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 for a while.
- Practising is saving, playing is spending – Avoid the tendency to constantly run through your pieces. View performing (playing through) as “spending” and practising as “saving”.
- Use mindful repetition – Use the “feedback loop” to first plan what you’re trying to achieve with each repetition. Evaluate and then carry the results forward into the next repetition. The process is “plan-play-judge”.
- Tackle weak links – A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Identify those sections of a piece that regularly break down or feel shaky and uncomfortable and put them into quarantine for a period of time.
- Start anywhere – Choose different places in your piece to start from when practising (these may also be your “Quarantine spots” from above). Divide a piece into sections, like tracks on a CD, and work backwards – that way, the end will be as secure, if not more so, than the beginning.
- When to avoid listening to recordings – During the learning process you’ll want to avoid listening to recordings or you risk copying other players’ ideas or getting frustrated that your speed doesn’t match Martha’s. Develop your own voice and trust your musical instincts. Learning a new piece is a process that takes time and patience – it’s important to learn to enjoy the journey as much as the destination.
How about starting a new piece and giving these tips a try? Please see the following list of further resources for materials to support you along the way or to delve deeper into some of the concepts introduced in this article.
- The Online Academy’s repertoire library has an extensive collection of video walk-throughs, annotated study editions and resources for learning new pieces, including:
- From the Ground Up – A series which uses reduced scores and outlines to help you learn new pieces faster, featuring works by Bach, Chopin, Grieg, Schumann and Beethoven
- Practising the Piano eBook series – The tips in this article are covered in in more detail in Part 1 of my multimedia eBook series.
- Sign-up to our mailing list and subscribe to our YouTube channel for more tips and resources on practising, technique and learning new pieces.
- Free Online Course on Practising – Two-week email course based on my video lecture series with additional instructions and exercises for applying the various concepts in a practical manner (sign-up here).