When learning a new piece, not all practice makes perfect. We’ve all had occasion to stumble at the same learned-in mistakes that originated when we first started learning the notes, and weren’t perhaps as careful as we might have been. To establish good habits we need a thorough, mindful approach from start to finish.
Here are some tips and suggestions for how to break down the process of learning and refining a new piece to avoid typical pitfalls:
Prepare your mind
Making time vs. instant gratification
You have chosen a new piece and are excited to get stuck in to learning it. One or two read-throughs is a good idea, but take care to avoid the repeated read-through method or you risk ingraining all sorts of sloppiness.
What to do away from the piano & why
This is the start of a new relationship between you and your new piece. Laying the groundwork starts with some research into the origins of the piece, its raison d’etre. Listen to recordings, make notes and begin to explore the score away from the piano. By the time you start work at the piano, you will already have an idea of what you want to convey with your interpretation.
Analysing the music
Study the music and analyse its structure in whatever ways are meaningful to you. Look at the various sections, phrases, tempo relationships, patterns, chords, and so on before your fingers even touch those keys. Have a sense of the overall design and what you want to bring out in your performance means you can hit the ground running.
Taking a logical, patient approach
Learning a new piece takes time and discipline, also a certain amount of patience. Have a plan for your monthly, weekly and daily practice, using a practice diary to help you structure and reflect on your work.
Learning the notes
Repeat good habits
Tempting though it may be to play your new piece at speed and race to the end, any mistakes that sneak through here will likely come back to haunt you. Instead, when practising a difficult section, tackle those weak links head-on: slow the passage down and work very deliberately on the notes, rhythms and fingerings. Repeat mindfully, and repeat again.
Pitfalls to avoid
In the early stages of practising a new piece, it’s important to stay alert to those things you might do that will have a lasting negative impact on your ability to play a piece. Beware of over-exertion and physical tension, keep an eagle eye on the score to make sure you are observing the composer’s phrasing, dynamic and articulation markings, not allowing any wrong notes or fingerings to slip under the radar. Remember – any errors you repeat will quickly become ingrained, and much harder to fix later on. Focus on nipping any careless errors in the bud as soon as they appear.
Play around with the patterns of your piece and create exercises to practise, based on the difficulty you are trying to solve. Make these as short and simple as possible so you can look down at your hands as you practise. There are many ways to practise chords so they end up feeling great under the hand. For example, play the top line by itself then add the bottom notes (omitting the middle notes).
Reflect & Reinforce
The Feedback Loop
Focus your practice session by deciding what and how to play, and how it should sound. Listen critically to your results. Depending on how well the outcome matched the intention, the feedback loop will help you decide whether or not to repeat the process and give you a tangible target to aim for on the next repetition.
Recording your session
After listening to your practice session, reflect on your performance. Highlight what you did well and write down what needs attention. This will inform the content of your next practice session.
Practising a performance
Practise playing the piece through from start to finish in order to build up your confidence and concentration. Don’t allow yourself to stop for any reason (after all, you are practising a performance and in no performance can you stop to make corrections!). Further suggestions for practising a performance are available here.
As you will see, learning a new piece is a process that takes time, effort, commitment and concentration. Think of it like a journey, and you are going on a voyage of discovery. Use the practice tools to help you navigate the journey every step of the way, remembering to listen to your results critically. This logical, focused approach to practising will help you tackle any new material with confidence.
- Video walk-throughs of popular works such as Burgmuller’s 25 Easy and Progressive Etudes, Chopin’s Fantasie-Impromptu, Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata and Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C# Minor (Op. 3 No. 2)
- A growing collection of video walkthroughs for selected pieces in the new ABRSM 2021 & 2022 examination syllabus
- From the Ground Up – a series that uses reduced scores and outlines to help you learn new pieces faster, featuring works by Bach, Chopin, Grieg, Schumann and Beethoven
- Annotated study editions and walk-throughs for works by Bach, Debussy, Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms, Schubert and Ravel