As a beginning musician, most people are taught how to hold their instrument, how to read music, how to care for their instrument, and music fundamentals such as sound production, intonation, rhythms, articulations and dynamics. It is surprising to me that most young musicians are not taught one of the most crucial things in becoming a good musician - how to learn a new piece of music. Young musicians routinely are given music and then told to go practice. They eagerly enter a practice room and begin to play straight through the music from beginning to end without stopping and correcting their mistakes. Not only is this type of practice boring and frustrating, this kind of practice leads to many bad habits, which, ironically, will take even more practice to unlearn!
Here are some tips for learning a new piece of music. Remember, practice makes permanent! It is very important to do things as correctly as possible from the very beginning. By practicing the following ways, learning a new piece of music really well will be easy and in a shorter amount of time. Good luck!
1. When you very first learn a piece, play it slowly! This enables you to program things correctly from the very beginning (i.e. intervals, articulations, rhythms, notes). Itzhak Perlman, the incredible violinist, said, “If you want to improve quickly, practice slowly. If you want to improve slowly, practice quickly.”
2. Break the piece up into smaller sections. Find the most challenging spots and begin working on them first. Make any licks that are challenging or intimidating your friend! Look to see if the composer ever repeats any of those spots!
3. Record yourself! You will be amazed at what we don’t hear and let slip by!
4. Make flash cards for any challenging lick to isolate it further. To fix a specific problem (example: rhythms, intervals, articulations), isolate it and make several exercises out of it (5 exercises per flash card).
5. Use some of the following strategies when learning a new piece:
a. Slow down tempo – play 1 note at a time!
b. Speed tempo up slightly – play all rhythms as quarter notes.
c. Drop a high lick down an octave.
d. Raise a low lick up an octave.
e. Play an entire phrase all on 1 note (to work on rhythms, articulations, dynamics and phrasing).
f. Play an entire lick with no tongue.
i. Play a lick backwards slowly.
j. Analyze a lick – is it a pattern that you might recognize such as a scale or arpeggio?
k. Make a sequence out of a lick – raise it or lower it by half step.
l. Listen to recordings and then play along with them if you are able.
6. When you feel like you can play the piece, slowly start speeding up the tempo. Make sure everything keeps sounding great!
7. At some point in every practice session, play straight through a piece – don’t stop! Be sure to play it at whatever tempo allows you to be successful. SLOW IS GOOD! This practice gives you a realistic idea of how well you can really play the piece After you finish playing straight through, assess how well you did. Where were your problem spots? Next run-through, anticipate those spots and focus on them ahead of time.