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Take me through your process on learning a new piece

Posted By: CebuKid

Take me through your process on learning a new piece - 02/06/13 03:37 AM

I'm very interested in new ideas. I'm still very much a slow learner, even though I'm sort of an adult piano "veteran" these days...lol. mad

Here's how I do it. I survey the piece first, map out all the flats and sharps, and then I play HT and sometimes HS on a few measures (chunks) at a time with the score. I do this little by little, and after I think I've mastered the measure(s), I move on to the next. In the past, I've called it "chunk and repeat." Eventually, memorization happens - a little bit of visual and muscle memory.

How about you guys? Take me through your entire process - from the time you (or your teacher) choose(s) the piece up to performance.

I may or may not comment but I'll be intently reading. smile
Posted By: Whizbang

Re: Take me through your process on learning a new piece - 02/06/13 03:59 AM

My process isn't as diligent as it should be.

Where I am right now, and speaking just for ragtime, I'll generally grab the sheet and just start reading through the piece, reasonably close to tempo, but not clean, just to feel it under the hands.

If I like the way it feels and sounds, then I'll revert to playing straight, but SLOWLY and as accurately as I can. For phrases, I try to grok, for lack of a better term, the overall hand motion pattern. Playing slowly, I can generally play "sort of" clean. The big learning from that is to try to figure out the difficult transitions.

That's the point at where I'll start notating the score... I'll put little warnings earlier in the score about trouble sections coming up and often try to work out specific fingerings. For real trouble sections, I'll revert to HS and try to get the motor patterns down that way. For things that don't "look" the way they're "played," I'll often write in sharps or flats explicitly.

As things solidify--takes a few weeks at least--I'll do more play at tempo, trying to notice mistakes in the same place on the repeats. That's an indicator that I've not learned a pattern well and I try to smooth it over with sectional practice.

I recently tried measure-by-measure, phrase-by-phrase practice from the back of the piece (for "Ethiopia") and I didn't really notice significantly better surety as a result of the process. It's very hard for me to play cleanly, especially in a performance.

I may not being ridiculously diligent enough.

Memorization is a whole 'nother ballpark. I'm not a natural memorizer--the opposite in fact--and, until recently, hadn't memorized anything for 20+ years. But I recently forced myself to memorize 1, then 3 pieces. (Took about a year.)

What works there for me is to memorize the walking octaves sections of the bass as a 'melody'. Then learn to chunk in the chords. And then put in the melody. The memory is highly motor-oriented, but I 'watch' my left hand, which generally somehow anchors what my right hand needs to do. Those aren't strong forms of memory, but my ear is extremely weak and remembering chord progressions has been a complete bust for me so far. There are some sections where I can sort of know what chords I need to hit.

My 'reset' points for stoppages tend to be at the beginning of sections, not phrases.
Posted By: ju5t1n-h

Re: Take me through your process on learning a new piece - 02/06/13 04:19 AM

I use the same process for every new piece I learn

I like to read the music a few times, and maybe listen to someone playing it on youtube or my teacher playing it whilst I'm reading.

I play HS for a week or two (the whole piece without stopping every time). If there is a part I'm having difficulty with I will repeat that part numerous times after I've played all the way through. Once I am comfortable playing HS I will play HT very slowly. All the way through without stopping. Keep going till its perfect!

Playing measures at a time is good for you to digest things, but it's not good in the long run IMO. I feel that when I did it, i'd become really really good at the first part, and then terrible at the middle or the end parts because the first part had been played many many more times compared to the rest of the piece. You should work through the entire piece without stopping, even if it takes you longer because it guarantees consistency though the piece. Just work extra on the parts/measures that you have difficulty with.

Posted By: Bobpickle

Re: Take me through your process on learning a new piece - 02/06/13 05:21 AM

1)Break the piece down by form (ABA, AAB, etc.)

2)Break the piece down by logical sub-sections of no more than maybe a line, but quite likely more in the neighborhood of a measure or two (see josh wright video) by which to practice and build on.

3)Figure out fingerings hands separate.

4)Start working first on the most technically difficult sub-sections first hands separate then together.

4.5)Analyze each section (harmonic analysis, pattern recognition, etc.) while working on it - this makes memorization a cinch.

5)Slowly put sections together.

6)Let speed come naturally as relevant technique and familiarization of the piece sinks in to the brain/fingers.

7)Win! (in time, if patient!)

