Advice for returning to the piano after a decade

I took piano as a child all the way up through college - I minored in it, actually. I was one of those unfortunately stupid kids who have a lot more talent than drive, so I always played quite a bit below my ability because I never really practiced much. (A gift for sightreading and natural laziness are a very bad combination!) Still, by the time I graduated from college I’d reached a certain level, I guess. You can’t not, after more than a decade doing something.

My senior year of college was… bad. Really bad. I was one of those extremely depressed college seniors that they probably catch a lot better these days. Almost flunked out - went from the Dean’s List to a .5 GPA my last semester. (Actually, piano was the only thing I didn’t flunk, oddly enough. And Chorale.) I guess I felt the piano was kind of bound up in all of that, because I haven’t touched it since. It’s been almost ten years, a fact which boggles my mind. Ten years! Holy crap, I’m old! (I’m REALLY old - my 30th birthday is Monday.)

Since we’ve started to clean up the house, I’ve suddenly had the desire to play again. (Being able to make it to the piano is surely part of it.) I’ve been noodling through some hymnals and books of Christmas carols and such that I found in the bench, and I told the boyfriend I’d teach him, so I picked up a good old Alfred Adult Beginner book for him. But I’m not sure what to do for myself.

I can’t afford lessons right now, really. And hell, I shouldn’t need them - I had years and years of the best lessons money could buy, and I wasted them. I guess I need a little direction, though. I’m not sure what I was playing when I quit - I can’t find those books anywhere, and that last year is frankly kind of a fog. I definitely couldn’t play it now, at any rate. I’ve been experimenting a bit with the stuff in one of those big comb bound Piano Classics books and finding things I played as a kid, working through them again - some of those Bach pieces like the Minuet in G that kids play, that sort of thing. They feel like good warmups - I’m surprised my hands remember what to do, but if I think about it they forget. So I’ve worked my way through some of those - takes maybe two days to get them down mostly perfect.

Of course, I want to be playing the big stuff again - Beethoven sonatas, that sort of thing - but they’re way, way out of my league at this point, I think. (The eternal piano problem - piano is like math, you have to stick with it for decades to get to the good stuff. Guitar is like literature - you can enjoy it from the start.)

Is there any sort of… graduated list, I guess, of pieces? That would give me some structure? For that matter, are there any packaged learning tools for the, uh, “advanced beginner”? The “hasn’t done this in a while”-er?

I don’t have a ton of time to practice, which is funny because I think back to when I had ALL THE TIME IN THE WORLD and concert Steinways to do it on in college and I never did, but I’ve been working on it fairly steadily. If I continue playing things this easy, I’ll never go anywhere, but if I make too big a jump it won’t be satisfying and I’ll probably quit out of frustration. (Nothing like not being able to do something that used to be easy!) There’s the physical side, too - I’m continually shocked at how easy my hands tire and get fumble-fingered. I could use a theory review, too, although I’m sure teaching Aaron will do a better job there than any self-study.

I guess I’m looking for other people’s experiences at this and any suggestions on materials or courses or just a way to proceed.

The Royal Conservatory of Music has done a fantastic job of grading repertoire based on technical and musical difficulties, and if you can get ahold of their Piano Syllabus, it’s very easy to explore repertoire that is right around your level. They also publish books of piano repertoire and piano studies appropriate for each grade.

My apologies - my copy of the Syllabus is back home, or I’d look things up in it for you.

As an example, I’ve been working at a Grade 9 level for the last year, which has me currently working on a Bach Prelude and Fugue in c minor, WTC Book 1, Chopin Nocturne #2 in Eb (Op. 9, #2), Brahms Intermezzi Bb Major and a minor (Op. 75, #4 and #7, respectively) and Debussy La Fille aux cheveux de lin.

So if you can find a piece of repertoire that’s within your grasp in the Syllabus, you can find a list of rep that’s rated at the same level of difficulty that may be published in the RCM series, or can be found in your library.

Happy Birthday in advance, and good luck with the piano!

That’s exactly what I need - I’ll just have to do like I’ve been doing in re-catching-up to Couch to 5K - try a day of week 3, if that’s too easy try week 4, rinse, repeat.

I’m hoping to come back up to speed quickly - it’s so frustrating not being able to do what you think you should do. It kind of feels like your hands have died.

You can find a lot of public domain classical music here, if that helps. Note that only the ones marked in green are available for free download with logging in. Years ago, all that site’s content was completely free. Then they limited it to two downloads a day. Now most of the content requires a subscription, but there’s plenty of freely available stuff to keep you busy.

edit: Also, pretty much any of the major piano teaching methods should have compilations of piano literature graded according to difficulty.

I’ve looked at a few of the piano teaching methods - they tend to end a long way before what I’d need. I could get something out of them for a bit, but they’re not going to take me back to where I used to be.

Got it. By the way, I found a better sheet music resource here, if it helps.

