New Piece Burnout

  Within a few lessons at the University of Oregon, I noticed that I wasn't going anywhere with my first solo piece.  I learned all the notes, the fingerings, the bowings, memorized it, and listened to recordings.  The piece bored me now.  What to do next?  Get another piece.

  So I did.  Again and again I did this.  But it was only a temporary solution.  I still remember one of my lessons, my teacher said (paraphrased, of course), "You've learned the piece and have a great foundation, but you aren't polishing it to make it great.  It sounds good, but it won't sound great until you put in the work."  And he was right; I almost refused to polish it.  Put more work into that piece?  What do you want from me?  I can hit the notes about 70% of the time; if this was baseball, I'd be hall of fame material.
  So reluctantly, I would run the piece down again and again, playing through difficult passages until I was almost annoyed by it, unknowingly cementing 90% of my bad habits while barely fixing 10%.
  And here's where I always lost the battle.  How much work was I willing to put into a piece if it had taken me this long to get it to sound only this good?  Would I simply hate or be bored of every piece I played because that was what it would take to make it sound great?



How does one stop themselves from getting burnt out on a piece they're learning?

  This was a question that I never asked because it was a problem I never knew I had.  There is only one symptom, it seems: a lack of motivation after a short honeymoon period with a new piece.
  For me, it's starting a transcription and stopping after I've written down all the notes and barely began with playing it.  For a friend of mine, it's playing an opera score his second or third read-through better then he thinks he ever will again.
  At best, this mindset cultivates a good amount of surface-level transcription and sight-reading, maybe a small amount of passage-work; at worst, it establishes a precedent that a new piece, with all of its mistakes and shallow analysis, is more enjoyable than a piece that has been explored and rehearsed at its deepest, down to it's very core.
  I can speak only from my own experience, but there seems to be little that is as dangerous as this kind of mindset.

  To find an answer to the big question, we need to first find the root cause of this behavior.  Why would I get burnt out on a piece of music that I initially liked, maybe loved?  When I get burnt out playing a piece of music, I realized that it's often due either to my impatience in learning difficult passagework, or my not knowing how to get to the "next level" that is necessary for the piece to develop.  Rarely is it visible to me that the latter is the case, and I assume that I have done all I can and it will only ever sound this good (or bad, depending on my mood).
  My recent realization has been, in my musical experience, one of great magnitude and variability in my musicianship, allowing myself a large amount of flexibility within a practice session and each project I work on.  By all means, this is not something I claim as my idea, but more of an aggregate of literature and experience in the subject.



  There are two elements to how I structure a practice session to work on a piece efficiently while keeping myself from getting burnt out: goal-setting and variability/isolation.  I'll explain each one in a bit more detail.

  Goal-setting is rather obvious through it's title. You set a goal before your practice session and go for it.  However, I believe there is much more subtlety in this idea than that, especially depending on the person and how they learn and are motivated best.
  If I set an outlandish goal like "I want to play a Webern transcription while singing Prokofiev," this could be very effective.  Keeping a larger long-term goal helps me focus on an end result and helps shape my practice sessions accordingly, though many people may have a bit-off-more-than-I-can-chew experience and give up quickly (like me).
  If I set very small easily attainable goals like "I want to play these three bars in a row with no mistakes", it could also be very effective.  Having a small short-term goal gives me constant encouragement and affirmation in reaching them, but can leave me relatively aimless in what I want to accomplish in a longer timeline.
  I prefer to combine the two methods, giving myself a longest-term goal, going as far out as I can into the future and thinking of where I would like to end up in my musical career, and creating smaller shorter-term goals that aid in achieving it.  For example, a longest term goal might be, "I want to play in the Boston Symphony Orchestra", with which I would find out what is necessary to accomplish that goal, and then create smaller goals for it, like "Learn excerpt from Brahms 1st Symphony".  Even better, break down every goal into as small of chunks as possible; learning to play the Brahms 1 excerpt isn't nearly as bad when you're looking at achieving your goal of "Play[ing] the first two bars at dotted quarter equals 100 perfectly".

  How I see this component of practice combatting new piece burnout is that the momentum that is created through achieving goals allows me to set my standards higher and give me confidence to aim as high as I can in setting them; associating practice with achieving goals and removing the fear and loathing that usually accompanied time at my instrument without friends is equally if not more important.  It also lets you hone in on troublesome sections in a piece and assess how to overcome them, which, in my practice, is where this next element becomes invaluable.

  Variability and Isolation are probably the light bulbs that brought me out of the practice stupor I was in, giving me seemingly endless possibilities in my practice routine and a way to practice nearly every single thing effectively and efficiently.  In short, it is taking a troublesome passage and determining the problem as quickly as possible, isolating the problem from all other variables, and then attacking that variable from all possible directions.  The easiest way for me to show what i mean is through examples.
  Let's say I have a very difficult passage on the bass.  There are many possible reasons to it being difficult; it could be very fast for my right hand, very fast for my left hand, it could use awkward fingering, drastic dynamic changes, unfamiliar articulations, or any combination of these and more.
  This is where the experiment begins.  How do I determine if there is an element of speed making it difficult?  Eliminate that variable; I'll play it as slow as I possibly can.  Is it easier to play?  If it is, then practice it slowly until it starts to become easier.  Let's assume speed is a factor in this passage: usually when I isolate the correct variable, learning takes much less time, so I use this knowledge to my advantage.  If practice is fruitless within a minute or two, I will look toward another variable.  I'll play the excerpt slowly without fingering any notes in my left hand.  This may show me that even without a quick tempo and fingerings to blame my problem on, I am still having trouble in my right hand and bowings alone.  I find that it's the string crossings in my bowing that is creating the issue, and so I will isolate this element and practice it by itself until it sounds good before moving on.
  But just practicing this small section slowly and without my left hand to assess a bowing problem can become monotonous quickly, though; how do I counter that?  Doing almost anything within those bounds, the other aspect of variability.  You have a bowing problem?  Most commonly, teachers will say make an etude out of it, but I say take it a step further: create a theme and variations based on that bowing; see how that bowing would work in 15/16; do it an octave higher or an octave lower; do it in fifths; try singing the melody (or improvise) to the song while playing the bowing; play it to a scale; play it piano, forte, marcato, legato; it almost doesn't matter at all for me what I do, as long as it isn't the same thing.  It keeps my brain engaged while working on what's necessary.  For me the idea of isolation is tricky, as it exists only in the theoretical, so I like to expand a small element into a more musical idea, while still accomplishing the same task.

  This idea of isolation and variability breaks the new piece burnout for me by giving me a scientific method to fixing problems using specifics, instead of shooting in the dark with methods picked at random or the one-size-fits-all repetition, while casually stopping and repeating again upon hearing a mistake.  It also satisfies my craving of something fresh and new to play, which is seemingly ever present, without sacrificing the focus that's necessary to develop a piece.



  With these techniques, I quickly learned to spot the difficult sections and how to practice them without  relying on outside help or books on the subject.  After quite a few rather good practice sessions recently, I felt that this information seemed invaluable; my hope is that somebody benefits from my verbose explanation of this recently developed practice method.  If there are any comments or thoughts on this subject, please leave it below, as I'd love to hear what you have to say.