How to learn a new piano piece (for late beginner and early intermediate pianists)

If you are a new pianist, the first pieces you’ll learn are typically short and to the point (the pedagogical point that is). But as you grow your skills, you’ll find that the pieces you encounter become longer and more complex.

You have to be much more methodical to tackle longer pieces. So I wanted to write a blog post today on the three phases of learning new repertoire for late beginner to early intermediate pianists.

Join me for a glimpse into the universe that is the piano practice room. 

Understanding the 3 phases is crucial for your progress

Most early pieces in method books are designed to be short and sharp, with specific skills to be learned. You should be able to learn them thoroughly in about a week. 

The great benefit of learning shorter pieces is that you can go through a huge selection of repertoire, lots of different styles and musical ideas in a relatively short amount of time. 

But often, when you start to encounter longer pieces, things can go awry, especially if you don’t have a teacher who can guide you through practice strategies!

When pieces get longer, you’ll need to take a much more analytical approach to your practice. Otherwise, what will end up happening is that you will never feel the confidence that comes from knowing a piece through and through.

Instead, you’ll always have weak spots and performance never seems to come easily.

The 3 phases of practising new repertoire… from written music!

I call the 3 phases the exploration phase, the deep practice phase and the performance phase. 

You must complete each phase before moving on to the next one.

Now before we dive in, a disclaimer!

What follows is only an outline. Each phase is incredibly more detailed, but if you are a new pianist, you will find it useful to understand the broader structure of acquiring new repertoire.

Furthermore, the outline below is particularly relevant to learning sheet music (learning the music as written on the page), less so for practising other musical arts such as improvisation or arranging music.

While there is a crossover, please bear in mind that I wrote the below with performance repertoire in mind.

PHASE 1 – Exploration phase 

In the exploration phase, we will analyse our new piece to understand its musical structure.

Why? Because it helps us to:

  1.  Find repeating ‘patterns’ that will speed up the learning process
  2. Find a way to break down the piece into smaller fragments that we can then study deeply and with full attention
  3. Identify technical difficulties
  4. Mark all the correct fingerings

You can take two different approaches to start this phase.

You can start ‘cold-turkey’: simply pop the sheet music in front of you and try to sight-read the piece. It’s a great exercise – but I do want to warn you that you can only do this once, maybe twice. 

The moment you start sight-reading you are building an aural image as well as training your fingers, and while sight-reading can undoubtedly help us uncover future trouble spots, if we sight-read too often in the beginning, we will start learning mistakes.

Stick to playing the piece through once, maybe twice, and do it with the intent to analyse.

The other option is to find a good quality recording or two and listen to them while following along with the score. Listening will also help you establish a good idea of what the piece is supposed to sound like.

In fact, even if you start by sight-reading, I still recommend you listen to a recording. 

In the exploration phase, we take a look at the compositional form and determine how the piece fits together. Is it an ABAB form? A sonata? A rondo? Knowing the form will help up identify quickly which sections repeat and where and how they change.

Check the title – what story tells this piece? Is it in a major or a minor key and how do you know?

When was this piece composed? By whom? What style is this piece; Is it baroque, classical, blues, minimalist etc.?

Use the exploration phase to get to know your piece from the inside out. 

Map the spots that you believe will give you trouble. I call these hotspots.

For example, you see a fast passage with a pattern that completely threw you when you were sight-reading. That’s a hotspot! Mark it down. Put brackets around it or use removable highlight tape. You will practice these hotspots first in the next phase (see below).

Spotted! Hotspot! The right hand displays a pattern that repeats. The fast, staccato left-hand octave jumps might need particular attention so they can be executed smoothly and error-free. We pop 2 brackets either side of the RH pattern and highlight the left-hand with some removable highlight tape.

We also take the time to write down or take note of any fingering! Your teacher can help you here.

It is vital that once you decide on a particular fingering, you must NOT change it! Always practise pieces with the same fingering, so you can build muscle memory (which is required to play your music fluently).

