Today I am starting to practice again after a break. This post explores some aspects of returning after taking time off.
Although we may vow to practice every day without exception, we all find ourselves taking a break from time to time, whether planned or due to illness, other responsibilities, being on hold with ConEd, travel, etc.
In the past, I would get angry with myself. Not helpful! That leads to yelling at yourself when staying calm would be the way to go. When you acknowledge that everyone has days off, getting back into the loop is much less of a struggle.
What we can expect
What can we expect when we start again? (Note that I did not say “start over.”)
Perfection? Probably not. However, if you are going back to music you have practiced recently, you can expect improvement! Somehow, “ignoring” the music for a while lets it “cook.” You will most likely find new insights when you return to it.
Jell-O fingers? Yes… so I use the first practice session to concentrate on my warmup. Skipping the warm-up after time off just doesn’t work well for me. I need to feel the muscles in my fingers, so I exaggerate the movements.
Playing at performance tempo? Even if that were possible, wouldn’t we be inviting wrong notes, fingerings, errors in dynamics and phrasing? Practicing under tempo is useful, but extremely slow practice is not necessary. I’ve already learned the notes. But right now, performance tempo invites mistakes that I’d rather not add to the mix.
First day back
I usually dislike my playing that first day. That is frustrating, but by now I expect it. By the second day, it starts to sound better.
The first day back also seems to be a good time to assess fingerings. If something feels uncomfortable (a level or two below “rusty”), this may be the time to experiment. See whether a different fingering feels better.
Dynamic changes may not sound smooth. In addition to that, if a notated dynamic contrast is completely missing, mark the spot in your music! That means you didn’t learn that spot well enough. This is a great time to eliminate the “oops” and fix the gap. When you’ve remedied the problem, that phrase will usually fit into the whole more easily when you return to performance tempo in a few days.
I find it extremely motivating to set a goal, such as a performance date. With a concert in place, I am far less likely to return to vacation mode. (I have an aversion to making a fool of myself on stage. Wonderful incentive!)
It is also helpful to keep a practice journal. You’ll be able to see your progress. I have found that dropping and then returning to a program speeds my progress toward my performance goal. If you have a journal from the time you started learning the notes, you will be able to eliminate guess work and have accurate feedback. (Do you remember what you did a week ago? A month ago? Keeping a written record is very helpful. There is no reason to expect oneself to remember everything. Remembering the notes is enough!)
Mix it up!
In an online piano forum, participants were exchanging ideas about how to return to practicing after a break. (What’s the secret? How can I make this easy?) Differing viewpoints emerged, as one might expect. Looking through the comment thread was invaluable.
One participant advocated starting out exclusively with etudes. Another suggested practicing only new repertoire. Someone else planned to play familiar music, waiting to add new pieces until s/he was back in shape.
While reading the thread, it seemed that perhaps taking something from everyone might be best. In that way, etudes are included but not intimidating. Familiar music needs to be there so we feel like we know how to play! And new repertoire keeps us making progress.
What do you think?
This post has been updated from 2010.
What do you do when returning to practice after a break? How do you help your students get back into it? How much time do you need to get back to normal?
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