Note: This article can also be found on the forums at Totally Keyboards, where I teach online video piano lessons!
1. Don’t just learn the song; understand it.
So when I’m learning a new tune, the first thing I want to do is make sure I understand the form. If I don’t have sheet music available, I will listen to the tune and chart out the form myself. This involves counting measures, determining the key(s) and time signature(s), identifying clear sections and writing out the harmony and any rhythmic idiosyncrasies of the tune (in other words, any rhythmic figures that are identifying characteristics of the tune, rather than ad-libbed grooves). I’ll mark, or at least note in my mind, when each section repeats and how many times, whether there’s an intro and/or an outro, which parts are instrumental and which parts accompany a vocal line (or for an instrumental tune, which parts are groove and which parts accompany the melody), and the relative dynamic levels of each section. I’ll listen to what the other instruments are doing, and how my part fits in. Sometimes the tune is not particularly piano-heavy, or maybe it doesn’t include keyboards at all, but I want to play it anyway. In that case, I have to listen to the other parts in order to decide which elements I want to adapt for the piano. Also, while I’m writing out the harmony, I’ll analyze it in my head to see how I could play around with it and make it my own. I come from a heavy theory-based education, so I’m always thinking about how I can tweak things to make them fresh and unexpected. There’s a lot of prep that goes into working on a tune.
Note: Do make sure you listen to or watch someone who knows their stuff playing the tune you’re trying to learn–either the composer/original artist or someone else who is a master of their instrument and their genre. There’s really no substitute for emulating the greats.
2. Start small, start slow
After I have an idea of how the song works, then it’s time to start working on how to play it. The key here is to start small; I’m talking microorganism tiny. The size of the initial chunk of music I choose to work on depends on the complexity of the tune. If it’s a simple tune, I might start with 4 bars, or a typical line of sheet music. If it’s moderately challenging, I might start with 2 bars. If it’s really difficult, I might start with 1 bar, half a bar, or even a single chord or melodic fragment. And the other important thing is, no matter what size chunk I choose, I start slow, and use a metronome to mark my progress. 60 bpm is pretty reasonable for easy tunes; for harder tunes, I might take it down to 40 bpm; for the hardest tunes, 20 bpm, or even 10 bpm, is not out of the question. Sometimes it can be hard to feel the beat at such slow tempos, so one great technique is to set the metronome at 2x or 4x the speed you want, and then treat every two bars as one (divide by 4 if using 4x speed). That way you get more subdivisions and it’s easier to hear when each beat is coming. Alternatively, if your metronome has an 1/8 note or 1/16 note function, you can use that.
3. Increase the tempo in small increments
When you’re comfortable with what you’re working on at the initial slow tempo, the temptation is to then try it at performance tempo. Don’t. The key is to gradually bring up the tempo. Increase in increments of 2-5 bpm to start; when you get more comfortable playing, you can try 10 bpm increments, but if you ever find yourself struggling to increase the tempo further, try smaller increments. Or better still, go back to a slower tempo and work on mastering it further before returning to the tempo you were struggling with.
4. Stitch things back together, bit by bit.*
So you’re in the process of learning a tune tiny piece by tiny piece. Now it’s time to start putting things together. In order to do that, I find it’s best if the fragments I practice overlap a little bit. Let’s say I’m practicing a 4/4 tune a bar at a time, and I’m working on bar 5. I won’t just work on bar 5–I’ll work on bar 5, plus beat 4 of bar 4 and beat 1 of bar 6. But maybe the tune doesn’t fall into such clear rhythmic boundaries. Maybe the last melodic fragment before bar 5 ends on the “and” of 3, and the melody in bar 5 continues across the bar line through beat 2 of bar 6. I’ll practice all of that, so that instead of feeling like I’m practicing bar 5 in isolation, I get the sensation that I’m flowing out of bar 4 and continuing through bar 6. You want practice to feel like a modified version of performance, not just pure memorization.
As I become comfortable with each bar, I add in the bars before it like a pyramid. So I might practice bar 1 repeatedly, then bar 2, then bars 1-2, then bar 3, then bars 2-3, then bars 1-3, then bar 4, then bars 3-4, then bars 2-4…etc. If it’s a simpler tune, you might practice bars 1-4, then 5-8, then 1-8, then 9-12, then 5-12…and so on.
