“But it Takes Me Ages to Learn a New Piece!”

One of the saddest things about our exam culture is spending the best part of a year on three pieces and a bunch of scales, polishing every little detail until perfect. A couple of weeks after the exam, the student has nothing to play because they have forgotten their old pieces and won’t be ready with the new ones for a while yet. This structure means they often have very poor reading skills and are ill-equipped as practical musicians. It is hard to fathom is that a supposedly advanced piano student with years of lessons behind them would not be able to get up and play Happy Birthday by ear at a party, or to read at sight simple accompaniments when called upon to do so.

A very distinguished colleague who taught high-level conservatory students would only ever hear a piece once or twice. Even first year students had to bring something new each week, and while the pressure was often quite intense every single one of them developed the skills to assimilate music very quickly. They had to! Apart from playing extremely well, the best of them became excellent sight readers capable of working out complex scores within a few days. They were flexible and marketable pianists with a large repertoire, just what you want from a conservatory education.

Quick Studies

Not every one of our students would be able to handle this sort of pressure of course, and don’t get me wrong – spending weeks and months polishing and refining certain pieces is absolutely imperative! There is no way we can develop pianistic excellence and finesse without this. To redress the balance between the type of painstaking and time-consuming practise involved in perfecting a piece and the ability to read well and learn fast, I am a great believer in quick studies. Learning a piece from scratch involves different skills and different parts of the brain from playing pieces we already know. If we are constantly keeping these particular grey cells active, they get faster and stronger and this makes processing new material quicker and easier. This is where quick studies come in.

I will give a student a short piece usually well within their capability one week and expect to hear it from beginning to end the next, no matter how sketchy or ropey the playing might be. In the next lesson, we will spend a few minutes on it. I’ll comment on a particular aspect (such as pedalling, tonal balance, rhythm, etc.) rather than give a list of corrections (over and above obvious clangers we can fix there and then). We might discuss the composition and how it’s put together and then try it again immediately, or parts of it again. Whether the student continues to play the piece for themselves is up to them, but I won’t hear it again.

Regular quick studies help speed up the learning processes in general, because the information from the score has to be absorbed and digested very quickly. Playing the piece in the lesson is the performance deadline they have to meet. Whether you do this once a week or twice per term depends on the individual student, but eventually this skill spills over into all they do at the piano. Not only will they beef up their learning skills, they’ll also get better at sight reading and have a number of repertoire pieces to play. Intermediate students can tackle repertoire a couple of grades lower than their current level. For more advanced players, how about taking a set of pieces such as the Beethoven Bagatelles, Prokoviev’s Visions fugitives or Schumann’s Kinderszenen and committing to learning one a week in this way? Devote 10% of your practice time to it, and no more. It doesn’t count unless you play it for someone at the end, though!

A Personal Story

Some of the solo playing I am most proud of took place about twenty years ago. I was asked at four days’ notice to play a concerto at a black tie charity concert, standing in for a colleague who was nursing an injury. I agreed to do it even though I was teaching way too many hours during that period, and playing mostly chamber music. I had to be very creative with the way I used the time during those few days – it was a piece I had played many years before so I had to use what little practice time I had very wisely. I didn’t have time to get too nervous nor to luxuriate in the details, I had to get a professional job done. When it came to the concert, I surprised myself with how everything came together so well (because I am usually guilty of giving myself too much time to prepare for big things). I had managed to achieve in a few short days what I would probably have devoted much more time to under normal conditions, probably more time than would really be necessary. This experience taught me that sometimes it is worth taking a calculated risk and getting outside of my comfort zone.

