Learning a New Piece

Your child comes home from his piano lesson with a new piece of music from his teacher.  What is the best way to practice this new music? How is the best way to learn that new piece-do you start playing it from the beginning and keep playing until the end and do this 3 or 5 times each day until the piece is learned?  This is what most students do, but if your child practices that way, most likely they will never polish the piece and there will always be a spot or two where the tempo slows WAY down and they struggle. Do that enough times- teach the brain and fingers the wrong way to play the piece and it becomes very difficult to change.

A better way:

  1. Visually look at the piece-your child probably did this at the lesson, but maybe not. The teacher doesn’t always have time to go over everything in a 30-45 minute lesson.  It doesn’t ever hurt to do it again if he already did it with his teacher.  Are there any new notes that he might need to identify and find on the piano? Are there any sharps, flats, or naturals (aka accidentals) you might need to be aware of? Any tricky rhythms? Repeat signs? Coda or first and second endings? Basically you are looking for anything new or tricky. You will also want to go through the piece and identify the time signature, the key or position it is written in, the intervals, the chords, etc.  Look for patterns.  Does the bass clef use a repeated pattern or ostinato? Does the right hand repeat the melody? Don’t be afraid to mark the music and write in clues to help your child.
  2. Find the hardest rhythm, chord, or notes and play that first. Play only that-isolating that spot. Usually this will be with hands separately, not together.  Then find the next hardest spot and isolate that. This is called blocking – isolating the trouble spot and working through it.
  3. Often, a student will look at a piece of music and be overwhelmed. This does not just happen to beginning students-it happens to seasoned ones as well.  Another form of blocking is to break the music into manageable chunks of 2-4 measures and focus on only that section.
  4. Practice hands separately until you are comfortable with each hand and then put them together.
  5. Use a metronome to help keep a steady beat. Yes, I know just about everyone hates the metronome and there’s a good reason for that, but it is a great tool to keep the beat steady and avoid deviations in tempo. Many beginning students don’t know they are slowing down the hard measure(s) until the metronome tells them they are. Often the easiest measures are the ones not in tempo with the others-the student speeds up and doesn’t keep the beat steady.  Students needs a metronome to teach them.  Use it in small doses because it can be a frustrating tool.
  6. This process will take place over several practice sessions, and maybe over several weeks, depending on the difficulty and length of the piece.
  7. Once the entire piece has been learned using the above techniques, put everything together and play from beginning to end at least once each practice section. Students need to feel the flow and momentum of the music. This should never be the primary focus of practicing a piece, but is used mainly when polishing a piece for completion or performance.
  8. Blocking practice is a great tool, but it must be used correctly and varied often. Read this post for a varying practice style.

Have you found any other tools to help your child learn a new piece of music? Share them in the comments below.

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