I’ve played piano/keyboard on and off since I was about 8, but I find that if I want to get back into classical stuff (I’ve mostly played in an improvisational manner since high school, often in a band context), sitting down with the Bach 2- and 3-part inventions, as well as the Well-Tempered Clavier, does a lot to help me get my finger dexterity back, especially in my left hand. They’re not terribly difficult, but they’re a joy to play and really get your fingers back in shape.

I had forgotten to mention that there is also the Popular Selection List, which is available as a PDF at this link. (PDF warning.) In the early grades, these tend to be themes from popular movies or pop songs, largely to help encourage students who aren’t enjoying the classical repertoire at that level. For adult students, there are some lovely jazz transcriptions/arrangements that are at the appropriate level of difficulty.

On the off chance that this might be useful, here are the Tables of Contents for RCM Piano Repertoire books, Grades 7, 8 and 9. Perhaps you’ll recognize something you used to play…

Grade 7 -
Invention #1 in C Major, J.S. Bach
Bourrée from Solo in F Major, G.P. Telemann
Aria from Suite #8 in G Major, G.F. Handel
Allemande in d minor, F. Couperin
Gavotte from French Suite #5 in G Major, J.S. Bach
2nd Movement from Suite in G Major, Op. 1, #1, J-H. Fiocco

2nd Movement, Sonata in C Major, Hob. XVI:1, F.J. Haydn
Bagatelle, Op. 119, #1, Beethoven
3rd Movement, Sonatina in G Major, Op. 59, #2, O. Bolck
1st Movement, Sonatina in C Major, Op. 36, #3, M. Clementi
Für Elise, Beethoven
1st Mvt., Sonatina in C Major, Op. 55, #3, F. Kuhlau

Prelude in e minor, Op. 28, #4, F. Chopin
Venitian Boat Song, Op. 30, #6, F. Mendelssohn
Waltz, V.I. Rebikov
Elfin Dance, Op. 12, #4, E. Grieg
Romance-Impromptu, A.L. Benjamin
Melody, Op. 15, #11, V. Kossenko
Waltz in g# minor, Op. 39, #3, J. Brahms (from Brahms’s simplified version.)

Berceuse, C. Pépin
Pentatonic Tune, B. Bartók
Ginger Snaps, S. Chatman
Shooting Stars, A. Louie
Rondo-Toccata, Op. 60, #4, D. Kabalevsky
Lutin/Goblin, R. Jaque

Grade 8 -
Little Prelude in e minor, BWV 938, J.S. Bach
Little Prelude in D Major, BWV 936, J.S. Bach
Invention #6 in E Major, BWV 777, J.S. Bach
Fantasia in d minor, G.P. Telemann
3rd mvt., Sonata in c minor, G.B. Pescetti

3rd mvt., Sonata in G Major, Hob. XVI:27, F.J. Haydn
Sonata in Bb Major, D. Cimarosa
1st mvt., Sonatina in G Major, Op. 36, #5, M. Clementi
Sonata in G Major, Op. 49, #2, Beethoven
1st mvt., Sonata in A Major, Op. 59, #1, F. Kuhlau

Prelude in b minor, Op. 28, #6, F. Chopin
Puck, Op. 71, #3, E. Grieg
An Important Event, Op. 15, #6, R. Schumann
Andante Sostenuto, Op. 72, #2, F. Mendelssohn
Song, Op.2, #2 B. Smetana
Consolation #1, F. Liszt
Nocturne #5 in Bb Major, J. Field
Chanson triste, V.S. Kalinnikov

Roda-roda!, O. Pinto
Evening at the Village, B. Bartók
O Moon, A. Louie
Milonga del ángel, A. Piazzola
Pink, R. Starer
Crimson, R. Starer
Page d’album, C. Debussy
Mysterious Summer’s Night, L. Kuzmenko
The Gentle Waltz, O. Peterson

Grade 9

Sinfonia #7 in e minor, BWV 793, J.S. Bach
Sinfonia #6 in E Major, BWV 792, J.S. Bach
Prelude and Fugue in c minor, BWV 847, J.S. Bach
Le coucou, L-C. Daquin
Allemande, Suite #4 in e minor, HWV 429, G.F. Handel
Gigue, Suite #3 in Eb Major, J.L. Krebs
Sonata in f minor, L 187/ K 481, D. Scarlatti
Sonata in D Major, L 463/K 430, D. Scarlatti

3rd mvt., Sonata in c minor, C.P.E. Bach
2nd mvt., Sonata in C Major, K 330, W.A. Mozart
Fantasia in d minor, K 397, W.A. Mozart
Sonata in e minor, Hob. XVI:34, F.J. Haydn
Six Easy Variations on an Original Theme, WoO 77, Beethoven
Rondo in C Major, Op. 51, #1, Beethoven

