A new piece! There is nothing quite as exciting as that promising and as yet unsullied page.
I have been asked several times lately, “What’s the best way to start a new piece?” And I have given some evasive answers, saying that it depends on the piece and the player. While that is certainly true, I do have some “best practices” (and one you should avoid!) that will help you get off to a good start with any new piece.
Why not just dive right in and tackle those notes?
Because when you use a more systematic approach, you learn much more than the notes. You learn by using the musical skill, experience and knowledge you have already developed in a way that will help you see the big picture and practice with the end result already in your ear. You will be learning the music, not just pedals or levers and fingering.
And there are more benefits including fewer “practiced-in” errors, faster hands together learning, greater focus and improved sightreading skills.
Are you ready to walk through the steps? Let’s do that now.
Step 1. Listen before you play.
Before you play a note, find a recording of your new piece, perhaps on YouTube, and listen to it, following along in your music. You could even pretend to play along, strumming your “air harp,” as you listen. Listen two or three times before moving on to the next step.
There are two purposes of this step: to give you the big picture view of the piece, and to exercise your musicianship skills. When you listen with attention to music, you begin to notice important musical details like the sections of the piece (also called the form of the piece). And by following along with your music in hand, you can match the sound of the notes and rhythms you hear to what you see on the page, which will help train your ears and eyes. This is a perfect opportunity to develop those critical musicianship skills.
Step 2. Play the piece all the way through.
You will treat this as a sightreading exercise, meaning that you don’t have to play at tempo, but you do need to play hands together. (I know many students like to start a piece hands separately, but I believe that they do themselves a great disservice this way. More on that later.) If you can’t get all the way to the end of your piece, that’s fine; just do the best you can. This is sightreading practice and will give you a good feeling of the level of challenge ahead of you.
Step 3. Mark the sections.
Remember those big sections, the form of the piece, that you noticed when you listened to the recording? Mark those in your music, labeling them with letters, A, B, C, etc. Then divide each of those sections into smaller sections of around 4 bars in length; number these, 1, 2, 3, etc. These will help you do in depth practice later on.
Step 4. Get down to business.
You may begin at the beginning of the piece, or anywhere you like. Start with one of your numbered small sections if the piece is challenging for you, or several sections together if the piece is not too hard. Then try this 10 step process with that single section. You only need to do each step once!
- Play hands together as slowly as necessary.
- Play hands together, slowly, counting aloud.
- Repeat step 2.
- Play the right hand alone, counting.
- Play the right hand again, adding the metronome at whatever tempo you can manage.
- Repeat step 4 with the left hand alone.
- Repeat step 5 with the left hand alone.
- Play hands together, counting, slower than your hands separately tempo if necessary.
- Play hands together, using the metronome.
- Repeat step 9, then go on to the next section.
You may not be able to get through your whole piece in one practice session with this process. Simply note where you had to stop and play through the rest of the piece as best you can. The next day, begin where you left off the day before.
Remember that this is only necessary at the very beginning of learning a piece. Also, you may not need to do this kind of work for every section of your piece, even the first day you begin to learn it. But this process will get you off to a solid start with any piece that presents a challenge to you, and even better, will keep you from feeling overwhelmed.
One last thing – the practice method you should avoid. Don’t start by learning hands separately only. Hands separately practice is wonderful for things like securing a fingering, learning a pattern or clearing confusion. But if you want to eventually play hands together, that’s where your practice should start. Playing hands together is truly different than just playing right hand and left hand at the same time. It is a different coordination of processes and a skill you should be developing every day. So don’t handicap yourself by waiting to put hands together when you get a new piece. Do it now!