5 Shortcuts to Learning a New Piece

Jun 19, 2024

By Anne Sullivan 

That moment of excitement, the crisp, clean page of music full of promise. It’s a brand new adventure – the starting of a new piece. When I was a student, it was the moment I loved most. My teacher would put that new music book on the stand, and I could hardly wait until I was at home and could begin to learn it. I was always an eager, if not always a careful, student. I would launch head first into the new music to see what joys were waiting there, reckless of the wrong notes I played along the way. And that recklessness would cause me problems later. I would have many corrections to make and much curbing of my enthusiasm before I had the piece learned to my teacher’s satisfaction.

I have often envied my students who take a more sensible approach. Their careful systematic practice leads to much more predictable results. But there is a weakness in their strategy too. Sometimes it just takes too long to get to the finish line.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have the best of both worlds, speed and accuracy? You can and here’s how.

These shortcuts below are great guidelines for any time you start a new piece. And they will help you get where you’re going almost as fast as you want to get there.

Five shortcuts for learning a new piece, quickly and correctly

  1. Play the piece through. Get the big picture. Don’t mire yourself in details right away. Experience the music as a whole, or at least as much of a whole as you can manage. It will give you a taste of the finished product, one that you can use to keep you energized when the going gets tough.
  2. Count! This is perhaps the best advice I can give you, and the one that you will resist the most. But when you count, right from the first in a new piece, you learn where everything belongs. Work at keeping the best steady; use the metronome. A steady beat, even a very slow one, will help you learn the relative pacing, which will help you with fingering and other technical issues.
  3. Don’t obsess over the details. The details like fingering that can seem so important to learn can become too big a focus at this stage. Certainly you want to establish the correct habits, but if you focus too single-mindedly on those details, you can lose sight of the musical big picture. It’s like not seeing the forest for the trees. You will want to focus on these details later, though.
  4. Keep the music in mind. Learning music isn’t just about the notes. The notes are meaningless without the context given to them by dynamics, musical mood, phrasing, and form. Tempo is part of this too. When you keep the piece too slow for too long, you keep it from developing its real character.

Have a deadline. It could be a performance or just a date on your calendar. Give yourself enough time, but not too much.After all, without a finish line, how will you know you’re there?


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