How can I learn a piece quickly?
This is a burning question that pops up quite a lot as a student musician. And before I answer it, I want to remind you that your learning goal should always be quality over speed. No matter how fast you can learn a piece, it only sounds good if you learn to play it well.
Okay, lecture over. It’s time to answer your question!
Let’s break down the learning process step-by-step in a system that recently helped me learn this super challenging piece in just one month — and, yes, one month is really fast in the music world.
Think of learning a new piece like lifting weights or sprinting. Breaking the process down to its smallest parts means that you gauge where the challenges are before they rise to meet you. Let’s break the process down into four phases:
Phase one: Learn your notes flawlessly
The first phase is the note-learning phase and in this phase, the main goal is just to calmly and slowly learn the notes and get familiar with them. Break things up into small sections so it doesn’t feel as daunting — this way you practice walking before you start sprinting.
Avoid playing through the piece from beginning to end, and — counterintuitively — you should play everything slowly. As you become more comfortable with each section, you can start speeding things up one step at a time.
A few great tips to help you in phase one:
No 1: Plan your practice ahead of time. Divide the piece up into sections that you want to learn, and decide how many days you’re going to spend learning the notes. Then commit a practice session to just learning the section that you planned and use your Practice plan to track the process.
No. 2: Identify patterns whenever you can. Learning a piece of music is essentially memorizing the piece of music from the get-go, even if you’re not going to be playing it from memory when you eventually perform it. You want to get to a place where you look at the score and you’re no longer asking yourself what is coming next. Rather, your muscles remember what’s coming your way when you look at the music — everything from your fingers to your embouchure know exactly where to go and what to do.
Your brain is going to have a much easier time with this if you start to identify patterns in the music. Some of these patterns might be scales or arpeggios, and some of them might just be a pattern of repeating notes that you’ve noticed. Either way, you will want to find some kind of pattern that makes sense to your brain.
No. 3: Work slowly and work small. If you are unable to play a specific passage you’re usually making one of two mistakes: either trying to play it too fast or you’re trying to play too much of it too soon. Your brain can only hold onto so much new information at a time so give it a fighting chance even if this means you only learn one or two measures at a time. Play them very slowly trying to get the calmest, easiest, and most relaxed fingers that you can so that when you eventually speed it up those fingers can stay relaxed, calm, and easy too.
Phase two: polish it up!
Once you’ve gone through the piece and more or less learned all the notes you can step it up a notch.
In this phase, go over the particularly tricky sections of the piece using a range of practice strategies (see our helpful post about this) and tools to clean up those notes into more accurate and more comfortable-sounding music. cleaner, more accurate, and more comfortable.
The goal in this phase is to get the notes to really stick in your mind, go into your long-term memory, and get under your fingers. And there are so many useful techniques that you can polish up your playing with:
No. 1: Practice in different rhythms. This is a great way to not only keep your brain engaged and challenged but also to actually practice finger combinations. Cultivate this habit and you can think without having to play everything really fast. For example, if you’re playing things on the dotted rhythm the dotted note is obviously long but the shorter note that follows is going to be quite quick and so there’s going to be one little finger exchange that is really fast. This is a great way to trick your brain into actually practising things really quickly even though it feels pretty slow at first.
No. 2: Another really great technique is what I call the note-adding technique and then there is the technique you play a specific passage from the back slowly adding one note at a time from the end. Watch the video to discover how to do this.
No. 3: practice memorizing small sections of the piece. And by this, I don’t just mean try and play it without the music but really look at the music to identify the patterns so that you can memorize the music more easily. Even doing this pretty badly can be hugely beneficial to help these notes sink into your memory more quickly and more easily.
Phase three: Step into the spotlight
Now, you can practice performing the piece from beginning to end.
Remember, in this phase you are not going to stop and correct things. Rather, you will keep playing through mistakes or any issues you are still having. After playing through you may then decide to move that section back into the polishing phase and work at it again.
Here are a few tips for this phase:
No.1: In the last phase, you’re going to now start to put things together start playing through larger sections, and eventually play through the whole piece. Then you’re going to want to actually practice playing it for someone else. Find an audience and play it for your teddy bear, a camera, a loved one, or even a flute buddy.
No.2: The golden rule here is you do not stop you do not go back to fix things you want to try to play through it all. Once you’ve run through it completely, go back and assess what was working, what wasn’t, and what now needs a little bit more polishing. You can then take that section and put it back into the polishing phase. This is so important because we need to learn to manage our mistakes we need to learn to get our stamina up and feel how it feels to play that piece from beginning to end with a “whatever happens happens” attitude.
No.3: It’s also a lovely phase because it helps give us that feeling of satisfaction that we’ve accomplished something from start to finish. You may even want to create a recording for yourself just for your own records. As your first performance as it were.
By this time, you begin to understand the importance of these three phases, because the type of practice, the approach to practice, and the practice techniques are completely different.
The sneaky phase four
Now, before you go, there is a sneaky fourth stage here. And it’s all about maturing & settling in. In this secret phase four, you give the piece time to breathe, to mature, to settle in, and watch over the next couple of weeks how it grows and improves. As a professional musician, I will never put a piece on a concert program, especially for an important concert, that I don’t know really well and that I’m not completely comfortable with. So don’t feel like you’re recording for your performance is the end of the road, because, in many ways, it’s just the beginning.
Would you like to walk through the process of learning a piece with me from start to finish? Our new course will help you learn Bach’s Siciliano in a truly step-by-step way. I help you learn the notes, understand the rhythm, explore the phrasing, and mark all the breaths. We also spend time looking at the music, the story, and so much more! Learn more here:
Start with a plan, get your copy of our practice journal and plan your practice on a weekly, monthly and annual basis,