*I learned this method both from a fantastic Bay Area piano teacher, Marc Steiner, and from a great book by Randy Halberstadt called “Metaphors for the Musician: Perspectives from a Jazz Pianist” (Sher Music Co., 2001). I highly recommend it.
5. If you’re having trouble memorizing, trying learning backwards
I use this technique often when I’m learning classical or ragtime pieces, or anything complicated especially when it’s written out and needs to be played a certain way. It’s similar to the pyramid method, but instead of adding bars forwards from the beginning, you’re adding bars backwards from the end. So let’s say you’re learning a 32-bar piece. You start with bar 32, and practice it repeatedly until you’re really comfortable with it. Again, you’ll want to add in a little bit of bar 31 to reinforce continuity. After that, you learn bar 31, but once you reach a certain comfort level with 31, instead of stopping at the end of the bar, you continue through bar 32, which is easy because you already know bar 32 and you’ve already practiced the transition between bars 31 and 32. The benefit of this method is, if you stick with it, by the time you learn the first bar, you’ve learned the entire song!
With this method it helps to bring each chunk of music up to speed before adding the previous one in. That way when you get to that section at a slower tempo while practicing the previous section, it’ll be easy.
6. If you’re stuck, take it slower, or learn a smaller fragment, or learn one hand only. If you’re really stuck, take a break!
The popular saying is, practice makes perfect. Of course, that’s easy enough to say, but HOW do you practice to make perfect? I find that slowing down my practice, or learning just a tiny piece of music at a time, helps me work towards more accurate performance. There are a lot of things to think about when playing a piece of music. For example:
– What are the notes?
– What’s the rhythm?
– How do my hands coordinate together?
– How loud or soft am I playing?
– Am I playing staccato or legato?
– Am I using the pedal right now? How far down am I pressing it?
– What key am I in? How does this chord fit into that key?
– What’s my next phrase? What’s the fingering? What hand position do I have to be in for the next chord?
– What’s the feel of the phrase? Of the song in general?
All of these things take time and effort to process, and when you’re playing a tune at performance tempo, there’s usually not that much time to process it all! As you practice and become more comfortable with the tune, some of these concerns will start to fade into the background and others will emerge more prominently. Ideally, you’ll want to know a song so well that you’re thinking about only one thing: does it feel right? And the answer will be yes because you’ve put the time in to make it so. So, eventually, you shouldn’t be thinking much of anything at all–you just let your mind go blank and feel out the tune as you’re playing it. That’s the ideal, of course. In reality, in order to get to that point, you really need to allow yourself time to factor in all those elements listed above. Not all of the items on the list will be an issue all the time; maybe the song stays in only one key, or you’re only playing your right hand at the moment, or you’re never using the pedal on that tune, and so you can discount those issues that aren’t critical in the moment. But most of the time you’ll have a lot of things to juggle, and by practicing slow, slower than you would normally think of playing, you can give yourself plenty of time to check items off a list before you have to play your next notes. You can use the pedal to hold down one chord while your hands move to the next chord, for example, and release as you play the next chord.
So, if you make a mistake, and it’s not something that’s likely to be a non-issue next time you play the phrase, slow it down. Play it again. If you got it right, great. Get it right again 3 more times. If that’s tough, slow it down again. Repeat until you can play it easily. Practicing should be easy, because you can always change the rules. Slow it down, practice less at one time, play hands separate, forget the pedal, don’t worry about dynamics, play out of time–all of these techniques are strategies you can use to make your practice easier and put yourself in a position to succeed. Once you’ve mastered the music with fewer variables, you can start to add more variables back in. Note, however, that when adding variables back into the mix, the difficultly increases and so it’s wise to take it a bit slower then normal.
And if you’re really at your wit’s end? Take a break! Don’t worry about it. Sometimes excessive repetition can be counterproductive if it’s producing the wrong mindset. Go have fun, eat something delicious, listen to some music you love, come back to the piece later and try one of the techniques above. Or, ask someone for help! Sometimes a teacher’s perspective really is what’s needed.