Parkinson’s Law

Last week I spoke of The Pareto Principle in relation to our work at the piano. This week, I would like to bring in another principle from the field of time management, Parkinson’s Law. The following adage was coined by public administrator Cyril Northcote Parkinson in his 1955 essay for The Economist:

“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

If you allow six months to complete a project, it will take six months to complete. If you decide you’re going to do it in three months, it will take three months! Setting a deadline focusses the mind and changes the way we learn and practise. If we have set a time frame to achieve a goal, whether that applies to a component of an individual practice session, or learning and performing a piece from scratch, our mind will tend to focus our energies so as to achieve this. In making the decision we are stating an intention and then focussing on what it’s going to take to get it done. This means that we are more likely to be successful at completing the task within the given time frame than if we had an open-ended attitude.

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I have written more on Time Management in Volume 1 of Practising the Piano eBook series…

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© Graham Fitch 2013.

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12 Responses to ““But it Takes Me Ages to Learn a New Piece!””

  • Another great read, Graham. You have an inexhaustible store of interesting and thought-provoking insights into the wonderful world of piano playing. I must admit, however, I thought at first, you were going to discuss the pros and cons of our exam culture, one of my particular bones of contention. One for another blog perhaps…

  • Hi Graham, I like how you cut to the centre of everything. Especially when it comes to things that matter.

    It is possible to expand your productivity, depending on the decisions you make and how you work best. For example, I am also a writer, but sometimes I can’t get words down because I like to work it out in my head, which doesn’t work because I want everything to be perfect when it comes out.

    So sometimes, I set a timer for myself, where I have to keep writing for the entire duration of the time. That expands my productivity by at least 80%, because now I have text to edit afterwards.

    With the notion of the Pareto Principle in piano, do you think it would be possible to cut away a big chunk of the unproductive 80% and expand the 20%? In other words, although “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion,” do you think, within a shortened timespan, we are still only productive for 20% of the time?

    • Thanks Grace. As I understand it, the Pareto Principle is what it is and those proportions seem to conform to some natural law, rather like pi or the Fibonacci Series. I don’t think it is possible always to be 100% productive (since the results of our practising are unquantifiable in concrete terms) but we could all do with tightening our belts when it comes to how we manage our time.

  • Silvia C. Schneegans

    Good one! Shared it with students an colleagues again! Thank you so much! :D

  • Yes interesting. As an amateur pianist I am a member of a piano circle covering a wide range of abilities. Some of our members are post Grade 8 or diploma people: they usually have something to play at nearly all of our monthly sessions. Others are working for grade exams: they play very rarely indeed, usually in the few weeks leading up to their exams. I come somewhere in between. I’ve never done an exam in my life, but the pieces I learn tend to take me several months to get to a presentable standard, so I play at some, but not all, of our gatherings. But it seems very clear to me that there is a problem with doing exams if, as you observe, they occupy ones whole time, and in between taking exams there is nothing one can play, either to others or for ones own pleasure.

    • There is so much music that is worthwhile and interesting in the lower grades that I would strongly suggest you consider looking at music several grades below your actual level, as an integral part of your practice. You’ll find you end up learning your regular pieces more quickly.

  • Exams? Ugh, never understood that mentality! One of the best pieces of advice I have read came from Charles Cooke’s Playing the Piano for Pleasure. He recommends a mere 10 minutes (no more) of sight reading (anything) everyday without fail. This adds up to 60 hours every year, 300 hours every 5 years and a mind gobbling 600 hours over 10 years. A very good way to place oneself in a position to learn pieces rather quickly!

    • A very good tip! Now we have instant access to free online scores (Petrucci Library, etc.) we need never be bored in the process of digging out new music to read and explore.

  • Hi Graham, I really enjoy reading your articles about all the experiences you had in teaching students with your effective practicing tips. I am glad I am a subscriber to your site. I agree with you that with better sight reading skills, students will be more comfortable in interpreting their music and be a confident player. What do you think of doing sight reading with duet pieces? That will keep the students at pace and work their reading skills at a certain tempo.

    • Hi Purwati. Thanks for your comments! Actually, I think duets and any kind of ensemble music is probably the best way to stimulate the sight reading muscle. There is much more built-in motivation to keep going. Even with the best intentions, it is all too easy to stop and correct or to slow down when playing by oneself.

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