learning a piece

Expanding Your Repertoire with Quick Studies

In this week’s post, Ryan Morison discusses how quick studies can be used as an effective tool to broaden your repertoire and develop good habits and skills when learning new pieces.

Top Tips for Starting a New Piece

Last week I launched a free email course on how to start learning a new piece and lay solid foundations from the outset (click here to find out more). The following is a summary of some of the tips and practice tools from my course which will help you get started on the right track: One (or two) read-throughs is enough to get the gist of the piece – aim for a rough sketch at this stage, leaving out surface detail you cannot manage. Taking the time to practise hands separately is incredibly valuable, not only in the note learning stage but regularly thereafter. Practising separately doesn’t only apply to hands alone, but also to strands. It can be useful to deconstruct a score and play voices separately and then together in different combinations. Working on a piece in small sections at the Speed of No Mistakes ensures accuracy from the start and helps you avoid embedding careless errors that may be hard to fix later. By identifying and marking tricky spots in a piece upfront, you can begin each practice session with a step-by-step sequence of activities designed to solve the problems. Dividing the piece into manageable, meaningful sections helps us structure our practice and ensure that all parts of the piece are equally solid and secure. If you would like a more detailed explanation of these tips and tools, plus examples and other resources then please do sign up for my email course! The course is entirely free, featuring seven video lessons ranging from three to twelve minutes in length. The videos are accompanied by downloads, notes and exercises to help you follow and implement each stage of the process.

How to Start Learning a New Piece

Sign-up for our free email course on how to lay good foundations from the outset when learning a new piece.

How to Broaden Your Active Repertoire

This week’s post is by Online Academy co-founder, Ryan Morison. Ryan is a devoted and dedicated amateur pianist, and I’m delighted to welcome him as guest author to share his thoughts on ways to increase our active repertoire effectively and efficiently. * * * It is the season for virtuous resolutions and a good time to ponder pianistic plans and goals for the year ahead. Many of us (myself included!) will be tempted to embark upon stretch goals, tackling increasingly difficult pieces on our repertoire “bucket list”. Although setting challenges can be inspiring, being overly ambitious has its drawbacks. It often results in one spending ages on a single piece only to fall short of doing it justice finally when (or if!?) performing it. To avoid these pitfalls, I have opted for a different theme for 2021. Instead of tearing my hair out at a few fiendishly difficult works likely to be beyond my ability and available practice time, my objective is rather to broaden my active repertoire. The focus will be more on quantity and quality than difficulty, having a wider range of pieces that I can play at a reasonable level on the spot or brush up at short notice without too much effort. The benefits of increasing your active repertoire Broadening your repertoire can significantly increase the enjoyment you derive from your playing. It exposes you to a greater variety of music and opens up more opportunities to share your playing with others. In addition to enhanced enjoyment, playing more pieces also leads to significant improvements in your playing, teaching you new things and improving your ability to learn even more works faster. A realistic approach Rachmaninoff once said, “Music is enough for a lifetime, but […]

Applying the Practice Tools

If you would like to lay foundations for much more productive and effective practising in the year ahead, you might want to join my upcoming interactive practising workshop. The workshop takes place on Saturday, January 16th from 14:00 – 17:30 GMT and in it I will demonstrate some of the important practice tools and show you how to apply them to learning a new piece, as well as keeping old pieces in good shape. The material will be useful to players from lower intermediate up to advanced levels, and of special interest to piano teachers. Background to the Workshop In the summer of 2019, I was invited by Casio to present a day’s course on piano practice at a central London hotel. I felt we could add huge value to the event if everyone had their own piano to practise on during the frequent breakout sessions. Casio arranged for each participant to have a digital piano and headphones, enabling them to try out the ideas I had just demonstrated using worksheets provided without being overheard. This attracted visitors from all over the UK as well as Europe, and was a great success. we were considering doing this event again when COVID struck. My team and I realised we could adapt this workshop format and present it online and ran a pilot of the format in December last year. From the feedback received, this turned out to be one of our best received events. The format actually worked better online as it made the event more accessible. Having microphones muted during the break-out allowed participants to practise in the comfort of their homes. The only thing missing was the sumptuous lunch and delicious cakes during the […]

How to Practise when Learning New Pieces

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. […]

