When you draw a picture you are happy with, you will probably choose to store it in a safe place, knowing that it will be there just as you left it. You know you can pull it out whenever you fancy looking at it or showing it to someone and that it will be identical to what you put away.
But when you learn a piece of music and play it wonderfully, it can be quite a frustrating experience to discover that after you stopped practicing it, the piece somehow slipped away.
Piano parents who haven't played an instrument themselves are often taken by surprise when they realize their kids have "forgotten" the earlier pieces they used to play so well.
Why does this happen?
Learning piano means acquiring a skill. When we go through the process of mastering a new piece, we are developing out note reading skills, our technique, keyboard orientation, musical understanding, musical expressiveness and hand coordination. Each new piece we learn develops several of these elements and brings us further in our piano playing.
We don't usually recall every step we took on a path we walked on but there will be some remarkable landmarks we will want to remember: Likewise, we will regularly return to our favorite, loved pieces that we would like to play even better, but all the little steps in between are no longer relevant as we move on.
I once had an adult piano student who came very well prepared to her first lessons, but later knew her newly assigned pieces less and less well. She assured me she was practicing every day and I found this quite strange, since she obviously didn't know her new pieces. The mystery was solved when I discovered she thought she had to practice ALL the pieces she ever learned every day. As the lessons moved on there were more and more pieces to practice and by the time she reached the new ones her practice time was over.
Older pieces need to be put aside to make room for new ones, but they are not lost. As you become a better sight reader it gets easier to read your older pieces and get them back under your fingers. As your playing develops you will also find you are familiar with more patterns. When you play older pieces these patterns serve as shortcuts you didn't have when you learned the piece earlier on.
The first few times you play through a forgotten piece that you used to play well may feel like playing a new piece. Then, suddenly, the mists will clear and the old familiarity will return. I find that relearning a piece is like digging a hole in a place that has been dug up previously. The earth still needs to be removed again, but it is loose and light so it is much easier to get the hole dug than the first time.
All the best,
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