How to learn a new piece
By Melanie Spanswick
When learning a new piece, there are so many considerations. How will you start? Do you like to listen to several performances? Or do you prefer to sight-read through your new piece slowly? Or perhaps both? However you choose to begin, it’s always helpful to employ a routine which can be applied to each piece, aiding speedy learning and thorough assimilation. Here are a few suggestions:
1 Dissect and digest the score. You can do this before you start to play. Mark up all the fingerings and be sure to add plenty, in order to secure fruitful learning from the outset. Now look carefully at the structure; what musical form is used? Is the piece tonal? And if so, what’s the key signature? Where does it modulate, or does it? Turning to the texture, is the piece homophonic (chordal) or polyphonic (linear), or neither? Write your observations on the score as they can be beneficial during the learning process.
2 Historical Context. Whilst working on dissecting the structure of your new piece, why not delve into its past? From which period does the work hail? Aim to read around the composer’s life, their music, and their stylistic traits. Is the piece typical of their style? When was it written? Is it one of a group or collection of pieces, or does it stand alone? Is it part of a larger work such as a sonata, for example? These discoveries will place the piece in context.
3 Rhythm. One particularly helpful practice tool is tapping, that is, taking the rhythm out of context and ‘tapping’ through the piece either away from the instrument on your knee, or on top of the piano lid. My students find this extremely important. First try tapping the rhythm of each hand separately; it can help to use a metronome to establish a firm pulse. You could start slowly and build up speed if the rhythm is more complex. When you can tap through your piece without any hesitations, tap both hands together so that the rhythm feels natural and fairly simple. Be sure to observe rests and pauses!
4 Chunking. Another great practice tool – and one of my favourites. I actually call this ‘blocking-out’ and it’s useful on so many levels. Taking note patterns out of context in your piece, work with the aim of playing as many notes in each beat (or each bar) as possible, forming a chord. Occasionally, it’s a challenging task, but usually, this type of practice allows us to learn and assimilate whole bars of music at once, forming a clear impression of where our fingers and hands need to move. Once you can do this slowly, separating the various musical strands will feel easier. Take a page, or shorter section, at a time if you are learning a long piece.
5 Chunking with a metronome! Once you can ‘chunk’ slowly, it’s time to add a pulse. Set a reasonable pulse – not too fast – and play each ‘chunk’, whether you are blocking-out each beat or each bar, to a set pulse. This will certainly help you to find note patterns swiftly and it will bode well for the task of separating each musical line when learning the piece as written.
These basic steps will aid quicker learning and greater security. We are now ready for the next part of the learning process, so stay tuned for Part 2.
© Sarah Barnes