The serial starter
Are you a finisher or a serial starter?
When it comes to learning pieces, it can be very easy to continually begin new ones. The process of
starting out is so very attractive: it’s like a romance with a new partner. There’s the sense of
discovery; the score itself looks new, full of excitement and possibility. There is a tantalising sense of
“what if” hanging over the whole process.
And even in the first few days of the relationship with the score, it’s still exciting: there are
discoveries to be made, and the novelty makes our practice enjoyable. We tinker with - dare I say,
tiptoe around - difficult passages, fantasising about the proficiency we just know we’ll ultimately
have. We sight read through the easier passages. We can’t get enough.
But, inevitably, there comes the next stage. And the longest stage. Where hard work has to convert
And this is where so many of us don’t succeed.
This is the stage where fingerings need to be fully in place so that the risk of error is minimised. The
stage where there is *constant* revisiting to build muscle memory and pathways in the brain. The
stage where you realise that learning even a short, four-bar passage isn’t just a one-off event, but a
significant journey - for weeks and weeks - of revisions, frustrations, and consolidation. The stage
where technique and the ear work together to create beauty out of the abstract musical score.
Here comes the danger point. The seven day itch. Where working at continual improvement is
nowhere near as tempting as pulling another score off the shelf and unlocking its mysteries in
another reverie of novelty and heady excitement.
But I would argue that to get to the point of being reasonably content with how you play the piece
*to the best of your current ability* is where the true satisfaction lies. And how do we define that?
Well, I believe it’s when you could perform it for someone else, and know that it’s not in bad nick,
actually. When you have solved all of the technical puzzles so that the musical intention rings out,
loud and clear. When you feel like you actually have something to communicate.
Sure, it might not be fit for the Wigmore Hall. Well, certainly not yet! But if it’s a pretty decent
performance, for your standard at your current ability, then you’ve done a good job.
All art is worth revisiting. That’s the beauty of it. So, even if you came back to that piece in ten years’
time, it would still have rich learning to offer. You’d bring to it new practice techniques, new ideas for
phrasing and musicality, new colours. Hopefully, that is, if you’ve continued making your own
learning a priority.
But please do ensure that you’re not a serial score starter! Art is worth our long-term hard work and
commitment. All good things take time, as a wise man once said to me. Imagine, if you will, a kitchen
when you only wash up superficially before getting bored, leaving the dirty pans for someone else to
scrub, rather than completing the job each day: it’s so much more satisfying to make that extra effort
to have a clean and tidy kitchen, with everything in its place. That’s when you can look around with
pride, smile and nod to yourself, and feel that sense of achievement of a job well done.Oh