Catching Up After Falling Behind

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The Summer comes to a close, along with its vacations and other scheduling chaos that can make piano progress a bit erratic for many students. We’ve just completed a week of repertoire reviews, looking for the parts of your songs that may need a bit of work in order to strengthen the repertoire. As many of us get back into the swing of a more stable routine, it seems a good time to talk a bit about how to catch things back up after they’ve fallen behind.

Before getting into the details on how to strengthen the weak spots in your repertoire, just as we took the opportunity to note this during our repertoire reviews, it’s worth remembering just why it’s important to have your repertoire in good shape. Take another quick look at the “Why Build a Repertoire” section at the beginning of the Building a Repertoire piece. That section links to a paragraph in another earlier piece, providing a bit more detail about the foundation a repertoire provides for the more advanced material you’ll get to later in your lessons.

What It Means to Fall Behind

You’re on nobody’s schedule but your own. Your progress is supposed to go at a pace that’s right for you. If that’s the case, then what can it even mean to talk about falling behind? It can only mean one of two things — falling behind where you would be if you were doing your best, or, only possible in shared lessons, falling behind classmates. Either way, catching up doesn’t always mean doing more — sometimes it can mean just the opposite.

If you’ve forgotten some songs and/or developed trouble spots in others, the first thing to do is ask yourself if you’ve been practicing according to recommendation. If you have, it’s time to slow down — tell your teacher! Likewise, slowing down can take care of things even if you haven’t been able to practice sufficiently well, either due to a prolonged vacation, sickness or other absence, or perhaps just a lack of diligence. As a private student, your pace can always be tailored for you personally. Taking shared lessons, your group may be able to slow down a bit, perhaps you can find a different group that moves at a more appropriate pace for you, or maybe you could even switch to a private situation.

When your difficulties come from not practicing well enough, though, other options may serve you better. Maybe an absence simply caused you to miss songs in a shared lesson — they don’t have problems, you just haven’t learned them yet. Perhaps a shared lesson student really wants to stay with a particular group. Shared or private, you could simply be motivated to continue forward with new material rather than focusing exclusively on your repertoire issues. If any of these things are true for you, it’s time to develop a plan to get your older songs where you need them.

How to Catch Up

The first thing to do is play through your entire playlist. Find out what you remember and what you’ve forgotten. Any song that has been forgotten completely, forgotten partially or has some other kind of issue is a song that will need to be turned back into a current project. If you have relatively few songs to catch up and relatively few other current projects, you could very well just turn those problematic songs back into current projects with a pencil dot in the margin as usual, and keep a normal practice routine.

When your regular current projects plus all your catchup songs would result in an overwhelming number of current projects, though, it’s best to take an incremental approach. Just like learning a song or building a repertoire in the first place, significant catchup is a process best done a little at a time. Instead of marking the problem songs with a single pencil dot, mark them with two pencil dots. These are now not current projects but catchup projects, all part of the overall catchup process you’re undertaking.

As you regularly play your repertoire, the songs with no dots, be sure to look over the catchup projects as well. Play those parts of the catchup projects you may still remember accurately. The more you do this, the more you keep your catchup work to a minimum instead of losing more material. With that continuing daily as usual for your repertoire practice, along with your regular daily practice of recent current projects, you’ll need a strategy for gradually getting back the catchup projects.

Start by choosing the one or two catchup projects that you believe will be the easiest and quickest to get back. Erase a dot for each of them, turning them into current projects with the usual single dot. Add an extra 5-10 minutes per day to your practice routine to accommodate these songs. When you practice them, go back to the Student Home Materials or other original instructions, working on these songs as if for the first time. Make no compromises — that’s what got you behind in the first place, and it will just continue to work against you. Get comfortable with each step in relearning the song, strictly according to the instructions, before moving onto each next step. It may be frustrating, but it’s the fastest and most powerful way to get where you need to go.

Once you get one of the songs back, you will be able to erase the current project dot as usual, returning the song to your repertoire. Then, keep going through the catchup projects so that you’re always working on one or two at a time, always the ones that you think will be the next easiest to retrieve, repeating the above process. Eventually, you will have caught up, having only regular current projects and repertoire songs on your playlist. At this point and this point only, you may eliminate the extra 5-10 minutes of daily practice time.

By choosing the easiest catchup projects to work on at any given time, you’ll see meaningful progress quickly, boosting your confidence and re-inspiring you. Working on only one or two at a time further ensures that you won’t feel burdened or discouraged by having too much work at once, even if your catchup list is long.

You may even find as you go through catchup projects that some of them may return very quickly on their own, as if you’d never really forgotten them in the first place. Something may just click, and a song can come back. If this doesn’t happen, don’t worry, just follow the rest of the process diligently, and it will see you through.

It’s crucial to remember, though, that catchup is a situation you don’t want to be in. If you’re in it, follow this strategy to work things through effectively and efficiently. But be aware that having a good strategy for handling this situation is not a substitute for developing good practice habits in the first place. The more you are putting into practice on a regular basis the advice from the first nine “primer” pieces written for the Lesson Line, the stronger your repertoire will stay and the less likely you will be to fall behind and need to play catchup.

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