Josh Wright has great advice on the topic: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Th5ljgUP9lg
Posted By: beechcraft409

Re: Take me through your process on learning a new piece - 02/06/13 06:05 AM

I listen a few times while looking at the music, maybe even listen to a few versions. I get a feel for what key it is in, play the scales a few times to get comfortable with any sharps/flats. Then I just go. I play a measure until I can play HT at- or close-to tempo, then move on to the next. I will play the next measure by itself until I have a feel for it, but once I do I will replay all previous measures each time I play the measure I am actually on.

When there are natural changes in the piece, or maybe "obvious sections" is a better term, I will treat it as a new starting point in regards to building on top of previous measures. If I have one section down pretty good, I won't replay it each time I practice the succeeding section, until I have completed that new section.

Each time I complete a new section, I will play all the sections that I do know, many times before moving on to the next. Depending on the composition, time varies greatly. My recital piece that I just submitted took about a month total. A Chopin prelude I learned took almost a full year, although I spent two or three months away from it. But yea, I just rinse and repeat that process until I am done with it, at which point I normally have it memorized. I can't read and play at the same time.

I have once or twice tried what others are saying about playing all the way through hands separate. That doesn't much help me because my greatest struggle is coordinating both hands. Being able to play the whole thing before mixing my hands does me no good, because I still have to start from square one when I bring the hands together.
Posted By: Derulux

Re: Take me through your process on learning a new piece - 02/06/13 08:58 AM

1. Choose a piece
2. Sight-read it, and decide if I really want to dedicate the time to it
3. Try to play it way too fast
4. Go back and slow down, trying to correct all the mistakes I learned from #3
5. Try to speed it back up again too soon
6. Go back and slow down, trying to correct all the mistakes I learned from #5
7. Repeat steps 3-6 until the piece is learned

This is, of course, quasi-facetious. wink
Posted By: CarlosCC

Re: Take me through your process on learning a new piece - 02/06/13 10:21 AM

Check this thread where we discuss this process:

Posted By: timmyab

Re: Take me through your process on learning a new piece - 02/06/13 02:15 PM

My learning style is to identify and start working on difficult passages straight away.The easier parts will pretty much take care of themselves.I also try to target the final quarter or so of the piece whether it's easy or difficult.
Difficult passage work gets the hands separate treatment so I can work out the best fingering at the correct tempo and stick to it.
Once the tricky bits are overcome (if they ever are), then I'll play through the whole piece with the use of a metronome to iron out any tempo unevenness and possibly force the speed if necessary.
When I've got the shape of the piece in my head I then get rid of the metronome and start to reshape it in a deliberate way.This is The best bit, where I can experiment with different ideas, dynamics, pedaling, tempo, phrasing etc.I must admit that I usually listen to multiple recordings at this stage to help me.Sometimes I realize I've been playing something wrong and sometimes I copy ideas.
By this stage it's pretty well in my muscle memory but I still need to work on making it secure.This is one of my weak points because my memory is very poor so I work on starting the piece from random points in the score.I'm usually met with a complete blank at first but gradually it sinks in and then I've got a series of index points throughout the piece.
I then go through a stage of mistakes creeping in which have to be recognized and taken apart to work out what's going wrong.It's usually a fingering problem or possibly a bit of tension.Once this stops happening the thing's finished.
Posted By: GustavoF

Re: Take me through your process on learning a new piece - 02/06/13 02:40 PM

Listen to the piece

Play it completly fluently HS fast (Above tempo). Fingering is handled mostly here.

Divide the piece on sections

Pick up 2 mesures + 1 extra note from 3rd mesure play HT until easy, start slow and increase speed until playing at tempo.

Pick up next 2 mesures + 1 extra note rinse and repeat (You always start from the mesure, so you have already worked on the link between the mesure you are working in and the mesures before...)

Once a section is done, play all mesure of the section until perfect.

Rinse and repeat with all the sections

Play the whole piece. If trouble somewhere, pickup the mesure before and after the trouble and play it, first slowly and perfectly then each time faster until you play it faster than tempo and perfectly.

Replay the whole section with the trouble again.

Rinse and repeat.

I have found out that if you want to perform a piece perfectly you need to play it perfectly "easily" when at home training or you will most likely not be able to do it when under presure.

I like this thread, it gives ideas
Posted By: CarlosCC

Re: Take me through your process on learning a new piece - 02/06/13 03:47 PM

Originally Posted by Derulux
1. Choose a piece
2. (...)

