Learning Complex Pieces Quickly

Question: Hello,

I have to learn Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s Fantasia in D minor in one week, so I was wondering if you have any tips on learning a complex piece quickly and how to count 16th triplets most effectively. I have a history of taking a long time to learn complicated pieces and my sight reading skills are sadly lacking. :(

I also have been working on learning Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 25 in G major and J. S. Bach’s Menuet 1 from Partita 1 for an audition. Keeping a steady tempo, trills, and fingering have been giving me a lot of trouble. Any insights would be much appreciated!

Thank you for your time and this website, you have been very helpful!

Sincerely,

– Rebekah W. (Michigan, USA)

Albert’s reply: There are several things you can do to learn your pieces faster. I’ll list some essentials of my practice methodology here, with explanations.

Analyze

I am often dumbstruck by piano students who fail to notice the most obvious things about the music they play. I remember a piano student back in college who told me she was learning a Mozart sonata. I asked her which one.

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know? Uh, what key is it in?”

“Um, I dunno.”

“What’s the tempo marking of the first movement?”

“No idea.”

“How about the time signature?”

“Sorry! Um, I think it starts on page 41…”

“Of which edition?”

“I don’t know! The big thick one!”

“Oh, you must mean K. 283, in G major.”

“Yeah, that’s it!”

Lucky – if educated – guess on my part. Simply taking conscious notice of the basics of harmony, rhythm, phrasing and other details will go a very long way towards accelerating your learning of music.

Practice Hands Separately

Many pianists assume that practicing hands separately is for beginners and children. Nothing could be further from the truth. How often do you forget the accompaniment? If you cultivate the habit of practicing the left hand by itself, you not only will learn and retain music much faster, you’ll play more beautifully, as your ear will be forced to notice and thereby shape important musical details that otherwise remain ignored.

Practice Slowly

Over and over in these pages I’ve written about the importance of slow practice. No matter how many times I say it, I cannot overemphasize this point! About 80 percent of our practice time should be devoted to slow practice, of a maximum of 80 percent of performance tempo for faster pieces. (Very slow pieces will hardly benefit from even slower practice.)

As you learn the piece, never attempt to go too fast too soon. Rather, only go faster by the day, only once you have truly assimilated the passage at the slower tempo.

Practice Short Sections

Rather than bite off more than you can chew, make a whole meal of a short section. Remember that the tortoise beats the hare. Practice smaller sections slower, do not try to absorb large amounts of music at once, and you will ultimately learn faster and improve your musical retention.

Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

Most piano students practice each section far too few times before moving on to the next, and then they wonder why they fail to retain the music. You should repeat each motive at least 20 times. Piano practice is repetitive, let’s face it. Nonetheless, it should be done with emotion:

Practice with Emotion

You can multiply your learning rate simply by practicing with emotion. It should go without saying that emotion must be embedded in our every impression of the music upon our memories as we work, for this is how all professional musicians practice.

Yet countless students adhere to the myth, “first the notes, then the music.” This is among the most damaging practice habits, and it will ruin all your hard work. It will make you work harder, in fact, and in vain.

Learn to direct your emotions into the music. This one piano practice tip alone will increase your learning speed exponentially.

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