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How Do You Learn A New Piece?


Mark Taylor
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How do you learn a new piece (something that is too difficult to sight-read)?

 

At some stage, we probably all learnt by dissecting a piece (LH and pedals, RH and pedals) and then putting it back together again.

 

For some time my usual approach has been to play the pedal part through a few times on its own (and mark up which foot goes where) and then to learn the parts as a whole, playing very, very slowly, and then speeding up. I tend to learn a piece in bite sized chunks - usually half a page at a time, depending on difficulty.

 

I recently read an article where an eminent organist expressed the view that it was always beneficial to learn each part independently and then fit them together (they were talking particularly about Buxtehulde and Bach).

 

What do others think? And are there any suggestions of useful learning techniques?

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I think this is all very sound.

 

For contrapuntal music it is important to be conscious of each melodic strand. Whether you need to play each one separately will depend on your experience and the complexity of the music. I find I can track individual parts without difficulty, but it can still be worthwhile to sit back and take a cool look at each one.

 

Spend time working out the best fingering and pedalling for difficult passages. Write it in the score and make sure you play that and nothing else. This is something I have always been particularly lazy about and is undoubtedly the reason why I have such a crap technique.

 

With difficult passages it pays to work backwards. Isolate exactly which notes are causing the problem. If, say, it's just the movement from one chord to the next one, practice those two chords - slowly at first, then quicker - until they are second nature. Then go back to a point a note or two before the problem and play that passage until it is safe. Then go further back still - and so on.

 

If a whole passage is problematical you can attack it the same way. Go to the end of the problem and work backwards.

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I wouldn't recommend my lack of method, which is to ramble through things.

 

Oddly enough, I can grasp the musical elements long before I grasp the notes or even bother to read all the little markings concerning dynamic and tempi. I usually find that I've got it right.

 

Perhaps because I have a very poor motor-memory as a musician, I don't find that I learn the mistakes. In fact, I don't learn anything until such time as I look at the problems and work out ways of correcting them.

 

I'm sure this isn't a good method, but Julian Bream tended to work this way when playing new music.

 

There's probably a deep method in my madness, but I've never been able to say what it is. I suppose that playing it all at once, means that much of it goes OK, and there is no need to waste time. Once I know a work musically, I can then concentrate on the errors and the elimination of them.

 

It works for me, but I'm not about to write a tuition-book.

 

MM

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First thing I do is sit down at a piano and mark up all 'un-natural' fingering. The urtext editions of Bach has very un-natural note distrubution between the staves, so I mark out exactly which notes I am to play with which hand. I find learning a piece in sections the best way for me, starting at the end and working backwards. If its a particulary hard bit I'll play it oooh so slow, like crotchet = semiquaver, that gives me chance to actually think about what I am playing, but still keeping it very rhythmical is essential. Another idea is to play different rhythms, eg a string of semiquavers dotted (IE dotted semiquaver, demisemiquaver etc).

 

Marking the score is the most helpful thing to me, but I try not to over-mark it, if there are some old markings I made a while ago which I don't need anymore I'll rub them out. More markings = more to think about, and you'll often ignore them if there are too many.

 

Photocopying awkward page turns is also a great idea.

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Guest paul@trinitymusic.karoo.co.uk
I think this is all very sound.

 

For contrapuntal music it is important to be conscious of each melodic strand. Whether you need to play each one separately will depend on your experience and the complexity of the music. I find I can track individual parts without difficulty, but it can still be worthwhile to sit back and take a cool look at each one.

 

Spend time working out the best fingering and pedalling for difficult passages. Write it in the score and make sure you play that and nothing else. This is something I have always been particularly lazy about and is undoubtedly the reason why I have such a crap technique.

 

With difficult passages it pays to work backwards. Isolate exactly which notes are causing the problem. If, say, it's just the movement from one chord to the next one, practice those two chords - slowly at first, then quicker - until they are second nature. Then go back to a point a note or two before the problem and play that passage until it is safe. Then go further back still - and so on.

 

If a whole passage is problematical you can attack it the same way. Go to the end of the problem and work backwards.

 

 

I'd go with this advice.

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Guest Andrew Butler
Another idea is to play different rhythms, eg a string of semiquavers dotted (IE dotted semiquaver, demisemiquaver etc).

 

I may be thick, but I've never quite seen how this can help - especially if one has a good "motor memory"...... B)

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When I started this thread, I had not seen the November issue of Organists’ Review, which has an interesting article in their series on learning the organ as an adult.

