Repertoire on Repeat by Leah Gastler

During our formative years studying the viola, we spend the majority of our time learning repertoire “for the first time.” We all have to learn the Bartók Concerto for the first time, the Brahms Sonatas for the first time, and the six Bach Cello Suites from scratch. We spend a lot of time learning the right notes, planning functional bowings and fingerings, and trying to execute the dynamics, phrasing, and characters on top of all those fresh technical elements. We rely on our teachers’ information for a lot of the decisions we make when we first learn a piece. We absorb many of the “traditions” of the piece through recordings and suggestions from those who have already come to know the music. At their urging, we try to navigate “good taste” and “tradition” while allowing our expressiveness to carry our music into a palpable reality. Nevertheless, usually we find ourselves consumed with the execution of technical details at the expense of musical conviction.

It has taken me many years to get to the point where I can start relearning repertoire. When I began relearning the Brahms E-flat Sonata, I realized that this was an entirely different process than any I had undertaken so far in my learning of the viola. I didn’t have to learn the notes—I had already done that. Bowings were still marked in from the first time I played them. Notes were scrawled all over the pages: “more!” “singing!” “use bow!” “don’t crunch chords” “stand tall—confidence!” The record of months of learning “for the first time” every detail and direction mapped out so that I would not forget. I was coming at this piece with a foundation of understanding built into my memory and my fingers, and this foundation became such freedom.

The joys of re-learning a piece include decision-making. Sometimes the old bowings don’t serve the phrase as you hear it, and you can change them! Sometimes your old fingerings were terrible, and now you know better! Sometimes you want to play that passage on the C string, and you can pull it off now. What is so great about this is that the music in your head is paving the way for the technique of the piece, not the reverse. You have an idea already, you “know” the piece already, and now you can see through the technical demands to the music that you’re striving to create. That feeling is truly reinvigorating.

Musically, your vision of a piece will change as you learn other music and then come back to it. Your musical understanding has gained experience and vision in the meantime, and you will approach certain passages with different points of view. This is one of the most exciting facets of relearning music: the moments of, “I never heard it that way before!” or “this reminds me so much of that passage in … !!” or “after having listened to Brahms’s song cycles, I totally get this now.” Even, “I know everyone makes a ritard here, but I’m really not sure that suits the harmony.” This is where real music making begins. Relearning is where you can really explore, test the waters, take chances, play it one way and then a different way and be aware of the difference.

In many ways relearning is a far more gratifying experience than learning a piece for the first time, but it is also a very challenging process. Keeping your ears and mind open, not falling into routine and habit can be a true challenge. When habit takes hold of one’s playing, the conviction of the music suffers. The thought behind it is not alive, and hence the music will no longer feel alive. Without active thought behind the notes, music loses its meaning. This is especially difficult for us classical musicians, as the music we play is and has been performed over and over again. We have to always do something with the notes. In re-learning our repertoire, we have reached a point where it becomes our duty to re-imagine the way we’re doing things, in the same way that the traditions we learn must also be challenged and re-imagined. Re-imagining is a true challenge because you’re never done, but it is the essence of what makes our art and our voice relevant. It’s what makes our repertoire fun to play time after time and what keeps our audiences asking to hear it again.

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