How Best to Learn a Piano Piece

by IJR112

Learning the piano is very difficult. This article will describe one method for learning piano pieces efficiently.

A good System for Learning a Piano Piece Efficiently

I'm writing this article because I used to practice very inefficiently at the piano.  After doing a lot of research and tinkering with ideas, I feel I've come up with a pretty good approach to learning most piano pieces.  For very advanced pieces, you probably need to come up with something on your own, but this should work for most beginner and intermediate pieces.

To start off, I feel it's important to begin memorizing right away.  If there are any fast moments in the piece, you don't have time to be messing around looking up and down from the music.  I've also found that memorizing right away makes the learning process go much faster.  So how should you memorize?  You should start hands separate at a normal pace.  Let's say there are four beats in the measure.  You could learn the first beat, then the second separately, then the third, and then the fourth.  Once you have that down, you could then learn the first two beats together, then the second and third together, and then the third and fourth.  Once this is done you will probably be able to play the whole measure.  Now do the same with the other hand.

Once you have the measure down hands separate, you can put the hands together slowly.  Go through the process again of learning one beat at a time, then two, and then the whole measure.  Now you have one measure down!  Don't worry if you can't play it at full speed yet hands together.  This will come with time.  Now you can repeat this method for the rest of the piece.  You should then test your memorization by playing two measures at a time for all measures of the piece.  You should ultimately get to the point where you could literally start at any measure of the piece and go from there.  I really feel like memorization is a big key in learning a piece efficiently and well.

Why is this better than other methods?

I just think this method is better than the default method most people use.  Most people don't memorize the piece and they try to learn hands together from the start.  This ends up being very inefficient.  The fastest way to learn is to break the piece down into easier parts.  You do this by starting hands together and learning very small chunks at a time.  You can definitely get very discouraged by learning hands together from the get go because you won't improve very much, if at all.

How Best to Improve Speed?

The way to improve speed is by hands separate practice.  You can use any number of methods.  If you are dealing with arpeggios, you can practice them in chords to get your big muscles used to the speed they will need to achieve when you unbreak the chords.  Another great method is using alternating rhythms.  An example of this would be play, in playing 4 notes, fast, slow, fast, slow.  Then try slow, fast, slow, fast.  This way you don't need to play the whole thing at a fast pace, but by alternating, your hands will become tricked into knowing how to play the whole thing fast.  Then you can try metronome work where you focus on very small chunks of notes at a time.  Breaking down the piece into small chunks is the best way to play fast.  Another important note is to spend some time investigating which specific notes give you the most trouble.  Isolate those notes and work extra on them.  There's no need to waste time practicing notes that you already have down.

Tricks for Overcoming Difficult Passages

As you progress, you will certainly comes across passages in you pieces that are very tricky and difficult to play well.  You should view these passages as a challenge and know that there are several practice tricks you can use to overcome the challenges presented by these passages.  Here is a list of a few different tricks you can employ in your practice routine.

Hands Separate Practice

This is talked about earlier on this page, but it is essential that you practice difficult passages hands separate first.  If you can't play a passage hands separately at performance speed, how can you expect to play the passage hands together at performance speed?  It just won't be possible.  Make sure you are practicing hands separately first.

Dotted Rhythms

A great way to practice difficult passages is with dotted rhythms.  Let's use an example.  Let's say a measure has 8 notes in it in the right hand.  First practice it by playing every other note fast and every other note slow.  So you go: fast, slow, fast, slow, etc..  Then switch which notes are played fast and which are played slow.  This will get your hand used to playing certain notes very fast and above performance speed without the pressure of playing the whole measure at speed.  Because you have alternated the pattern, your hand will become used to playing every note at a fast speed.  Try out different rhythm combinations.  Try playing fast, fast, slow, fast, fast, slow, then slow, fast, fast, slow, fast, fast, etc.  The idea is make it easy for your hand to play the notes of the passage at a very fast pace.  This is a great way to do this.

Simplify

There are certain passages where you can simplify them to make learning them easier.  For example, if you have a passage of arpeggios, you can block those notes together and play them as chords.  You should try to play the passage as chords at a pace much faster than performance speed.  Only once you can play the simplified version of the piece should you try to play the passage as written.  Simplifying like so will get your big muscle groups accustomed to being in the proper position on time.  Another way to simplify passages is to drop certain notes from the passage.  Once you can play the passage with dropped notes, slowly add in the dropped notes until you can play the passage as written.

Good Links for more discussion

Piano Street
This site has a great forum to discuss all piano-related issues.

learning-piano-chords.com
This is a great blog that goes through several ideas on how to practice the piano more efficiently.

Efficient Piano Practice
This site is all about practicing the piano efficiently. You will learn a lot on the topic from reading this site.

Updated: 08/06/2012, IJR112
 
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