Learning New Pieces

For a fresh approach to practice, select a new piece that is neither too hard (a mazurka, prelude, intermezzo, or sonata movement) nor too long (two to four pages). Because the goal is achieving the best musical results in the shortest possible time with the least repetition, target a completion date. Next, before playing a single note, look through the piece and try to hear it in your mind. Locate the hardest places, then find a tempo that will allow you to keep going without breaking down. Also, from the first look at the music try to retain as much of the design and structure as possible. Now you are ready to sight-read it and get a feel for the entire piece.

After the initial reading, plan how to bring all aspects up to a satisfying performance level. Go over mental notes from the first reading and sort the easy places from those that seem more complex. Each time you play any part, be as accurate as possible with notes, rhythm, fingering, dynamics, touch, and phrasing, and still maintain a steady, manageable tempo.

The next step involves greater detail; for example, notice if the melody moves by scale or chord tones and find any sequences or repetitions. Determine whether it is embellished by neighbor tones, appoggiaturas, suspensions, or other non-chord tones. How does melody relate to harmony, and what happens harmonically in chromatic passages? What are the basic rhythmic patterns, and where and how do they change? The answers to these questions will help in identifying phrase structures, cadences, and the overall form, and will facilitate learning the entire piece. Then it is time to concentrate on spots that call for immediate attention.

With this musical analysis comes the work of finding appropriate fingerings, touches (legato, staccato, portato), phrasing, dynamic changes, and pedaling. Ignoring these or performing them improperly in the beginning necessitates undoing mistakes later, which is both frustrating and a waste of time. Effective practice, though, is much more than taking a piece slowly in the early stages, then playing it over and over to bring it up to tempo. Practice is thinking with concentration and control to make everything happen at the right time and in proper balance.

Achieving accuracy for a good performance involves many mental messages to guide the fingers. For a young student the mental, emotional, and physical coordination inherent in good keyboard performance should begin at the first lesson, when each task is simple. When the basic processes for problem solving and musical thinking are set in motion early, they will grow and expand as the subject matter increases in complexity, enabling students to deal effectively with each successive level of problems.

Because learning music through repetition has been the modus operandi of most students’ practice, at first many will understandably feel uncomfortable relying more on musical comprehension and less on repetition. As they practice thinking in motion, which involves simultaneous attention to ongoing changes and split-second decisions, they also develop problem-solving techniques that often are applicable to other areas of learning. Many theorists now view music study as an aspect of basic learning rather than as a peripheral activity or an enrichment.(Next >>)

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