For me, this is the most difficult and important of all things. I take a long time to choose a piece to play...
Posted By: Whizbang

Re: Take me through your process on learning a new piece - 02/06/13 04:02 PM

Originally Posted by Derulux
1. Choose a piece
2. Sight-read it, and decide if I really want to dedicate the time to it
3. Try to play it way too fast
4. Go back and slow down, trying to correct all the mistakes I learned from #3
5. Try to speed it back up again too soon
6. Go back and slow down, trying to correct all the mistakes I learned from #5
7. Repeat steps 3-6 until the piece is learned

This is, of course, quasi-facetious. wink

But oh so familiar.
Posted By: justpin

Re: Take me through your process on learning a new piece - 02/06/13 04:08 PM

Look at the speed, anything over 120bpm I can't do.

Look at the key to identify the sharps and flats.

Have a go left hand have a go right hand.

Identify any patterns.

Pull it together only on the level of hitting the right notes.

Alter my fingering to something more comfortable.

Increase the speed,

Then go for expression.

Posted By: zrtf90

Re: Take me through your process on learning a new piece - 02/06/13 05:09 PM

I hope you like reading, CebuKid.

I am Mr Methodical. I thrive on routine.

Analysis and Audiation
Adding a significant piece to my repertoire happens in discrete phases. It starts with a structural analysis breaking the piece into sections, be it exposition, development, etc. or verses and middle 8's, each section is divided into lines or phrases and each line phrase into musical fragments, clauses, 'words', etc.

I will listen to good recordings while following the score or, without recordings I will audiate and use the piano to identify/confirm large or chromatic intervals, chords etc. At the end of this phase, a few days to a couple of months, I will be able to sound the whole piece, in my head, from memory.

During this time I will look at 'sung' lines and apply words to help the phrasing. In Chopin's Nocturne in Eb, Op. 9 no. 2, for example, most lines begin with a leap. The higher note is usually very particular as to its attack. It is in the nature of music that higher notes are often slightly louder than lower notes so volume increases as the melody rises and decreases as it falls. Leaps require a special attack and volume consideration.

Looking at four notes, say, are they fairly equal tones 'Please, please, please, please' or is one note emphasised, 'HUCK-leberry', 're-GEN-erate', 'Ala-BA-ma', or 'under at-TACK'? What's the sentiment or emotion?

Reading difficulties
Before sitting at the keyboard I sort out any reading difficulties. Are the ornaments clear? What about accidentals and ledger lines. In extreme cases I might write out a short section by hand to clarify the rhythm or spread out crowded areas. Notes with more than three ledger lines I may pencil in the note name (usually just the start note in a group). Unusual chord groupings/voicing I might identify with the chord name or memorise the shapes separately.

Measure for Measure
On the first day at the keyboard I go through measure by measure, playing HS and HT to establish fingering and note distribution between the hands. At this stage I'll be concerned about taking each measure up to a fluent tempo (HS), if not recital speed, just to be sure the fingering works HS. I'll also make notes as to where the mechanical difficulties lie and which sections are hard/easy etc. I usually do this for the whole piece first but I may take a multi-page sonata in smaller units. This can take several days with a difficult piece.

The first day of each week and usually once or twice more during the week I begin by audiating the whole piece/page first then playing the whole of the current page HS and, where possible, HT. I then tackle any mechanical diffculties on the page, HS. Weak finger trills, stretches, changing finger on one note, passing 5 under 4 etc.

When there are no mechanical difficulties that haven't been addressed (they may not all be solved immediately - but they need to be gone over slowly each day) I begin with the day's objective, memorising a short section. With a Bach fugue that has little memorable in it I may work on half a measure. With more chunkable material, usually in a looser sonata type piece, I may work on eight or more measures. It depends on how much I can hold in short term memory in a couple of repetitions. I alternate between HS and HT and care not a jot how much time I take between notes. Once the muscles have learnt the moves the tempo will come up automatically.

I'm careful about starting each section with the right fingering by playing a little of the end of the last section, writing the fingering in, and include a few notes from the next phrase at the end.

There are typically two types of difficulty when putting the hands together, co-ordination in syncopated rhythms and leaps of assymetric distances, especially in opposite directions and requiring visual targetting. For the latter it is just a question of choosing when to look at each target note and practising the leap while watching the other hand. For the former I tend to use sentences where the natural emphasis falls on the beats. Once I can play the correct notes with the correct hand in the correct sequence the sentence gives the correct rhythm for bringing it up to speed.

