The Learning Process

Imagine, for a moment, that you are listening to a piece of music on the piano that you love. Either in concert, or in someone’s living room, or on an old vinyl. Many times when we hear something inspiring, we can’t help but wonder how it came about. And for me, when I am inspired by a piece, I want to learn how to play it.  How can people’s fingers move that fast? How do they make it sound like there are 4 hands on the piano when I know it’s supposed to be two??

I often thought those very same questions and many times, my answers come in the form of three familiar words: blood, sweat and tears. While accurate, they don’t really tell you a whole lot about the nitty gritty of the journey behind it.

This is what this post is about: the learning process when I pick up a new piece and begin to work on it. In the last year or so, I’ve found that there a surprising amount of structure behind it all. To quote Hercules Poirot, “order and method mon ami!” Here’s my journey and what works for me when I dive right into a new piece.

The Roadmap:

This is stage 1 where I’ve heard the piece by some coincidence, and I’ve absolutely fallen for it and simply must learn to play it. Yep, that’s not terribly new for me – it’s only happened with my last three pieces! 🙂 So this is where I pick up the sheet music and just look at it, preferably over a nice steaming cup of tea or coffee. I find that reading the music beforehand helps a great deal before simply sitting down with it and trying it out. This helps get a feel for how the piece flows, where different sections and just generally reduces surprises. Even if reading music isn’t your strong suit, just looking at the music without the initial pressure of trying to play the right note helps get the big picture in focus.

Reading a piece is like reading a map before you begin your journey. Even if you don’t see all the details and intricacies right away, you get a general feel where you’re headed. And having that compass in the back of your mind can be comforting when the journey actually begins.

Piece by Piece:

It is extremely rare that I can simply pick up a piece and begin playing the entire thing after giving it a read or two. I’d almost say impossible, given the dismal state of my sight-reading skills.  So sometimes, it really does depend on sight-reading skills, and other times it won’t matter how gifted those skills are. There are some pieces that are simply too difficult to be read right off the bat (I’m thinking of the Mozart sonata, Chopin etudes etc etc.)

This is the phase where I slowly begin to play, learn the notes and make little sections in the piece. My code for sections in sheet music happen to be stars, not entirely sure why but there you have it.  They are critical in splitting up the piece to be more digestible. Often, these sections coincide with when the piece makes a marked change, or if it repeats a previous theme in a slightly varied fashion, or if simply there’s a particular part that is just the section from hell, and you want to separate it from the rest.

Here’s an example of making sections in my copy of a Brahms Intermezzo, op. 118 no.2:

Brahms-Intermezzo-example1

Sections really form the core of it all to me. They help with giving structure to practice – if there’s a section you’re particularly weak at, you can play it over and over and over again until you’re comfortable before moving on to the next star. Sections also help with memorisation, which can happen while practicing anyways. Splitting it up mentally early on, helps the mind anchor to certain beginnings and transitions, and it makes it much easier than looking at the piece whole and wondering how to remember all those notes.

At the end of it all ofcourse, no matter how far I’ve come in the piece, I make it a point to play from the beginning to whichever section I’m working, just to bring it all together early on. Afterall, it was written as a single piece, and not 12 sections! 🙂

Practice and Memorisation:

This is the part that’s always really fun for me, because this is where you begin to get peeks of how it’s supposed to sound while playing. And it can be really rewarding and exciting. Some schools of thought advocate learning just the notes first, and leaving the dynamics, pedalling and all the other details for later. That just doesn’t make sense to me. Much like how I like to bring sections together early on and play them whole, I also like to bring together all aspects of the music early on.

It’s difficult to imagine separating notes from the other aspects of music because they’re never played separately.  Sure, there are always the moments where there’s the one bit with awkward fingering where that needs to get sorted out before one can move further. Even then, I always think it’s a good idea to integrate as much of the details of the music (dynamics, touch, feeling) while practicing. This is the stage where things are being practiced at a comfortable pace, and the piece solidifies in the mind. Things get put into place the more one plays. and progress while sometimes slow, happens. And while the mind takes it all in, it’s important to keep it all whole and make sure all the details are correct while memorising. The most annoying in the world is to memorise something wrong, only to have to go back and undo the learning and then relearn it correctly.

An omg moment in Brahms. I actually wrote that too.

An omg moment in Brahms. I actually wrote that too.

Further along the road, when I’m more comfortable with the piece, I start thinking about how I would interpret whatever the composer is saying. Why did I choose the piece? What did I like about it that inspired me to learn it?

Practice, Practice, Practice

This is the part that the “blood, sweat and tears” alludes to. This is the phase where you’re almost there with the piece, but have to iron out a few things. It’s the last little bit that makes it perfect – or as close to perfect as you can get!

It can be surprising how much practice getting there can take. Sometimes it can take as long as all the other previous parts of the journey combined. And sometimes more. It’s the phase where everything will fall into place on occasion, and it’s exhilarating when it does. And then it goes and falls flat on you the very next moment. Often, I never know whether to laugh or cry and as I type this out, I just happen to experience this with Mozart not too long ago.

This is also when you slowly, mentally build up the stamina to play the entire piece, and perhaps even prepare to perform it in front of other people.  There’s no magic answer as to how long this stage takes, or how many times a piece needs to be played. My personal rule of thumb is that if I can see the piece in my sleep, it’s close to being done. And if someone wakes me up in the middle of night and I feel I could still play it, it’s definitely ready. (No one has tested that yet though, thank goodness!) 🙂

Practice is fantastic, but there are lot of elements that need to come together when learning a piece. Simply practicing over and over without any thought to the structure of a piece doesn’t always yield results. Practice with thought is always better in my mind, than mundane mechanical repetition. I still value all the other parts of the learning process – even my awesome stars that I make sections with. They helped me play pieces I never thought possible, or have my fingers moving in a way I never imagined, On that note, (no pun intended!)  never underestimate what practice and hard work can accomplish – they can surprise you!

Thank you for reading! 🙂

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2 thoughts on “The Learning Process

  1. You have a great blog here! I’ll take time to read it further. Personally, it happens to me that when I practice separated parts, specially the tough parts, even if I find a lot of them, I try not caring much about playing the “emotional” details (dinamics, etc) until I can play the whole of the piece together. It’s like a way of “saving stamina” for me, but I don’t if other pianists do it that way.

    I also learnt the Brahms intermezzo so it’s been interesting to hear your version (and read a little from your notes on the score, hehe).

    • Thanks for your comment!

      For me sometimes the separation between emotion and notes happens more with some pieces and less with others. I am working on a Bach partita now, and I can tell you that the separation is way more here than it was when I learnt the Brahms! 🙂

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