 

 

Photocopying awkward page turns is also a great idea.

Some people also find it useful to photocopy and enlarge difficult passages – bigger print sometimes helps!

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Guest Barry Williams
I'd go with this advice.

 

 

I wholeheartedly agree with the advice to obtain and mark secure fingering (and footing). This is one of the reasons for having a very strong piano technique (ideally ASB Grade VIII) before getting anywhere near an organ.

 

There are plenty of editions with excellent fingering provided, so there is no excuse for inadequate technique. Virtually every piece has had some received wisdom poured over it in respect of fingering and footing. Without a secure technical foundation interpretation is impossible, for the fingers will not have the correct control over the notes. What is more, using a totally orthodox fingering strengthens technique. Every time a difficult passage is practised, using the correct fingering, the playing technique gets stronger and better able to deal with yet more difficult pieces.

 

Barry Williams

 

PS We all have problems with that dreadful bi-tonal passage in the first movement of Bach's E flat major Trio Sonata!

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I find that as I grow older as a musician, I have spent much more time thinking about how I practice. This may be due to slower thought processes or pressure of time with work and family which I did not have before, but I also think it reflects a wish to perform better, and interpret the music more deeply, than before.

 

A lot of people talk about doing as much learning as possible away from the keyboard, even marking fingerings in whilst sitting at a table. I can see the point of this but it does not work for me. I will study the music and write in cautionary accidentals at the table, but I can only write in fingerings (which is essential) at the keyboard. Sometimes what works in the abstract just does not work as a matter of mechanics on the keyboard. Sometimes an unusual fingering is required in the particular circumstances of the piece. I remember Roger Fisher's excellent advice ; if a fingering is secure and gives musical results, then it is acceptable.

 

The hoary old chestnut about learning music backwards from the end is good sense which I now adopt. It means that when the piece is at performance level, you feel you are moving into the music you know best, which gives a feeling of security.

 

Joanna Macgregor said that when she learned the Art of Fugue she practiced it at one quarter speed. If the music is good enough, then it can stand this approach. I have also found this very helpful, and now practice everything at one quarter speed, with a metronome. It means that every single note can be consciously locked into your muscles and your neural pathways. I find that this approach makes it easier for me to break through the notes into the music when the time comes to prepare the performance.

 

You hear stories about fabulous virtuosi learning music very fast. I have heard one story of a very famous organist sight reading 'The Wedge' after Choral Evensong (although a pupil of his later told me that his actual advice was to write in every single finger. This is interesting ; I know one cathedral organist who is a fabulous sight reader, and he told me that he deliberately wrote in every finger to slow himself down). Another famous name, we are told, learned the Variations on a Noel in an afternoon. Very impressive - but why exactly is this is good thing ?

 

Kevin Bowyer's advice in OR about eliminating errors by working through them silently, visualising the correct notes and feeling them in your muscular memory has also been very helpful. Indeed, I am starting to think that mental preparation, particularly, detailed visualisation of your performance, is perhaps more important than mechanical preparation (once, that is, the basics have been overcome).

 

Finally, after many years I have finally realised that the only way to play a piece really well is to practice it very hard and live with it over years. My first teacher told me that a piece was either impossible or it was easy, and the difference was practice. This is a good dictum. In the same way I used to feel embarrassed about repeating repertoire too often (pace Paul's remarks about staying fresh). Now, I think that it is only by renewed performances over years (as opposed to mere repeats) that you can really get to the heart of a piece. Andreas Schiff said that he reckoned he started to play a Mozart sonata properly only once he had played it 20 times in concert. Quite often I will learn the notes of a piece, then put it to one side, before concentrating on it a year later for performance. I will play it, say, 5 times in a year, then rest it for a few years before, in effect, re - learning it for a second cycle of performances.

 

So far as practicalities are concerned, I am lucky in that I have access to an excellent tracker organ in my office lunch hours. I aim to practice there for two slots of one hour a week. I have a toaster at home although circumstances (ie a young child) mean that I can never sit down for concentrated, uninterrupted practice for any time. Even so, the odd five minutes here and there can be really valuable. I am sure that little and often, with good assimilation time and a conscious preparation of targets is better than an exhausting 90 minute thrash.

 

I find this whole question of how you practice and performance psychology a fascinating and important area ; it is most interesting to read other people's experiences.

