Question: How do you go about learning a new piece from scratch? Do you advise memorizing and analyzing the piece away from the piano before actually playing it?

Could you outline the steps involved in mastering a piece, please? Thank you for your help in advance.

Marcel (Dublin, Ireland)

Albert’s reply: Learning any piece of music well first and foremost means learning it in different ways. This means using multiple sensory modalities as well as your analytical faculty.

Inadvertently, most piano students rely only on their fingers to learn all music. The “muscle memory” that thereby ensues is notoriously unreliable and leads to insecurity and memory lapses.

Remember: Muscle memory is not musical memory.

Learning music only with the fingers would be like learning to write Chinese only by imitating the symbols and never understanding what they mean. Under performance pressure, you may well recall most of the brushstrokes only by force of habit (practice), yet the impressions in your mind will be of mostly random strokes rather than of the words they form and in their proper grammatical context.

Learning piano music is very similar: If the music is essentially a bunch of more or less random keystrokes in your memory, learning music will always be extremely difficult and the impressions left in your mind will be superficial. You will have difficulty retaining music and you will always be insecure.

How to Learn Music

To learn music effectively, it’s vital to be careful and methodical. Here are several steps to learn any piece of music:

Read the Piece

First, read the piece through. It’s important to do this once and only once. Many students, if not most of them, tend to keep reading their pieces through, mistakes and all, as they practice. This is their primary practice method.

This isn’t proper practice though, which must never allow mistakes. The brain is a perfect recorder, and it records our every movement as we practice. It will play back whatever it learns. If you practice mistakes, you’ll learn mistakes. If you practice correctly, you’ll play correctly.

That said, it is a good idea to keep your eyes on the score as you work, for two reasons: First, it reinforces the critical visual memory of the music, allowing you to take a mental photo of the score.

Second, it keeps your eyes focused on the music, not on your hands or the keyboard. The more you can play without relying on looking down at your hands, the more secure you’ll be.

Analyze the Piece

Analyzing your music is a must for all pieces and playing levels. There’s no need to “micro-analyze”; you just need an overview of what’s happening in the piece—in other words, the music’s architecture.

In addition, it’s essential to understand piano theory. Again, this doesn’t mean micro-analyzing every last chord, but simply understanding the most important harmonies and their functions in the music. You should stop to analyze any chord you’re unsure of, keeping in mind that not all notes that sound at any given time are necessarily part of that chord. (These are called non-harmonic tones.)

Identify Each Voice

Virtually every piano piece you’ll ever play is polyphonic, meaning that there are multiple voices. Pianists tend to pay the most attention to the top voice (since it’s usually—but not always—the melody), then the bass voice. It’s all too easy to neglect the inner voices, which has negative consequences on both our interpretation (since we’re not truly hearing everything in the piece) and memory (since we’ll easily forget things we don’t consciously learn).

The solution is to isolate the voices. This can be done by singing them using the solfège method (do re mi fa sol la si = C D E F G A B) as well as by playing them individually. Fugues are ideal for practicing this learning methodology.

Work Each Motive in Detail

Practice each motive with perfect articulation, fingering and dynamics before and after the study of each phrase. Do not do any less than 20 reiterations of each motive, both hands separately and hands together.

Practice Whole Phrases

Like language, music is composed in phrases, which are complete musical thoughts. (Learning how to identify musical phrases is the realm of music theory, though most of it can be intuited simply by listening.) Don’t make the mistake of leaving musical thoughts unfinished as you work. Instead, practicing whole phrases is beneficial to both musical memory and your musicality. Your playing will make more sense and simply sound better.

Learn the Hands Separately

You should learn each hand alone as well as you know the hands together. The hands function together as a unit. If you only learn piano music by practicing with both hands, you may be shocked to discover that you’ll be totally unable to play either hand by itself.

The solution is to practice hands separately as much as together. This means that more time is spent practicing hands alone than hands together.

Summary

The above is merely an outline of a methodology for learning piano music. Learning music is both synergistic and cumulative. This means that the more the different sensory modalities and the analytical faculty are engaged in the learning process, the more they will reinforce one another and the more skilled you will become at learning music. Tonal music (nearly all the music we play) is a coherent, consistent system, and the more we learn, the more the system will make sense to us.