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Starting a New Piece of Music

I find many early level students go about things very differently than what I’m about to suggest. I think it’s fair to say students like to “test drive” new music by playing through and seeing if they can figure out the notes first. Timing, fingering, phrasing -- absolutely everything besides notes -- gets put on the back burner. By “trying things out” without any sort of discipline, you will most likely begin by playing things differently than what’s written. And so, you will have practiced incorrectly. This becomes your primary learning experience and is likely to stay with you on a very deep level so that you’re going to have to re-learn what you’ve just taught yourself. As my childhood teacher used to say, “We could get to Missouri by going through Jericho -- but why would we?”

If you read the Mise en Place blog, you'll know we talked about setting up your piano workspace to accommodate good practice habits. It's also a good idea to develop a strategic approach to learning new repertoire.

Here’s a 10 Step Plan you might want to keep on hand so that even when you’re eager to learn a new piece and itching to get started, you'll ensure you’re using your practice time wisely.

Like a detective, consider these things:

1.Who is the composer and what is the style period? What do you know about the characteristics of this period of music or this type of music, if it's a popular song.

2. Consider the title. Is this a dance form? Is this a descriptive piece, indicating a particular scene or mood? How do you imagine the piece may sound?

3. Check key signature, time signature, tempo, dynamic markings, pedal markings, articulations -- anything at all that’s marked in the score. If you discover unfamiliar terms or markings, by all means, check in with Google or your music dictionary (or your teacher).

4. What is the form of your piece? ABA? AB? Even if you don’t know what these letters mean, you can think of music like written text. Both have a title and author, of course. Music has sections (similar to paragraphs), phrases (similar to sentences), motives (similar to phrases within sentences), articulations, and even a sense of punctuation. It’s definitely wise to break the larger piece into sections when you start out. Look for the long phrase marks (slur lines) that are likely present. These marks indicate phrases and will give you a good idea of where to draw your section marks. Carefully examine all the sections to figure out similarities or differences.

Next, more mental work (still not yet playing!)

5. Start with marking any fingering which may not be clear to you. See if you can figure out the fingering before you play anything at all. I don’t think it’s a good idea to “try out” fingering without mindfully considering things to start.

6. Next, figure out the timing -- again before you play anything. I personally prefer to use rhythm syllables with beginners, ta for quarters and titi for 8th pairs, etc. If this isn’t something that’s familiar to you, traditional counting is of course fine. See if you can clap the rhythm for each hand. If you are having a hard time clapping the rhythm, I’m pretty sure you won’t have an easier time playing the rhythm on the piano. Stick with your mental work until you’re absolutely clear on the timing!

Now, you’re ready to begin practicing the piece

7. Rather than playing an entire section beginning to end, focus on completing a short phrase or semi-phrase, separate hands, repeating several times slowly before moving on. This will help you “get things in your fingers” more quickly.

8. It’s wise to rotate your practice so that you aren’t always practicing beginning to end. Once you’ve gone through the piece, you’ll know where the more difficult passages are. Start with those passages so that you know them as well as any others.

9. When you’re ready to start coordinating hands, take the same approach, sticking with small sections, and working out the more difficult passages first.

10. Once you’ve coordinated hands and can play well at a slow tempo, you’ll want to take the same approach again -- isolating phrases or sections and working to speed these up to tempo. Playing all the way through a piece certainly can be beneficial for many reasons, but if your goal is to speed things up, adult learners are usuallyy better served focusing on smaller sections.

In my next blog, I’ll offer some suggestions for beginner pianists who may be experiencing difficulties when trying to coordinate playing hands together. Until I see you again, I wish you happy -- and productive -- practicing!

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