 

M

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I concur wholeheartedly with this advice.

Now, I think that it is only by renewed performances over years (as opposed to mere repeats) that you can really get to the heart of a piece. Andreas Schiff said that he reckoned he started to play a Mozart sonata properly only once he had played it 20 times in concert. Quite often I will learn the notes of a piece, then put it to one side, before concentrating on it a year later for performance.
Indeed. I find that, if I put a piece aside for a year and don't play it at all during that time, when I do come back to it I frequently get a whole new insight, discovering facets I had not previously appreciated. This does not happen to nearly the same extent if I keep the piece in my repertoire.
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Yes, I agree with this as well.

 

I will often learn the notes of a piece until I can basically play it, then put it aside.

 

Perhaps a year later, the piece suddenly fires in my imagination and I come back to it to find that my subconcious has turned it into music during the intervening period. Sometimes a piece I did not actually like when I 'learned' it has matured inside my head and I come to love it on later acquaintance ; I have had powerful experiences of this recently with the Bridge Adagio in E and Bach Sei Gegrusset.

 

I think this process is particularly important for music where there is not a clear structure to support the piece, and much depends on your developing an internal structure to shape your performance - I found this particularly so with the Franck Fantaisie in A a few years ago.

 

The Russians have a saying for this, that 'you learn swimming in the winter, and skating in the summer', that is, that the real learning takes place in your subconscious whilst the physical procedures are resting.

 

On the other point of internal learning, I have heard that Germani learned the Sowerby Pageant on an Atlantic crossing simply by sitting in a chair and feeling the notes with internal / muscular memory. I was also told that when he was a music scholar at Eton, Francis Grier would play a Mozart piano concerto simply by looking at it in a chair for an hour beforehand. Having been at Oxford at the same time as him, and having watched him play the piano, I can well believe this.

 

M

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This type of learning is also related to practicing on a silent keyboard, which can be very beneficial.

 

I was told that Madame Durufle, when practicing for a recital, would spend at least half of her time practicing at the console silently. This can provide great refinement of manual control without getting sucked into the sound of the instrument. It is one step along the road of learning music simply by internal process. If you make a mistake, you are not assaulted by the offending 'wrong note' - it becomes a more analytical process of registering the mis - placement in your finger and aligning it silently.

 

Again, this is a technique I find very helpful when preparing a performance on a new organ - practice silently, but making sure that every finger is exactly in the middle of every key.

 

At the learning stage, it can be very helpful to learn a piece with one hand playing notes, and the other hand playing silently on another keyboard.

 

M

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I may be thick, but I've never quite seen how this can help - especially if one has a good "motor memory"...... :blink:

 

I use the dotted semiquaver trick and find it very helpful. It allows you to practise playing pairs of notes at speed but still at a slow overall tempo. So you still feel fully in control and not freaking out even though you're playing 50% of the notes at speed. Then you swap over and do demisemiquaver- dotted semiquaver to practise the other pairs of notes at speed.

 

It's also really helpful for smoothing out lumpy semiquavers (which many of mine are) and awkward bits like thumb crossings and jumps which otherwise stick out.

 

I use it if I'm finding practising a passage is losing interest or if it sounds uneven or if the passage is fiddly and difficult to get upto the right speed. So try it - unless you are one of these really annoying people who play very dificult passages very evenly at high speed while sight reading.

 

Happy New Year to everyone on the board - just got back from skiing for 3 weeks where I spent the first week with my right arm in a plaster cast after injuring my thumb in a skiing accident so I suspect my playing will be even more lumpy than usual...

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After having analyzed the composition and writing the fingering and hand layout in the score, I tend to work from end to begin in the piece (and difficult things first), studying hands and feet separately and very fast (say about 150% to 200% of needed speed). Slowing down is much easier to me than speeding up - always hitting a brick wall in the latter case.

If things go well separate, only then I'll join hands/feet, on a somewhat slower speed (somehow it seems not possible to play a fragment with hands together on the same speed as you can hands separate).

 

I study fragments in (circular) repeatable frases, in order to have continuous motion, constantly switching between left to right hand (avoid stress in the hands). After many many repeats, I work out the fragment extremely slow ('cool down' on the muscles).

 

When the piece is good playable, I keep studying it very very slow; taking the shortest notevalue as the pace. This helps me concentrate and almost locks out fingermemory.

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