Get It Right from the Start

It’s the start of a new school  year! With it comes new challenges, new examination syllabi and many wonderful pieces to learn. Whether you do it for pleasure or an exam, here are seven tried and tested steps to help you lay a solid foundation when starting a new piece. 1. Familiarise yourself Get to know the piece better before you start: Reading up on the piece beforehand will give you context Tune your ear by listening to several recordings of the piece  Analyse the piece by considering its form and character 2. Select your fingering Organise and condition your fingers at the start: Note down your chosen fingering for both hands in the score Adjust as learning progresses until you find the perfect fingering Once you’ve found your fingering sweet spot, stick to it! 3. Divide & conquer Avoid overloading your working memory by: Separating the piece into smaller, more manageable sections Exercising mindful repetition using the bar by bar plus 1 method Learning one section at a time before you move onto the next! 4. Take it slow! Learning a piece correctly is more important than developing speed: Start slowly to get your notes, rhythms and fingerings right Give yourself enough time to think and plan in between notes Patiently repeat small sections of music as often as you need it 5. Start in different places Avoid developing weak spots and superficial learning of the work by: Exercising tracking to test and strengthen your memory Working backwards through sections of your piece Starting with any Quarantine spots identified early on 6. Separate hands & strands Simplify the process by deconstructing the piece: Tackle separate-hand activities Break your piece into simple strands Isolate notes […]

Simplifying the Score

When we begin work on a new piece, we might feel bewildered by all the information on the page. The score is dense with notes, fingerings, pedallings and other instructions and it can be difficult to see the wood for the trees. Where do we begin? Starting from the beginning and attempting to process everything at once can often be frustrating and overwhelming, and we feel we are not getting to grips with the piece at all. Making our own simplified versions of the score can be a very useful tool when starting on a new piece, and there are many ways to do it depending on the piece. Not only does it make the music easier to process and digest, it helps with memory too. Blocking Blocking is where we take a passage written in broken chord figuration and practise it as solid chords. For example, let’s look at this Prelude by Bach (the C minor, from Book 1 of the 48) The underlying harmonic progression gives a sense of how to shape the constant stream of semiquavers (16th notes). To discover the chorale (the harmonic framework), play the first two notes in each half bar together thus: In this video, I illustrate a few different examples of blocking, starting with the Bach Prelude (above) and ending with the opening of the slow movement of Mozart’s Sonata in F, K.332. Further reading & resources Practising the Piano multimedia eBook series – click here for more information Skeleton Practice – click here to view my Online Academy series on using skeleton practice Annotated Study Edition – click here to purchase my annotated study edition for the Bach Prelude & Fugue featured in this article From the Ground Up […]

Tips for Learning New Pieces Faster

Do you wish that you could learn new pieces on the piano faster? Do you find that you spend hours learning a piece only to find that you don’t know it nearly as well as you hoped when you attempt to play it? Here are some of my top tips for how to learn new piano pieces more effectively: Know the score before – It helps to have some context before you begin. Do some background research, listen critically to a few recordings and do simple analysis (ask yourself questions about the form, and the character of the piece). Choose your fingering – Attempt to work out a good fingering for both hands together and write it in the score. You may find you need to adjust this as you start the learning process, so allow for any changes. However, once you’ve settled on the fingering make sure to stick with it each time you practise. Work on small sections at a time – Avoid overloading your working memory by breaking your piece down into small sections. Use mindful repetition to work on each section before moving on. A practice method I call “bar by bar plus 1” is a very effective tool for this (click here to read more about it)! Deconstruct and simplify – In addition to separate-hand practice, deconstruct the music by break it it up into separate strands and simplify it e.g. play only the bass notes, or first note of an arpeggiated pattern. Practise at the “speed of no mistakes” – Slow down difficult passages to a snail’s pace so you can play the notes, rhythms and fingerings perfectly. Do this several times, resisting the urge to play at speed […]

Laying Solid Foundations in a New Piece

Have you had the experience of learning a new piece one day and coming back to it the next day to find it hasn’t stuck at all? If you approach a new piece using the repeated read-through method, you’ll probably find at the end of a practice session you have managed to get it sounding better than it did at the start of the session. But how frustrating when you come back to it the next day it feels like it hasn’t stuck at all! Fortunately, there are much better ways to go about learning a new piece such as using my Three S’s: Slowly, Separately and Sections to build solid foundations for consistent progress. In the following video, I demonstrate The Three S’s in action using Petzhold’s Minuet in G minor (BWV Anh. 115) from the Anna Magdalene Notebook. Working in units of one bar (plus one note) and with each hand alone, we find as many patterns as we can as we practise. By patiently repeating a small unit of music – enough to hold in our working memory – at the speed of no mistakes and with our mind fully engaged, we are digging firm foundations for security later on. Practice like this takes a fair deal of discipline, but the rewards are significant. Remember: “Practice makes permanent, and only perfect practice makes perfect!” For more detailed information on the process, follow this link to my blog post, A Daisy Chain Further Information & Resources The Practice Tools Lecture Series (click here to view the series index) Q-Spots Series (click here to view a blog post on this series) Practising the Piano multimedia eBook series – Part 1: Practice Strategies and Approaches (click […]