Once we’ve analysed our piece, we understand its form, and we have divided it into biteable chunks for learning (see example above), we can move on to the next phase.

PHASE 2 – Deep Practice Phase 

Deep practice means we look at tiny parts of the score and study these fragments with full concentration, paying attention to fingering, dynamics, and articulation. 

After you’ve finished the exploration phase, you should have marked in your score a bunch of different hotspots (See example above).  Pick a hotspot (any hotspot) and start there.

Don’t just start practising from the beginning of your piece. The first measures are rarely the hardest. Instead, be methodical and start with the areas you know are going to give you trouble.  THAT’S what will need practising most, after all!

We learn fragment by fragment, chunk by chunk– which we then later link together. “Learn” in this instance means we can play the chunk confidently with both hands at the intended speed without mistakes.

Deep Practice is ALWAYS performed hands separate first. It is impossible for your brain to coordinate two hands at the same time accurately and musically.

Therefore, we must teach our brain to really and deeply learn first one hand, then the other before we put them together.

Learning hands separately is how you build muscle memory and how you gain control of tone. Even master pianists practice hands separately!

Deep Practice is ALWAYS performed slowly at the start.  The slower, the better, so you can focus on getting every single note right.

Remember, every time you play a wrong note, you are learning a wrong gesture. So SLOW DOWN, and take your time – speed will come once your fingers and arms and hands know exactly what they are doing.

 “You must go slow to go fast.”

This is the number one mistake ALL beginner students make – they try to go too fast too soon. It is often a case of impatience.

Remember, you may intellectually know what something should sound like, but your fingers take time to learn (brain versus muscle learning). So patiently practice day after day, and the speed will come naturally.

ALWAYS try to imagine sound when you’re practising. Hear the music in your head, even if you’re playing slowly! Anticipation of sound is a KEY skill for any musician to master their instrument, and the sooner you start, the better you will be able to do this. 

Once you can play your fragments correctly hands separately, at a decent speed, try putting the hands together. SLOW DOWN AGAIN! You may be able to play your separate hands fast, but when you put them together, you have to start from scratch. This is a new skill – coordination. Slow down and let the speed build naturally.

Practise each fragment in this way, and then, start combining different fragments. Sometimes this means you need to practise transitions!

Continue to link chunk into larger and larger chunks until all are combined. At this point, you have pretty much learned your piece!

It is time to move on phase 3!

PHASE 3 – Performance Phase 

I think this is the hardest phase of all!

Once you know your piece entirely, you ‘have got the notes’ and feel confident playing at tempo, it is time to step it up. Now we need to focus on the bigger picture – connecting phrases and musical ideas, the concept of the piece. 

ONLY IN THIS PHASE do we practise the piece from beginning till end!

It may sound like a gratifying experience, but it is vital you remain in practice mode! This phase requires you to really listen to yourself and be critical (but not overly critical) of your performance. 

It’s a good idea to record yourself frequently during this phase (and the previous one too, if I’m honest), so you can listen back while following the score. Did I play it as well as I thought? 

This is the phase where you practise out any hesitations, any leftover difficulties. If you play through your piece and you feel certain areas just don’t come easily, sometimes this requires you to do some further deep practice. 

Once you master phase 3, you have a performance-ready piece. 

These are the 3 phases of successful piano practice for learning written performance repertoire. As you become more advanced, the phases each become more and more sophisticated.

However, getting into the habit of tackling pieces according to this 3 step method will ensure you learn your pieces faster and with more accuracy, and it will set you up for success when you start on the more complex pieces.

The art of practising is not an easy one to master, and having a teacher will greatly help you. Your teacher will (should!) help you identify smaller chunks to practise, highlight technical areas that will need attention and give intelligent suggestions for fingerings.

Your teacher will also be able to give you tips and hints on different practice techniques to overcome technical and musical challenges as they arise.

If you’d like to find out more about my own lessons for adult beginners, check out what I have to offer! All my lessons are delivered person-to-person, and are 100% online.

Happy practising! 

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