An example might clarify this. Chopin's Waltz in C# minor, Op. 64 No. 2, M83-85 includes an 8 vs 3 polyrhythmic problem. The sequence runs BOTH-BOTH-RH-rh-rh-LH-rh-rh-rh-LH-rh-rh-BOTH-rh-rh-BOTH. When I have the sequence correct I bring it up to tempo to the rhythm of "AND THE DON-key call'd BOT-tom has be-COME the new FAM-i-ly PET". I don't win prizes for lyrics but this works for me!

When I can play each line, on its own, from memory I move onto the next section and forget what I've just done. When I get to the end of the piece I start again. Sometimes I still remember most of the music and can recall it all in a couple of repetitions. That's a good sign. Other parts I can't recall easily and this is an excellent sign. It means there's something deeper there that I have to fathom out to make it memorable. This is the area I have to shore up before I can contemplate public performance.

Another example. Mozart's sonata K.545, Andante. M38, M41 and M67 I kept falling over. For years I'd screw up these measures and forget them between visits. I mixed up the LH in M38 and M41 and completely forgot to move my whole hand in M67. In M38 the LH hops down, in M41 it steps down and in M67 the whole hand has to jump. By adapting the mnemonic 'hop, skip and jump' into 'hop, step and jump' I've never since fallen over in this movement.

Putting it all together
When I can play the whole piece in half page sections it's time to break out the metronome - not to speed up the piece but to slow it down and keep it steady and controlled. I'll choose a tempo that's comfortable for playing after months away without having to practise. This is the tempo I'll use for the bulk of the times I play the piece. For Chopin's Waltz in Db, Op 64 No. 1 it will be decidedly slower than recital speed but for Schumann's TraĆ¼merei it will be a shade quicker.

Only when I'm convinced that all sections are up to standard with no areas of difficulty will I finally put the sections together. I'll have played through the whole thing once or twice a week while I'm getting there but if I join the sections too soon I find little areas of insecurity that I tend to just play through because there's a bigger problem elsewhere. They tend to get left and eventually become too ingrained to fix securely.

I gradually come up to recital speed - not by deliberately speeding up but by gradually relinquishing restraint.

Posted By: Saranoya

Re: Take me through your process on learning a new piece - 02/06/13 08:15 PM

I really had to think about this, hard, before I could write it down.

Until very recently, I mostly learned short (one-page) 'beginner' pieces. Insofar as these were harmonically pretty simple, and not too advanced technically, I could read through them (not necessarily while sitting at the piano), figure out the underlying logic in terms of chord progressions, arpeggiated passages, octave runs and so on, whistle the melody to myself, and then put the score away. I'd play from memory pretty much forever after that, though it usually took me a while to play HT. My greatest weakness is left/right hand coordination.

I don't really have a clear picture of the mechanics that take me from 'sounds good in my head' to 'sounds good when I play it' with these short, easy pieces. I suppose I tend to think in musical phrases rather than measures, or blocks of measures, so I'd play a phrase right hand only, then try to put the left hand beneath it, and struggle through a few times (or several dozens of times, depending on the piece) until reasonably secure. Rinse and repeat until done.

Of course, the downside of this 'no score' approach is that if I read something the wrong way once, but it doesn't sound out of place in the whole of the piece, I'll forever play it wrongly -- or at least, until someone points out the mistake to me, or I hear a recording and go back to verify that any discrepancies I might have heard were, indeed, written that way.

When I got started on the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata, I decided to take a slightly different approach. I had kind of a 'head start' with this piece, because I'd learned the first page or so of it without ever looking at the score, from memory, after hearing it multiple times on the radio, on TV, in podcasts, and so on. So, in terms of underlying musical logic, I already had a pretty good idea of what to expect. After all, by and large, the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata is just a bunch of octaves in the left hand, coupled with a bunch of arpeggio's in the right hand. The notes change, but the pattern doesn't (much).

Having this pattern pretty secure in my memory allowed me to actually look at the score on a far more detailed level. It was as if I could now better 'afford' to break things down into pieces that, in and of themselves, didn't necessarily make musical sense to me: I already knew where they 'fit' in the overall piece. It became a game of 'compare and contrast'. I would either read a measure, and recognize it as a slight variation on something I could already do, or find out it was something completely different that I would need to practice separately. I'm hoping that, as I progress in my piano studies, the 'slight variation on something I can already do' will become more and more common, and then I'll eventually be able to play things right off the page based on pattern recognition.

