Leatham Music

Learning New Music

Strategies for faster study

—Gregory Lewis

Listen to great recordings

Give yourself a strong start by listening to concert pianists before you begin studying. You must know what the music sounds like or your first weeks will be spent plunging into the unknown.

No two artists play the same but by reading the score as you listen you will still gain valuable insights into the composer’s style. Always strive for the best sound reproduction. Great artists rarely play two consecutive notes the same volume. All phrases need to be “going somewhere” dynamically and rhythmically.

If subtle dynamics are missing due to internet streaming compression or low quality speakers then you will miss key aspects of the music. The sound on YouTube is often very bad indeed.

Listening through mobile speakers is always sub-optimal, but sound-canceling earphones can improve the experience. Some popular choices for serious students are listed below.

  • DVD, Blu-Ray or YouTube recitals.
  • CDs in CD, DVD or Blu-Ray players. I use a Boombox that also plays MP3 discs and has a radio.
  • MP3 files at better quality 320kbps.
  • Spotify or Apple Music streaming.
  • Apple iTunes for separate tracks or full albums.
  • FLAC files for playback on a high quality audio system.
  • My Big List has links to my favourite piano performances.

I buy CDs from Buywell if possible, or from Presto Classical who sell SACD, CD, DVD, Blu-Ray, Hi-Res FLAC, MP3 and vinyl records. Browse their choices for Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.

Start at the end

It is depressing to hear music begin confidently, with a great sense of style, only to end with many wrong notes and unscheduled gaps.

Beginning your journey into a new piece with bar 1, then bar 2, then bar 3 and so on is a spectacularly inefficient and error-prone learning method.

If you begin every practice session at bar 1 then ultimately the opening pages of your music will be more secure than the final pages. This is surely counterproductive.

Spend time on the end of the piece when you start learning it. Your mind needs to know the big picture early in your study. Also, many instrumental pieces increase in complexity as they go along, so leaving the final few pages til last isn’t sensible.

Have a clear plan

Rehearsal marks are capital letters inside boxes. They should be added at regular intervals throughout the music. Most composers build their music by combining short sections of six to ten bars. Your teacher can help you locate these sections. Sometimes composers indicate new sections with thin double bar lines.

If you have decided on rehearsal marks A, B, C, D for a piece of 30 to 40 bars then learn D to the end first.

Learn in the order D, C, B, A then finally from the beginning up to letter A. Try playing each section with your eyes closed even if you do not plan to perform from memory.

Later, begin each day with a different section. As a performance failsafe you must be able to start easily from all rehearsal marks.

Use a metronome in the early stages of learning to ensure that no rhythm errors creep in. Your ears must hear the correct version each time. Rhythmic errors are particularly hard to remedy. Remember, “Practice makes permanent”.

Work in short sessions

Concentrated practice in short bursts is superior to long hours of playing. 30 minute sessions are quite long enough. As you become more proficient try for multiple sessions. Five or six sessions per day are usually enough even for advanced musicians.

Never simply correct a wrong note then continue as this only teaches your ears and muscle memory to insert this error into into the music. Always reflect on why the note was wrong, go back a bar then slowly repeat.

If you intend to perform without music then try memorising at the same time as you are learning the notes. Adding one section at a time is faster than waiting until you can play the entire piece.

As your performance date approaches always play through to the end regardless of where you start. Play the final section to the end, then from the second last section to the end and so on.

This obviously means playing the end more than the beginning, at least for a few weeks. At the performance your confidence level will increase as you approach the final page.

For pianists

Play slowly and accurately, with the same fingers each time, otherwise your mind is continually learning new versions of the music. This slows down your progress.

Check with your teacher that your chosen fingering will work at the final performance tempo. If the published fingering does not suit you then change it.

Unless both hands are working together, work HS until you can give a musical performance above ⅔ tempo. Include dynamics, articulations, finger pedalling and phrasing. Playing staccato-pianissimo in the early stages can help you learn the notes more quickly.

Take time to absorb what is happening in each hand before you play HT. Take a steadier tempo with both hands. Wrong notes mean you are playing too fast.

Even after you know a piece confidently there is value in continuing the following plan, especially for difficult sections.

  1. Left hand alone
  2. Right hand alone
  3. Left hand alone again
  4. HT five times, slowly, no errors

Keep five tokens, large buttons, or novelty pencil erasers at the end of your keyboard. Move a token to the opposite end of the keyboard after each correct repetition in step 4.

Other techniques to try after you know the music HS are:

  • Zig-Zag Method – play bar 1 with your right hand followed in tempo by your left hand, then switch to your right hand and so on. Start again with your left hand.
  • Backward Chaining – for difficult sections, play the final bar then the final two bars and so on until you reach the beginning. Finally, play it all five times slowly.

Intermediate and advanced students should subscribe to Graham Fitch’s excellent Practising the Piano blog.

For brass players

Basic principles of dividing your score and learning individual sections still hold true but you must include the additional step of singing your part. Unless you activate your singing mind you will only be playing the correct notes by accident, not a good effect.

If you have a backing track then clap along to check rhythms then sing along to ensure you know the correct intervals.

Without the backing track, play each phrase a few times from breath to breath with all dynamics, articulations and phrasing. Don’t learn the notes first then add “the other stuff” later. In a performance you will play the way you have rehearsed.

When you know the music, sing along with the accompaniment while miming your finger or slide movements. Sing the entire piece while listening only to the piano part or backing track.

Finally, play along with the accompaniment track. Don’t be content with getting it right. Practise until you can’t go wrong !

Practise performing

When in practice mode, be alert to errors, think of solutions then rework those bars.

In performance mode your efforts should be in keeping the rhythmic flow of the music alive. This takes precedence over accuracy. A few dodgy notes here and there will be a part of every concert you play. It is not possible for anyone to play without occasional errors.

Learn to cope with unexpected mistakes by performing often. As recital time approaches ask friends and family to listen to you. Don’t stop once you begin.

It is never OK to ask “Can I start again ?” during a performance. If you are forced to stop then go back to the nearest rehearsal mark and restart immediately.

Record yourself. The Tunable app has a built-in audio recorder along with a tuner and metronome. Most mobile devices have video capability. Watching yourself play is character building !

Observe how others see you and listen closely to what they heard, not what you thought you played.