[piano] what I do when learning a piece for the first time.

An exchange that happened in May:

Friend: Wait, why are you the only one who gets her pieces early?
Michelle: It’s because there’s no way in hell I can learn them during the school year.

ah, Mr. Beethoven

Even though summer break has just started for me, I am currently in the midst of learning two works for the first time– Beethoven Sonata no. 13, op. 27, no. 1, and Barber’s Nocturne for Piano. Yes, you inferred correctly, these pieces are intended for the fall semester, yet I am learning them three months early.

If there is anything I have learned over a decade’s worth of playing the piano, I am a monstrously slow learner. While other children may have polished off a whole book of pieces in a year, I usually only got through three to five, and abandoned a lot more on the way. So whenever the next cycle of new music comes in, I make sure I get my music as early as possible.

Somehow, I had forgotten how painful learning a new work can be.

First, while sitting at a piano, I read through the original score, the one with no markings except from the composer. This just simply means sightreading and playing the piece, no matter how slow or terrible it sounds. As I ‘read’ through it, I make marks for fingerings and to indicate places that I have questions about. This is often the most painful and slow part because I have to go through everything painstakingly– there are so many moments in which I want to just flat-out play, but no, must pick up my pencil and scribble in notes. If the fingering is particularly difficult or if the piece I am playing is core repertoire, I will usually borrow other edited editions and compare fingerings, and write down whichever I like best. As my instructor says, “Michelle’s fingering is horrible. She always uses her weakest fingers.” Therefore, with my Beethoven sonata, I borrowed Schabel, Schenker, Cooper, and Urtext edited editions. Keeping track of them at once is head-hurting, but definitely worth it because everyone has different sized hands and different strengths, so one fingering may be suited better. Moreover, editors can be quite inventive with their fingerings, so it is worth a look.

After that those sessions of marking up the score, I start playing ‘for real.’ I will always start each practice session by playing through everything that I have learned so far. After I finish, I start working on the next few sections, keeping in mind the basic cadential sequences. Each section is usually one or two pages. If I struggle with a particular section, I will single it out, and play it slowly. I might even just play one chord, and then slowly build my way to a measure, then a phrase, and then the section. However, I usually just play the phrase, because I feel like playing a chord in isolation does not help, because you cannot hear it in context. After practicing each section, I play the whole piece over again, plus the new sections I just learned. After this, I assess. If I am happy, I usually will run through the whole piece again (or as much as I have managed to learn). And again. And again. If I am not happy, I will just finish the practice with more detail work in the sections in which I am struggling.

While I am learning the piece, I sometimes will listen to recordings while reading the score. When listening to different interpretations, I can pinpoint what type of tone and feeling I want to produce, and I can work towards that. Moreover, there may be a particular style of playing associated to each composer, which may not be immediately obvious when just playing from the score, and recordings help me to discern any specific nuances that should be observed.

When I finally finish learning the whole piece, I do pretty much the same thing as when I am learning– play through the whole piece, and work on sections. However, this time around, I put more emphasis on playing the whole piece from beginning to finish without stopping, even if I make many mistakes. This phase and subsequent phase are usually smooth sailing, as I no longer have the constant pain of wondering “did I hit the right note?!”. I hope to reach this phase by the end of the summer, but it seems unlikely, since I could not practice for the two months that I was in China.

After my piece is polished enough, it is time for a cascade of formal or informal performances. I am one of those people who have an excessive amount of adrenaline before performance, and I find if I do many performances, my adrenaline level goes down or I become inured to such a high level of adrenaline, and am better able to withstand  the pressure once the real performance or exam comes around. This is perhaps the hardest thing to do, because performance opportunities are hard to come by in a liberal arts college located firmly in suburbia.

What do you do when practicing an instrument? Do you think it works? Do you have any tips for an amateur pianist? After racking my brains a great deal, I completed rudimentary chordal analysis of Beethoven (forget Barber and his double flats).


2 thoughts on “[piano] what I do when learning a piece for the first time.

  1. oh man- this makes me kinda sad that i sort of up dropped the piano for two years :S
    honestly- the first stage of learning/creating anything is hardcore painstaking TT_TT Sometimes, when i get to the midway or end of a piece, story draft, dance, i wonder- how the fuq did i get here from scratch?
    abt your method- i’m stunned at the independence you exhibit (but then thats expected of your level). i didn’t get very far, but the last i recall, i completely completely depended on the metronome for everything and never bothered with any extra self-searched resources beyond that of my teacher. true- starting new pieces for next year asap after may juries or any exam/major end-of-year recital is a real good idea. (something that i often regretted when failing to do so)
    in regards to the book- it depends on the “level” of the pieces- like y’know, a book of children’s waltzes or lullabies probably would be more likely to be completed in a year rather than a couple sonatas. out of curiosity- do you study music theory *theory* as a separate thing with your teacher as well? or along the way with pieces?
    i have never played a full sonata- are you for this one? or just a movement?
    (not sure what the east coast uses, but a lot of the teachers at our school used schirmer’s library(most of them are urtext?) and alfred masterworks(?) editions. and luckily- there are lots of performance opportunities in the bay area, no joke. exg recitals put out by lots of different music schools, and the conservatory here has a shit ton of recitals/juries/competitions/etc year round. and then of course there’s those big name opera/concert halls/etc for the professionals >.>)

    • I have never played a full sonata either! It’ll be my first (nervous).

      agree.. I remember for my spring repertoire, I practiced every weekday, 2-3 hours, for a month :p and then it took me another four months to get to a good performance place..

      ah well some of the independence is based on the fact that I am learning the piece without my teacher for the first three months, so I don’t want to go too far astray :X so I try to have more outside influence instead of just me and my internal thoughts :P which can be quite skewed sometimes.

      yes, I study music theory separately, sometimes my teacher talks about music theory with me, but that’s only minimal at best.

      Depends on your teacher what edition you use, but most teachers will point out Urtext first, no matter where you are in the world.

      I’m jealous! Though I did have the impediment that I needed a partner to play and also two pianos to be able to perform, so that limited a lot of venues and opportunities ;~;

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