Engaging Your Mind Learning a New Piece

Isn’t it frustrating when a piece you’ve been practising for a while and feel like you know well falls apart in performance? It’s one thing to be able to play for yourself in the comfort of your own space and quite another to perform in front of others – one of the claims I hear most often in a lesson is: “I can pay it perfectly at home”. Even if only playing for yourself, do you also sometimes feel that your results fall short of what you would like to achieve?

One common cause of this problem is that many players rely on simply repeating a piece over and over until the physical movements become habitual. This creates the illusion that the piece has been successfully mastered. Unless we are exceptionally confident in front of an audience, pure muscle memory can prove unreliable when under pressure. Much of the problem stems from insufficient preparation – not having built strong enough foundations from the outset when learning a piece and from playing it through too often with scant regard for any ongoing maintenance procedures. 

Learning by design?

The more painstaking we are about the way we encode the score (processes of learning, practising and preparation, the better able we are to decode it (the act of performance) while handling any nerves or jitters. In this blog post, I will look at a practice tool that works beautifully for memorisation, but that is also useful for deep learning – even if you decide to play from the score.

I call this practice tool PPR – Personalised Pattern Recognition. “Personalised” means that you don’t have to be intimidated by formal analysis if you haven’t had such training, you have a tool to help you find your own ways of seeing the design features in a piece of music from the macro to the micro levels.

By discovering patterns in the music that are meaningful to us personally as we practise, we can absorb the music into the cognitive parts of the brain and into the long-term memory far quicker, more deeply and more permanently than merely moving the fingers in response to the printed notation.

PPR in practice

In the opening four bars of the Allemande from J. S. Bach’s Partita No. 1 in B-flat major, you might first notice the harmonic progression and perhaps block it out in solid chords – I-IV-vii°-I on a tonic pedal:

JS Bach Partita in B-Flat

Don’t worry if you are not versed in harmonic labels, there are other ways to see this passage. Here are two of the main design features that should help you absorb the material:

  • The first RH note in each bar ascends stepwise from the dominant, F, to the tonic, B flat, while the bass stays on the key note.
  • The semiquaver (16th note) figuration is made up of two main features: a descending broken chord in an alternating (jagged) design (under the square brackets) interrupted by a written-out mordent figure (circled), and afterwards a rising broken chord, arpeggio style (slurred).

To use this information practically at the keyboard, first visualise and then play from memory the notes in the blue boxes, ignoring everything else. Do this relatively fast, without any regard for the eventual tempo – we are just establishing the design at this stage:

Pattern recognition in a new piece

Thereafter, you might play the notes in the blue boxes together with the notes in the red circles, followed by the descending notes of each bar, omitting the rising ones (and vice versa) before bringing all the ingredients together:

Engaging the mind learning a new piano piece

To test and reinforce your aural and analytic understanding of the passage, play the semiquavers with the 2nd or 3rd finger of your RH (necessarily slowly and detached) from memory. If you come unstuck, it means you didn’t fully grasp the design. Once you are successful, you can work out a fingering and start to work on the muscular memory as you explore articulation and shaping possibilities, returning to the one-finger practice periodically to check that you are not relying solely on muscle memory.

A shorter, more thorough process

While it might seem laborious and time-consuming to engage the analytic mind in the process of learning, it ultimately saves time by shortening the learning process while simultaneously deepening it.

Players who have had little formal training in music theory often baulk at the thought of analysis, but as you have seen it does not have to be daunting. By devoting energy to identifying the formal structure of a piece as you see it in early practice sessions, you can have this organisation front of mind in later practice sessions to help retrieve memory cues that control your playing.

As we get used to seeking patterns, we will constantly discover new ones during our practice, since our PPR radar will always be pinging somewhere in the background, helping us to really know the piece!


If you’re interested in a practical demonstration of this and several other deep learning tools, please have a look at my upcoming interactive workshop in which I’ll be showing you how to use these tools with exercises I’ve created specifically for this event. If you can’t join us live, you can also watch the recordings and try out the exercises in your own time afterwards. Please click here for more information or to book your place!

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