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?

learning a new piano piece

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.

Further resources

  • 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).

A Better Way to Play Faster

One of the most common questions asked by readers of this blog is how to play faster. We’re probably all familiar with a scenario in which we’ve laid careful foundations with slow practice only to find that everything falls apart when increasing the tempo beyond a certain point.

Slow practice is excellent for the initial note-learning stages and can also help us as we build up speed. How can we get a piece up to the full speed while retaining the feeling of coordination and control that is possible at slower tempos?

using a metronome to play faster

Using a Metronome to Play Faster

A common way to build speed is the incremental metronome method. This works by taking a section of a piece and setting your metronome to a pulse that you can already comfortably manage (this might be very slow). When you can play the passage comfortably, increase the speed of the metronome by an increment of your choice (perhaps 5 bpm, or even less). When you can control your playing at this speed, make another incremental increase on your metronome.

This is a favoured method of many great pianists and clearly has its merits. However, it can also be somewhat time-consuming and tedious, running the risk of becoming mechanical and mindless after a while.

A Better Way to Build Speed

An alternative method, which I find far more efficient in going from a slow note learning tempo to the desired tempo is playing little bits fast, often called “chaining”. This method enables us to build the reflexes for fast playing, and because we limit the length of the chain in each iteration to what is manageable or just outside our grasp, we are able to finesse the sound we are after at full performance speed.

Here’s how it works:

  • Without the metronome, play just a few notes at speed, then stop. Think of a sound bite from a full performance, with dynamics, good sound, shaping, etc.
  • Evaluate your result as precisely as possible – for example: “The LH was uneven”, or “The hands weren’t together”, or “It felt tight” using the Feedback Loop.
  • Mentally rehearse the snippet you played before you repeat it, imagining how it sounds and feels to play evenly, with the hands precisely together, freely, etc. See, hear and feel in your imagination. It is most important to go through this stage before diving into the keyboard again.
  • Repeat the previous 2 steps until you are happy.
  • Add another note, or group of notes and repeat the process, now with this longer chain.
  • Start a new chain from the note(s) you ended on, and work in the same way.
  • Now you have two short chains. Join them together until you have one longer one.
  • RESIST the temptation to go over things slowly and comfortably – we’re building new reflexes and this will be challenging!

In this clip from a recent online workshop, I show how to apply chaining techniques to the Allegro of the first movement of the Pathétique Sonata of Beethoven:

Further Reading

  • For a more indepth I explore this subject in depth in Part One of my eBook series, Practising the Piano – The Practice Tools
  • The following blog posts contain more detailed information on the concepts covered in this article:

How to Play Fast – Free Workshop!

If you’d like a hands-on demonstration of how to apply these and other practice methods for building speed then you may be interested in joining our free workshop on 2nd November 2022. In this shortened version of one of our most popular online workshops, Graham Fitch will use a selection of pieces of various levels to demonstrate ways to move them from an initial, slow learning speed up to full performance tempo. Click here for more information and to sign-up!