Lately, I have been receiving questions on a popular topic that is consistently discussed with music students: how to go about learning a new piece of music. I find myself repeating some of the "dos and don'ts" when teaching students, so I decided to share five thoughts for when you learn your next piece.
*I will note that these tips are geared towards piano students, but the general principles can be applied to most musicians.
Do not listen to recordings of the same work
I realize that this tip might stir controversy with my colleagues, but I strongly believe in this one. Let me explain. In the initial stage, when your music teacher assigns you a new work, you might listen to some recordings before you start learning the piece to get yourself familiar with it. I am OK with this, sort of; however, I object to the notion of listening to recordings of the same piece during the learning process. My reasoning is that this phase is supposed to be one of discovery and growth.
What fingerings should I use in this tricky passage? What does this composer mean by this expression marking? How should I pace the melody here and how much liberties can I take? To me, all of these type of questions are part of the exciting and creative journey. When listening to recordings too early in this stage, one forms "prejudices" by trying to copy or emulate certain favorite recordings. The creative process suddenly disappears. One mentor reminded me a long time ago: "copied art holds far less value than its original."
Only until after all of these fundamental issues are sorted out thoroughly, one can and should listen to a wide range in styles and interpretations of the same work as a mode of comparison. In today's age, I believe that we, myself included, have been conditioned to be incredibly goal-oriented, so that we feel rushed to complete a task as quickly and efficiently as possible. I contend that the the process of learning a new piece of music takes time, discipline, and patience, which leads me to the next point...
Do not rush the process
Learning new music takes time. And hopefully, the more you do it, the better you will get at it. When one practices hands/parts separately, it takes time to understand the rhythm, melodic contour, harmony, hand/finger coordination, and structure. Each component must be dissected, analyzed thoroughly, and scrutinized to the finest detail before attempting to reassemble the parts back together again.
One recurring refrain that I hear from students: my hands will not cooperate with my brain. I know exactly what I need to be doing, but it just isn't happening!
I often say to my students that just because the brain understands what needs to happen, it doesn't mean that our hands will automatically follow suit.
So how do we teach our hands then?
Adopt multiple practicing methods and techniques
When practicing, try to ask yourself the following: what do I hope to accomplish by practicing in such a way? Be as specific as possible. I feel that this will help streamline and organize one's thoughts in correctly diagnosing a particular problem.
For example, slow practice is great and helpful, but only in specific contexts. What happens when you are working on a piece that has lots of jumps and skips, such as Liszt's La Campanella? To me, spending a considerable amount of time on slow practice seems inefficient in this situation.
To list all of my practice techniques on here would be too numerous and extensive, but some quick thoughts that come to mind: examining pieces in a macro and micro way when appropriate, practicing slow pieces in a quicker tempo than indicated to understand pacing, and reducing the music to its skeletal design. In other words, do not feel that you have to be a prisoner to the score at first. Sometimes, taking away the visual components temporarily out of the equation, i.e. note-beaming, rhythmic placement, tempo, and bar lines can be helpful when doing technical work.
Be creative! Just because you are learning a new piece, it does not mean that the process has to be mechanical and automatic.
Try to be as complete, holistic, and thorough from the beginning stages
When first learning the notes and rhythm of a piece, I am a firm believer in closely examining all of the musical details and incorporating as much of one's own interpretative thoughts as early as possible. The reasons are numerous for this: 1) it makes the learning process far more enjoyable; 2) sets a routine in establishing good habits for the piece (rather than having to learn it one way and then undoing it later on); and 3) leads to having a quicker and greater understanding of the work. As a result, memory will happen in a natural way.
Learning new music should be fun
All of the aforementioned tips are efforts to inspire the creativity within you! I want to encourage you to have the mindset of exploring, expanding, learning, and growing. Indeed, learning new music can be frustrating at times, but it should be fun. One gets to "start over" in figuring out new puzzles to solve. We must be constant learners, right?
What do you think? I would love to hear from you.
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