Are you struggling to learn a new piece of music or don't know how to start? Following these steps may lessen your frustration and help you see results more quickly with practice.
1) Examine the Piece - Identify all the components of the notation that will make a difference in the way you will interpret and play the music. Look for the key signature, time signature, any patterns in the notes, and expressive markings. Listen to a recording of the piece if you can.
2) Break it Down- Divide the music into sections. Remember those patterns or themes you looked for in the music? Label them. If there is a string of notes that happen more then once in the music use a pencil to circle it and mark it with a letter. Marking this recurring section with a letter will help you learn the music more quickly as it is a visual reminder that the recurring notes are not new information to be learned. Mark additional sections with new letters. You may be able to identify a pattern (ABA, ABACA).
A musical pattern or idea that is repeated, but may not be prominent enough to be a section of music, is called a motif. You may recognize that a small succession of notes holds importance in many different sections of the piece.
Do you struggle with this step? Practice finding patterns by listening to movie music. Movies often have motifs that reoccur throughout the movie in different songs. A motif thematically associated with a person, place, thing or idea is called a leitmotif. In the Star Wars movies, characters such as Princess Leia and Darth Vader have their own theme or leitmotif that plays when they are on screen. For off screen practice in identifying patterns listen to Four Seasons by Vivaldi.
3) Learn the Notes- Learning the notes is the most time intensive and crucial part of practice. How you learn the notes will determine if you "learn from mistakes" or "learn a mistake". The quicker you learn to play the notes correctly, the more efficient your practice will be. Before you play a single note, clap and count the rhythm aloud. When you are ready to play, get your ears and fingers ready by warming up on the scale associated with the key signature. After you have refreshed your aural and muscle memory of what that key sounds and feels it will be much easier to recognize a mistake.
4) Piece it Together - Instead of tackling the music as a whole, start with one section or manageable chunk. Do not let yourself get overwhelmed with large pieces. If you get stuck in a rut try going to the end of the music and working backwards, adding one measure at a time. Working backwards can help the piece feel fresh as there is always a new beginning.
5) Slow it Down - If you haven't already, use a metronome to set the beat. If the piece is meant to be played at a faster rate than you are able to play without mistakes, slow it down. Once you can play it confidently at the rate you have set, you may turn the metronome speed up a few beats. Make sure you are able to play the piece confidently and without mistakes at each new speed before increasing the speed again.
6) Add Expression- Expressive markings tell you how to communicate the notes on the page. They may tell you how to accent a note, play a phrase softly, to gain volume , or to alter the tempo. Expressive markings do their best to communicate how the composer wished the notes to be played. The way you interpret the expressive markings will bring life to the otherwise lifeless or bland notes on the page. Expression is the icing on the cake.
7) Perfect Practice Makes Perfect - If you don't work out what the notes and rhythms are before moving on to another section or if you always play from beginning to end without stopping to correct your mistakes, you may be learning those mistakes. You may get better at playing a few measures of music, but you are also reinforcing incorrect notes or expressions. If you are struggling to unlearn a mistake and play what is written, you aren't alone. As soon as you discover you are playing a section incorrectly, try playing that section three times without mistakes before moving on again. Remember two wrongs don't make a right. But maybe three rights can right a wrong!