Does it take you forever to learn one piece of music? Do you wish you knew how to learn a piece quickly? Then read this article.
Learning a musical instrument is fun – at least, it’s meant to be. But sometimes it can be frustrating, especially when a seemingly easy piece takes us way longer than we anticipated.
What can we do to speed up the process and how can we learn a piece quickly?
Here are my suggestions.
Listen to a recording
While looking at the score, listen to a recording of the piece first, especially if you’ve never heard it before. It will give you a sense of what it should sound like, as well as the speed. Even better if you can listen to at least 2 different interpretations.
Sight-read the piece hands together
Now that you have an idea of how the piece sounds, try sight-reading it hands together. Why hands together? Because it will give you an idea of how the hands fit together rhythmically and physically on the keyboard. It will also help you locate the harder passages (more on that later). And it also gives you extra sight-reading practice! 😁
N.B. If you aren’t able to sight-read it hands together slowly, or even really slowly, then you should consider finding an easier piece.
Before you sight-read, scan the music, like you would when you’re about to sight-read. Look at the time signature, the key signature, look for melodic and rhythmic patterns, changes in hand positions and anything usual.
Find the smallest note values and work out how fast you can sight-read these as this will give you an indication of the tempo.
Now go through the rhythm of the first few bars in your head and when you’re ready, sight-read slowly hands together.
If you make a mistake, stop and correct it and then move on. You want to avoid learning the wrong notes or the wrong rhythm from the beginning so correct any mistakes right away. Sight-read all the way through, making a mental note of the passages that are harder to play.
Mark the harder passages in the score
With a pencil or removable highlighter tape, mark the passages that you believe will need more work. The passages should be 1 to 4 bars long. It won’t be as effective if you mark a passage that is 20 bars long. The shorter the passage, the better.
The passages you marked will be the ones you spend the most time on.
Check the fingering
Now is the time to check the fingering or to add fingering if there isn’t any. Go through the piece one hand at a time, checking if the fingering suits your hand. If you notice any awkward or uncomfortable fingering, change the fingering so that it’s logical and comfortable for your hand.
N.B. Avoid writing fingering on every single note! Only write fingering where necessary, for example, when there is a change in hand position, when the thumb goes under the hand, when a finger goes over the thumb, or when the hand is extended (for example, when fingers skip a key).
Play through the piece again with the correct fingering
Play through the piece again hands together, making sure to use the fingering you’ve written and/or modified. Make any fingering adjustments if necessary.
Analyse the score
Look for sections that repeat and notice if there are any variations in the repeat. This step will help you gain a better understanding of the structure of the piece. Notice if there are any major modulations or key signature changes. Also observe changes in time signature.
Work on the harder passages, one at a time
It’s tempting at this stage to just play from the beginning and play through the piece over and over again but that is NOT a good use of your time. If anything, this way of practising only reinforces mistakes. It will then take you much longer to get rid of all the mistakes.
Practice does NOT make perfect. Practice makes permanent!
Dive into the harder passages right from the beginning. Don’t avoid them.
Remember: Bars are not created equally. Some bars don’t require any practice or very little practice while others need a lot of work. Spend more time on the bars that DO need more practice.
When working on a passage, set yourself an aim. First, the aim should be to play as accurately as possible, that is, by playing the correct notes, the correct rhythm, the dynamics and the articulation.
Don’t leave out the dynamics and the articulation until the end. They should be incorporated into your playing right from the beginning as they inform you on the type of movements to use.
The point of practising is to come up with and rehearse the most efficient movements (with as little tension as possible) to create the sound that you want.
The goal is to play the passages without any mistakes but if you do make a mistake, make sure you correct it immediately by starting again from the start of the bar (NOT from the beginning of the piece!).
Practise the passage and aim to play it 5 times correctly in a row. If you make a mistake once, start again from 0. By practising this way, you’re telling your brain what it needs to remember. If you play the passage 5 times with a mistake and 5 times correctly, your brain won’t know which version is correct so make sure you play the passage more times correctly than incorrectly.
Once you’re able to play the passage 5 times in a row without a single mistake, it’s time to insert it back into the piece and to play from a couple of bars before the passage until a few bars after the passage. This ensures that you can play the transitions into and from the harder passages. If you notice mistakes, go back to Step 1.
Repeat this step for all the remaining harder passages.
N.B. You will need to repeat this step for several days or even weeks. The brain naturally forgets what it learns so you need to repeat the process until the brain remembers.
Play from beginning to end
Now that you’ve done all the hard work and “ironed out” mistakes, it’s time to play all the way through from start to finish.
Play at a steady pace and pay attention to the fingering. Play the dynamics and the articulation. As you play through, assess your performance and make note of any mistakes or places where you hesitate. Signs of hesitation indicate you still haven’t learned the passage 100%. Those are the passages to go back to.
Annotate your score
Write comments, observations and reminders in your score. Circle the notes, accidentals, fingering or any other detail you keep forgetting. Use colour if you need to.
You could also keep a practice journal and write down what you practised, what you did well, what you need to improve, and so on.
LEARN MORE >> Keeping a Practice Journal for Sight-Reading
Gradually speed up the tempo
Once you’ve got all the details in and there are no more hesitations or mistakes, you’re ready to increase the tempo (if you’re playing under tempo).
One way to increase the tempo is to practice the whole piece with a metronome and slowly increase the bpm (beats per minute) by very small increments. For example, from crotchet = 60 to crotchet = 62.
Another way is to increase the speed 1 or 2 bars at a time (not the whole piece) with bigger increments (for example, from crotchet = 60 to crotchet = 70) and then slowly add on more bars until the whole piece reaches the faster speed.
TIP: Whichever method you use to increase the tempo, use swift movements with your hands and fingers. In other words, practise getting to the next notes quickly even at a slower tempo, that way when you reach a faster tempo, you’ll still be able to keep up.
Here are some practice tips to make your practice more efficient:
- Practise a passage in different ways. Don’t just play it how it’s notated every single time. Find ways to practice it that will help you achieve what you want. Experiment.
- Always keep in mind what you’re trying to achieve as this will keep you focused.
- Avoid practising for hours at a time. Make sure you take regular breaks so that your brain can keep functioning at its best.
- Avoid starting from the same bars or from the beginning. By mixing up where you play from, you’ll avoid playing from muscle memory and you’ll be forced to read the score.
- Keep the score in front of you and keep reading it, even if you’re starting to learn it from memory. There are always details in the score that you can easily overlook if you stop reading the score.
- Avoid practising mindlessly. Always involve your brain and listen to yourself.
- Avoid spending too much time practising hands separately otherwise it will become much harder to put the hands together. Only practise hands separately to work out fingering, a good technique/movement, voicing (when you want to bring out certain notes) or phrasing.
That is how I would learn a piano piece quickly. Do you have any other suggestions? Add them in the comments below,
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