7. Respect the time signature, aka Take a breath between repetitions.
Be strategic when you’re repeating a bar or phrase for practice. There are a couple of ways to go about this, the continuous cycle method and the non-continuous cycle method. The non-continuous cycle method would be to play the phrase in time, then stop, take a breath, evaluate how you did and what you need to improve, and then play it again. Rinse and repeat. And then the continuous cycle method would be to add a logical amount of space to whatever length phrase you’re practicing, based on how the tune is organized, and cycle it repeatedly, in time. So if you’re practicing 1 bar, play that bar followed by a bar of space, and then repeat. If you’re practicing 2 bars, play 2 bars and then 2 bars of space. If you’re practicing 4 bars, and you’re able to cycle it without space, you can do that, or you can take 2 or 4 bars’ rest. If you’re playing 5 bars, you could play 5 bars with 3 bars of space and repeat. For larger chunks, the non-continuous method might be best, unless you can find a logical way to cycle it continuously, which may be the case.
What you DON’T want to do is practice a phrase, screw up, and then jump right back to the beginning of the phrase without respecting the time signature. You’ll train yourself to stop in the middle of bars, and you do not want that bad habit. It is hard to break, and I know from experience. Good time is one of THE most important parts of a good-sounding performance. Plus, you won’t be training yourself to perform continuously, and what you really want to do is perform the tune, right?
Which leads me to…
8. Either play in time, or don’t, but pick one and stick with it.
Playing in time is excellent for learning how to perform. It’s not so excellent for learning hard-to-grasp concepts, unless you’ve really mastered the art of playing extremely slow. However, if you choose to practice in time, then practice in time, mistakes and all. Adjust on the next repetition. Once time starts, it doesn’t stop until the bar, phrase, section, etc. is over. Time won’t stop when you’re performing, so it definitely shouldn’t stop when you’re practicing performing. Practice letting go of mistakes. Just let them roll on by and file them away for next time.
On the other hand, you can choose to practice out of time in order to learn something new or difficult. The same lesson applies. Commit to playing out of time. If you’re going to give up time, give it up completely; don’t try to play the part of the tune you know in time only to lapse out of time for the part you don’t know. When you practice out of time, your focus is on learning new concepts or developing the muscle memory to play a tough phrase or sequence of chords. For a melody, learn it note by note, repeating it to yourself until you have the notes memorized; for a chord, feel out the shape a note at a time until it sits comfortably in your hand. For multiple chords in a row, use the pyramid method: isolate them in pairs, then groups of three, then four, etc., until you can shift effortlessly back and forth between each chord shape without having to search for each note. Then, bring back the time, but don’t forget to start slowly!
9. Know your weaknesses, and attack them
Having trouble sight-reading? Check out some Bach chorales (excellent for this purpose because they are short and there are hundreds of them), or some hymns, or get a progressive sight-reading workbook series. There are some great series out there. Struggling to pick out songs by ear? Pick simple tunes, and practice transcribing just the bass part, or just the melody, or just the rhythm. Then move on to more complex tunes. Having trouble keeping time and learning rhythms? Count through the form of every rock or jazz or blues song you know, and then practice tapping out the drumbeats. Better still, get a drum technique book and start learning some of the rhythms from the book. Maybe even get a drum machine app and program in the rhythms you’re trying to learn so you can hear them. Don’t settle for saying, “I’m not good at reading,” or “My rhythm is not so strong.” Make it better.
My ears have always been my strength. Reading is less of a strength, but I’ve put in a lot of effort to shore up that aspect of my musicianship out of necessity. I am not ashamed to say I still work from sight-reading books on occasion, and I spent a summer in college working through Bach chorales. In a jazz context, I’ve never been as comfortable playing extremely fast as I’d like to be, but I’m also not afraid to play a fast tune on the bandstand. I may be humbled or I may nail it, but if I struggle then that just means I have work to do. Find out what you need to improve on, get after it, and never stop.
10. End your practice sessions on a high note.
This is important. Let’s say you’re practicing a tune repeatedly, starting at a slow tempo and gradually increasing the tempo each repetition to the point where it becomes difficult to continue. Don’t stop there! Once you reach the point where you don’t think you can consistently play accurately anymore, slow it back down a bit to a tempo that is comfortable. Nail the tune. Then stop. You’ll feel better, you’ll be reinforcing the sensation of success, and you’ll have a goal for next time. You’ll be focusing less on that tempo that you haven’t mastered yet, and more on the fact that you just played through the tune and it sounded great. You can get that other tempo another time. Enjoy your day. You’re an efficient practicer now!