low, the fingers were working very hard, raised and isolated. He was even sitting much lower, as he had done when learning this piece in 1998. Measure by measure, we reconciled the past with the present by infusing this old piece with his new knowledge. It was a striking example of how deep physical associations can be, particularly with repertoire that we have practised and practised. Without realising, we revert to our old ways, even when we know what not to do. Once we’ve stepped back in time, our hands and minds are so confused that it can be difficult to identify what went wrong.

The problem is that neural pathways do not disappear, and our physical pasts are embedded behind those black dots on the page. We can create new connections, and strengthen them, but our previous technique lies dormant, waiting to be reactivated. This is not to say that we can never take repertoire from the past again. However, I would not recommend an old piece as the first to take after retraining, particularly in working through difficult injuries such as dystonia. In these cases, Edna Golandsky may cycle through easier, new pieces, moving relatively quickly onto the next, rather than bringing these first pieces to performance level. Even spending a few months on the same pieces can freeze the hand in the past, albeit only a few months, impeding progress. Fortunately, we pianists have a vast repertoire. and for those of us who have not spent our lives performing playing solo repertoire, there is still a huge amount of music apart from what we have already learned.

In my experience, if we are to successfully take old pieces after injury, it is best done with vigilance, patience, and with the assistance of a teacher. For me, it is always helpful to simultaneously learn something new, so that the hand could experience working on something fresh, at its current technical level. One can then also use the new piece  as a model for comparison of how the hand should feel in the old repertoire. The decision must be carefully made by  each individual together with their teacher, taking into consideration the stage of learning, the degree to which the old piece was embedded, how flexible one is, and the timeframe available to calmly and patiently rework a potential minefield. 

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