I’ve touched on the process of learning a piano piece for the first time in the various tutorial videos on this website. In a typical tutorial, I’ll walk you through my process of approaching a piano piece for the first time, usually complete with a bit of history, listening, and analysis.
But it was brought to my attention a while back that I’d never done a video simply on the process of approaching a new piece, so I thought we’d do that today.
Learning a piano piece for the first time
Here’s how I break it down, and then we’ll go over the individual points in more depth. At the end of this video I’ll share some additional practice tips for when you’re learning a piano piece for the first time.
Phase 1 represents everything I generally do before even attempting to play the piece, whereas Phase 2 is active and involves playing.
- Listen through the piece (multiple times; bonus points if you follow with the sheet music)
- Brush up on any historical details (like the song form, composer, era)
- Physically mark up the piece into workable sections (the size of the section depends on the size of the piece)
- Start with one small section (usually a 4-bar fragment) and slowly work through a part HS, or one voice at a time
- Once I can play a section slowly HT (but somewhat comfortably), I stop working on it so my brain can marinate overnight).
- Repeat steps 1-2 for all of the other sections. Be sure to go over previously learned sections daily – they’ll start to get more comfortable with daily repetition.
1. Listen through the piece
When I’m learning a new piano piece, the first thing I do is listen to it. Sometimes it’s a piece I’ve heard before, so I’ll just listen once as a refresher. If it’s completely new, I’ll listen through several times, usually with sheet music in front of me.
You want to use all of your senses when starting a piece, and that includes your ear. I like to start with the ear, while coupling that with reading (following along with the sheet music). I then move to the analytical part of my brain, and then move along to actual reading and playing (tactile).
2. Brush up on any historical details
Say I’m learning a waltz – if I feel I need to, I read up on what a waltz is. Or perhaps I’m learning an impromptu. Or a fantasy. Whatever it is, I like to familiarize myself with the genre before attempting it. What era was this genre popular? What are the tendencies of this genre? Any particular tempos or rhythms?
In addition to getting an inside scoop on the genre, I like to have a working understanding of the composer as well. Learning music is a much richer experience when you can connect to a composer across space and time, and know him/her.
What’s their nationality? When were they active? Even more importantly, what was their playing style? Some composers, like Chopin, tended to be very delicate and quiet, whereas composers like Liszt played with vigorous energy.
3. Physically mark up the piece into workable sections
Once you’ve listened through a piece and you have an understanding of the genre/form, I think it’s a good idea to go in and break it up into smaller components.
When you look at several pages of unbroken sheet music, your brain can be overwhelmed. But if you section everything off, it suddenly becomes much more manageable.
How you do this is entirely a personal choice, though I do like to stick with the song form if possible. So if I’m learning a movement in sonata form, I’ll break it down into the exposition, development and recapitulation (see the video we did on that). And if it’s a long sonata, I’ll break up those into smaller parts.
Generally if something starts repeating, or if there’s an obvious change of pace, that’s a good spot to mark off. Double bar lines and repeats are also very good guides for when sections are changing.
Learning a new piano piece: Phase 1
So that covers phase 1 – everything I like to do before I even touch the piano. Now we’ll take a look at how I approach a piece once it’s time to start pressing those keys.
4. Start with one small section
Start with one small section (usually a 4-bar fragment) and slowly work through a part HS, or one voice at a time.
Often I see people attempt to sight read a whole page or two of music when they’re just starting a piece, but that tends to be a way to burn out your brain really fast. Your brain has to process so much new input that by the time you get to the end of the page, you forget what you played at the beginning of the page.
This is why I always start with very small fragments – usually 4-bar fragments, since music is often divided that way – but not always. You could start by learning a phrase – phrases are good guides for when it sounds natural to start and stop.
I tend to go really slow, maybe running through it hands separately once or twice. If it’s a piece with multiple voices, like a fugue, I like to go through the individual voices (using the correct fingering always).
I might even spend 10 or 15 minutes here, depending on how well I’m digesting it. The goal is to start building the part into your memory. When you go and play it again, you want your brain to go, “aha, I remember this”. Still, after those 10 or 15 minutes it’s not going to be learned. It’s still going to feel a little clumsy, but I should be able to play it accurately at a slow tempo.
5. Put the part away
Once I can play a section slowly HT (but somewhat comfortably), I stop working on it so my brain can marinate overnight).
I never belabor a new part. I never beat it to death. After a little bit of practice, I put it away once I feel relatively comfortable with it. Your brain does magical things overnight, and I like to use that to my advantage.
Generally I find when I re-approach the same part the next day, the first try or two will feel clumsy, but then I’ll get quite a bit better at it – much better than if I were to hammer at the same part for an hour in a row.
6. Rinse and repeat
Repeat the previous two steps for all of the other sections. Be sure to go over previously learned sections daily – they’ll start to get more comfortable with daily repetition.
Say I spend 30 minutes working on a brand new piece – I might get through three different micro-sections.
The next day, I might spend 10 minutes reviewing those sections, and then spend 20 minutes learning a couple new sections.
I rinse and repeat this process until I’ve made it through the whole piece.
You might think time compounds, and once you’ve learned so much, you’d have to practice for an hour in order to get to any of the new parts. But the review process tends to be pretty constant. As you start getting better and faster at certain sections, you’ll need to spend less time on them, and thus, the review will be shorter.
So in a half-hour practice session, 10-15 minutes of reviewing previous parts is plenty, even when you start adding more and more sections.
Learning a Piano Piece: Tips
1. Force yourself to be rhythmically accurate immediately. Just like it’s a bad idea to practice hitting the wrong notes, it’s a bad idea to practice playing the wrong rhythm.
Really my number one tip is to strive for accuracy of everything right from the beginning, especially notes and rhythm. Anytime you’re inaccurate, you’re essentially practicing playing wrong. You want to practice playing right.
2. If you find yourself hesitating in any section (or pausing, or making mistakes), quickly isolate that section, however small. Quarantine it and fix the problem. You might find certain sticky areas need this kind of attention daily, but it’ll pay off.
3. Incorporate pedal immediately if there’s pedal in the piece. You want pedaling to be a natural part of the piece, not an awkward afterthought.
4. It might seem like a lot of coordination to pedal when you’re learning the notes, but the payoff is more than worth it, and this process will get simpler in future songs as you get used to the process.
5. Try to work in details in your practice sessions (ie staccatos, dynamics) right from the beginning. This will help your ear get used to what it’s supposed to sound like, so later, you won’t have to put much conscious thought into the dynamics and etc – they’ll already be a part of the way you play.
This ties in to my first and most important tip to be accurate. Accuracy not only means practicing the right notes and rhythms from the start, but also the right details.
6. I can’t say it enough – accuracy is the most important thing. Mistakes aren’t the end of the world, but don’t be sloppy. If you’re playing sloppy and making lots of mistakes, you need to change something – slow down, work in a smaller section, practice hands separately, learn an easier piece.
That’s all for today’s video/blog on learning a new piece for the first time. This is the process I use in the vast majority of cases. Look for your own method that works for you, but if you’re stuck, give this template a try the next time you start a new piece.