Planning to learn a new piece
Updated: Feb 7, 2022
I recently moved house in a hurry. We had already planned to be in the US for Christmas, and a few weeks before that my wife was offered a new job starting in early January. So we had to organise somewhere to live, pack up our belongings and arrange a removal company. When I say it like that it sounds straightforward, but it was very stressful to say the least. Careful planning was essential.
Looking back a month later, it occurred to me that the moving experience was a bit like the process of learning a piece of music. We have a final destination in mind, and there are many elements that must come together at the right time in order to get there. Some things will come more easily than others, depending on our experience, but one thing is true for everyone: we must have a clear strategy and plan ahead.
First, let’s take a moment to define what practising is all about (this is a huge topic worthy of a blog post on it’s own). Practice involves breaking the piece down into sections, working out and sticking to a systematic fingering, preparing each hand separately before putting them together, playing slowly and gradually building up to tempo, taking care to follow the performance directions, internalisation, memorisation… the list goes on.
Here are some ideas to help you get started:
Choose something you already know. This may seem obvious, but if you already have an aural picture of the piece in your mind, this will give you a headstart when you come to work on it yourself. You may have to work on it for several weeks/months, so it’s important that you really want to play it and never lose sight of the end goal.
Set a time limit. If you allow yourself two months, that’s how long it’ll take. If you allow two weeks, that’s how long it’ll take. Deadlines are important and help focus the mind. Just make sure that your time limit is reasonable.
Plan your sessions ahead of time. Once you’ve set a deadline, you need to plan how you’ll get there. Look at how much time you have and consider how you can be most productive during each session. Keeping a practice diary is a good way to keep track of progress.
Set short, medium and long term goals. This is particularly important if the piece is long, or if you have limited practice time available. It also helps to maintain motivation.
Play for others as soon as possible. Do this as often as you can, once you've found your feet with the piece.
If you simply start at the beginning and play to the end repeatedly, fixing issues as they arise, you'll get through new pieces eventually. If you plan more carefully, as described above, you'll reach the destination more easily and the whole experience will be less stressful and more rewarding.