Even with all of that, though, I am currently still incapable of reading and playing at the same time. I rely heavily on the fact that I have a strong melodic memory to play without looking at the score. Most of the time, once I've played through a piece a few times, I'm not even able to tell which notes are in it anymore (I'd have to sit down at the piano and play, while looking at the keys I was pressing, to know). But I'll still 'hear' which note I'm supposed to play, even though I don't know what it's called.

As for how I choose pieces ... in part, my teacher tells me what to play because she thinks I have something important to learn from playing x or y. In part, I just pick out pieces I've always wanted to be able to play. I think my next project after the Moonlight Sonata (not tackling the third movement just yet, I don't think) will be a Chopin Nocturne. Not quite sure which one yet. Also not sure that I can really jump from where I am now to a Chopin Nocturne. We shall see.
Posted By: Michael_99

Re: Take me through your process on learning a new piece - 02/07/13 03:04 AM

1 Usually, I read over the music a few days before I play the next piece making sure I know the notes, etc. measure by measure.

2 I sit down at the piano read and play the music ever, ever, so slowly, walking through the measures playing the music by the hour, by the day, by the week, by the month, by the year, whatever it takes.

3 When I have learned the piece, I play it several times a day along with my other pieces for many hours, days, weeks, and year by year, whatever it takes. It is all about sitting down on the piano bench and playing the piano until you die. Playing the piano is all about playing to die for. I guess I love playing the piano.

4 It is all about commitment.
Posted By: casinitaly

Re: Take me through your process on learning a new piece - 02/07/13 07:30 AM

Well, choosing the piece... sometimes my teacher will select one that will help me develop a specific technique, sometimes I just choose a piece that I want to play.
The ones I choose are quite ecclectic in nature - they might be from my Jazz,Rags and Blues books or from the Barocque period - but in the end I'm still young enough in my piano playing that every piece has something new. Fortunately, at this point they all have something familiar as well!

Once the piece is chosen I tend to try to find a youtube performance of it, and I listen while reading the score.
Thanks to Richard, I know that I also sometimes audiate. (I had to look that word up Richard, I'd never heard it before!).

I used to work on HS when starting, but now, most of the time I go straight to HT for a very slow, not worrying about tempo, first try. This gives me an idea of where the trouble spots are going to be.
I zoom in on the potential trouble spots and work from a measure or two before through to a measure after to check on the fingering and experiment til I find something that feels right.

Then, depending on how hard the piece is for me, I either work on 2, or 4 bars at a time -- or I work on a musical phrase, which might run for longer, but generally the biggest "batch" is 8 bars.

I try not to re-start at the beginning over and over but to focus on different parts. I confess though, the temptation to go back and play what (after a certain point) is familiar and smoother, is often irresistable!

My first teacher encouraged me to play without stopping when "performing" what I considered a finished piece for her, and though I don't think she ever told me to do that in practice, I did tend to just keep on going rather than stop immediately and correct an error.

My new teacher has me extremely focused on first playing slow enough to get all the notes right first time every time (ha ha, I wish) before getting up to speed and correct tempo.

So now when I practice, if I feel I'm stumbling, I just go over and over the measure - looking at the notes, looking at my fingers, seeing if I have to make adjustments and annotations for fingering.

I have found that while this technique seems very slow when I first begin a piece, the learning pace picks up very quickly after.

I also make my own little notes with arrows and letter codes to remind me to "think ahead" and get ready for what is coming. I tend to not move my hands quickly enough when there are leaps and so I make a note to remind myself to do it. After a while I erase those notes.

When I think I'm doing quite well, I make a recording. This is my "reality check". I sit down, listen to my own recording with the score and notice where I flub, where I have hesitations, where I am totally oblivious to the dynamics. It can be brutal, but it serves me well.

Then I go back and work on all the problems that I found.

Posted By: zrtf90

Re: Take me through your process on learning a new piece - 02/07/13 11:46 AM

Audiation was a new word to me, Cheryl, when I joined PW. smile

Posted By: Forrest Halford

Re: Take me through your process on learning a new piece - 02/08/13 06:26 PM

Originally Posted by zrtf90

I gradually come up to recital speed - not by deliberately speeding up but by gradually relinquishing restraint.

This is CHOICE - as in GOOD! A real paradigm shift there.


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