How to Learn a New Piece of Music on the Piano

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Welcome to This is Robert Estrin. Today the subject is, how to approach a new piece of music on the piano. I randomly opened this big fat book of Chopin Mazurkas to the Mazurka in A-flat Opus 24 No. 3. I do not know this piece. I literally flipped through the book, and we’re going to see what happens.

The first thing you want to do when you’re approaching a new piece of music is to sight read it through to get acquainted with it. There’s a fundamental difference in the way you’d sight read a piece when you’re playing it for someone, or certainly when you’re accompanying someone where you have to keep everything moving. If you’re playing with someone else, you must stay together. When sight reading a piece for someone, you do the best you can even though you may have to flesh some of it out leaving out some inner notes. You must surmise what it should sound like and do the best you can. But in this case, when you’re reading to get acquainted (not playing for or with someone), you want to make sure you’re playing everything accurately, even if you have to play slower.

So, I want to start off and sight read this piece. I’m going to do it the way I would if I was playing it for someone and when it starts, maybe I’ll know if I’ve heard this Mazurka before! You can listen on the accompanying video.

That went pretty well. But at this point you will notice, it wasn’t entirely accurate. I was sort of getting the chord changes. Since there is a repeated section, I’m going to stop. If I was playing it for somebody, I’d make my way through it, perhaps not using the best fingering and not quite getting all the notes. However, if I was reading this to get acquainted with it, I wouldn’t do that. Instead, I would take it slowly figuring out the exact notes. I would figure out how to negotiate the music properly. I wouldn’t get too hung up because I wouldn’t want to start practicing yet. I just want to get acquainted. So, you have to draw the line of how far to go with your reading in order to get a sense of the music, yet not start pounding out wrong notes and cementing mistakes. So let’s see how to approach learning a new piece.

I am going to use no pedal so I can hear everything clearly. This will give a sense of the harmony. I had it mostly right! I did spot a double flat that I had missed.

The first time I went through it, it wasn’t perfect, but it was like a performance at least. So if somebody wanted to hear the piece, it could be satisfying for them because I wasn’t stopping and starting all the time. However, when you’re approaching a new piece of music, you want to take a moment to make sure you’re playing the correct notes, the correct harmonies. Double check your accidentals and things of that nature.

Now, the next step, after you’ve read through the whole piece in the matter I’ve described, you really don’t want to read the piece ever again, if you want to read pieces, pick another Marzuka or another piece of music entirely. Why is this? If you continue to sight read the piece, unless you played it perfectly, the first time through, you’re going to continue to miss things. And even though I played fairly accurately most of the piece the first time, there are all kinds of details on the score that are essential for the piece that are important such as, the exact place where slurs end, where dynamic start and end, and other fine details. Composers aren’t haphazard with these details. These are intrinsic to the composition and must be learned meticulously.

The very next thing to do after the precursory reading, is to go to the very beginning and break it down to the smallest possible elements checking everything. I could probably start from the beginning and read it through five or six times and sort of know it and then I could go back and keep reconstructing the score trying to fill in the details I didn’t quite get. But that’s not very effective practice.

On a piece like this, I might be able to get away with it honestly, because I can almost read it! But if I was learning a Bach fugue or a late Beethoven Sonata, or a piece of Ravel, there’s no way that method would work! So, you might as well use this practice technique with everything you learn which is the method I described in a video years ago that’s worth watching.

I’m just going to show you that here with this piece. The very next thing I would do if I was learning this piece, even if it was a piece of Mozart which is relatively easy to memorize, is to break it down as follows.

Start at the beginning taking just the right hand, the very, first tiny phrase.

Believe it or not, that’s all you should take because you can learn that really quickly and it’s satisfying. You will notice things like how the music starts with a decrescendo, and then you have a decrescendo. Also, the very first note starts with an accent. That doesn’t take very long to learn, so you might as well get all these details learned right away.

You want to check your work constantly as you go. Work out the fingering as well as the notes, the phrasing and the expression – everything!

Before moving on, be sure everything is solid. Play it until it becomes automatic and you don’t even have to think about it!

Next, you take the left hand. Solidify the music until it is memorized.

Check everything over and make sure there are no other markings, no indications of expression or phrasing that you may have missed.

Before putting the hands together, refresh your memory of the right-hand part you learned earlier.

Make sure you still remember it. Check it with the score once more. You might wonder why you need to go through such tremendous pains to learn a piece of music. It’s because you never want to have to unlearn something. You must make sure you are learning things correctly.

Next is the hardest parts – putting the hands together!

It’s important to put the hands together from memory the first time. You must challenge yourself even if you have to play much slower. Again, check your work with the score. You will hear subtle differences when you follow details precisely.

Finally, you add the pedal – That’s your reward for a job well done!

Keep playing until you are happy with your performance. Then you can go on to the next phrase and learn it the same way.

If you practice this way, you will be able to play your music exactly as you intend it to sound.

By taking very small phrases, you can spoonfeed the music to yourself. This is important because you can practice like this all day long because it’s relatively easy. Where if you try to memorize eight measure phrases or 16 measure phrases, you may be able to do it. But it would take so long that you may be limited in how many phrases you can emass in one practice session. However, you can work through this entire piece of two measure phrases and never get mentally tired. And better than that, you know it’s secure since you’re looking at every detail and solidifying as you go..

Next, you want to put the phrases together from the beginning.

First, refresh your memory of the first phrase you learned earlier. Check your work with the score. Play many times until it is secure from memory putting the two phrases together. Now you can reward yourself playing with the pedal!

So, that is the secret of productive piano practice. You must take your time focusing your attention on all the details as you learn. Remember, first read through the piece, a little bit more carefully than you’d read it if you were just reading it for somebody or accompanying somebody certainly. Take the time to make sure you have all the notes and at least have an idea of places you need to work out fingering later, even if you can’t quite get it initially. And then get to work and practice. Don’t take more than you can bite off at a time. If you’re taking more than a minute to learn something, you’re taking too much, because that way you can learn something every single minute of your practice and make it really productive and sustain a long practice. Even if you could read through the whole piece a bunch of times and almost have it memorized, and almost is the key word here, you don’t want to do that. You want it to be learned perfectly. You want to get every last detail of the score because that’s what makes it sound so beautiful!

Chopin was a master and crafted his music taking advantage of every marking in the score. Don’t get used to playing it wrong, because the correct phrasing and expression and fingering are going to bring the piece to life.

I hope this has been enlightening for you and you see the way I work and I recommend that you try it with your music. You can go through the whole piece connecting phrases as you go, memorising first just after you’ve just read through it and you won’t believe the difference it will make it your practice.

I hope that’s been helpful for you again, this is Robert Estrin here at Your Online Piano Store. 949-244-3729