As musicians, we are constantly learning new music; whether it be for a recital, a gig, or even just for pleasure. Everyone learns at a different pace and in different ways. There’s no right or wrong way to learn a piece of music, but the tips below can help!
1. Score Study
Once you’ve picked your piece and have received your music, sit down and study the score; regardless of the instrumentation (solo, duet, chamber, ensemble, etc.). Depending on your score study beliefs, there are two ways you can go about this. The first is to read through the music, visualizing it in your head and making notes along the way. The second is to read through the score with a recording. Personally, I prefer to read through the score with a recording or two to hear how my part fits in with the other voices (if present).
Even if you don’t listen to a few recordings while you are in score study, it’s still a good idea to listen to other artists who’ve played your piece. This can give you some perspective on artistic decisions, phrasing, flourishes, and more. Remember that this is your piece and your performance, so just because someone did one thing on a recording doesn’t mean you have to do the exact same thing. This is especially important to remember for any solo parts or cadenzas in your music. With listening and score study, always remember to write in notes as you go; this could be for phrasing, breath marks, dynamics, etc.
3. Slow and Steady Wins the Race
Once you’ve got a mental map of your piece, it’s time to sit down and play through it. Remember that it doesn’t have to be perfect right away, so there is no rush to get to the end. Play through your piece slowly, marking off any sections that might need some extra attention. This will give you a general feel for the piece. Make sure to make notes as you go through it, like any key or time changes, tricky transitions between sections, and especially any fingerings or intervals that you might need to single out and work on. While you’re doing this, don’t worry too much about adding in dynamics, flourishes, or any other embellishments. This exercise is purely to familiarize yourself with the music. The extra stuff can be added in later!
4. Sectionals - Literally
Now that you’ve taken some time to understand the piece and how it flows together, it’s time to work through the sections one by one. You can divide the piece into lots of different sections, going as far down as one to two measures. If you decide to start with the smallest sections, make sure you build up into the overall section slowly by taking the time to fit all the pieces together. These “sectionals” allow you to focus on things like fingerings, intervals, connections between notes, and technical issues. You can start working in your artistic decisions here if you want, but it’s better to work on those after you’ve completed the basics.
After you’ve worked each section up, now you have to piece it all back together. Even if you’ve mastered each smaller section, sometimes the transitions can be the hardest part. Sometimes the best way to do this is by turning these transitions into their own “sectionals.” That way you can isolate the issue and work through it without worrying about other things you already have down.
6. Piece It All Together
Now that you’ve got the basics of the piece down, you can start working through the piece as a whole. Work through it until the music flows from the first note until the last. This is where you can start adding in some of the artistic decisions you mapped out earlier, like your flourishes, dynamics, or other embellishments. It’s important to leave the artistic elements until after everything else has been learned, because it gives you the opportunity to understand the piece, how it flows, and what messages the composer is trying to convey through their music. After that, you can be as creative as you want!
Congrats! You’ve learned your piece and now it’s time for you to go perform it for an audience, or maybe even just a fellow music lover like yourself. You should know your piece backwards, forwards, upside-down, and inside-out at this point, which means you have all that you need to go up on stage and play it. Break a leg!
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