Impromptu, Op. 142, #2, F. Schubert
Schlummerlied, Op. 124, #16, R. Schumann
Nocturne in c# minor, Op. Posth., F. Chopin
Waltz in Gb Major, Op. Posth. 70, #1, F. Chopin
Notturno, Op. 54, #4, E. Grieg
Intermezzo, Op. 76, #7, J. Brahms
Consolation #3, F. Liszt
Song without Words, Op. 30, #1, F. Mendelssohn

Romance sans paroles, Op. 17, #3, G. Fauré
Ocean Vista, R.W. Henderson
Romance, Op. 24, #9, J. Sibelius
La fille aux cheveux de lin, C. Debussy
Over the Rainbow, H. Arlen, arr. George Shearing
Salta, Salta, O. Pinto
Decadent Sentimental Song, M. Manzano
Dreams, Ope 88, #1, D. Kabalevsky
Humoreske, R.K. Shchedrin
Distant Memories, A. Louie
Merry Andrew, J. Takács

I know I played a metric buttload of those Bach preludes - I love Baroque music, it’s so satisfying. Plus, you can’t cheat and rubato your way through it. :slight_smile: I’ll have to look and see if those specific ones in Grade 8 are familiar. And Fur Elise, of course. I probably ended up somewhere around grade 7 or 8 in college, I’d guess - the trick is figuring out where I should start back so as not to frustrate myself.

I did something similar as the OP, took piano lessons for 10 years, including one college semester, then took a 10-year break, and then returned to the piano. When I returned to it 10 years later it felt very weird at first, awkward clumsy fingers and brain that had forgotten almost everything. It was a shock that pieces I used to effortlessly breeze through at lightning speed were now very clumsy and horrible. It was like I was 10-years old again. It could be discouraging, but don’t let it get you down. I found that it really wasn’t too difficult to get back into it in a short time. What had previously taken 10 years to learn only took a few weeks to master again at the same level of competency.

In the beginning some of it will feel familiar, but also not. You should accept that your fingers won’t work the same at all. The finger and hand muscles will feel weak and awkward. And your brain also will not process the information at the same speed. You should allow yourself to go very slowly at first, and just embrace the awkwardness. I did it by getting copies of a few old pieces I had previously mastered in years 6, 7, 8, and 9. I stumbled through them at first but they came back quickly because I had already learned how to learn how to play them. (that’s not a typo.) IOW as I got reacquainted with the old music I was also getting reacquainted with the learning process, including things my teacher used to stress to me. The places in the pieces that had previously given me trouble were the same places where it was troublesome once again. But it was a simple thing to remember what the teacher had said about how to overcome those snags. I even got a pencil to dramatically mark up the score to stress certain points the same way she used to do it.

Also, learning those old pieces gave my hands the strengthening exercises I needed. My dexterity gradually returned as I practiced and smoothed out the old pieces again. Just as before I practiced daily and consistently for 1-2 hours per day. I also included hand drills and scales in daily practice, as those also helped build dexterity and strength. After having a piano teacher every single week for 10 years it was easy to recall how she would have instructed me as I relearned the process. And after I got up to speed on the old pieces, I looked around for a few more challenging ones that took me to the next level.

Yeah, I raided my mom’s piano bench looking for my way-back-in-the-day beginner books for the boyfriend (gold stars marked 1989, adorable!) and found a few of my books from high school - you’re totally right about “you can play pieces you thoroughly learned before”, and I note that where I have trouble now is precisely where there’s a lot of pencil in my old books - fingerings, “this note is next after the page turn”, circled notes, etc. Heh.

I need to get back to hand drills and scales and such, too. Always my least favorite part. I found an old Czerny in the bench, ugh.

Yesterday I had dinner with an old friend and agreed to trade him piano lessons for guitar lessons. If only I could find a cleaning lady to do the same thing! (Seriously, I haven’t touched the thing in nine years, I start playing again and have two students within a couple weeks?)

Advice for returning to the piano after a decade

Dust well. :slight_smile:

I played piano intensively from about age 7 through high school, casually for the next few years and then next to nothing at all.

If I ever get back into it, it’ll be playing music I like and working into more challenging stuff. I can’t see any way I’d tolerate Czerny or other forms of exercise torture.

Yeah, but you gotta do something, because your hand has forgotten all this stuff and gotten physically weak and puny and sad. Yesterday I realized how my reach has shrunk - I used to be able to span an octave and four on a good day, and now just an octave is a difficult stretch, so I can’t play some of the things that should be technically simple otherwise. You can’t get back into running just by running races - I suspect it’s similar with the piano. There’s some ground work that can best be done with boring-ass stuff.

After ten years? Get the poor lonely thing tuned!

If you only have a very limited amount of time to dedicate to it (which your OP says you have), I’d venture to say it’s better to learn to play things you really want to play rather than going through Czerny and Hanon studies, otherwise you’ll just get bored, frustrated, and give up. Unless you’re into those sorts of technical exercises (and some people are and seem to actually like them.) I think the Bach does a lot for getting finger independence down and getting your fingers back in shape.