How to Quickly Learn to Play a Piano Piece
Learning a new piece of music on the piano can be frustrating. Go about it the wrong way and you could be making things much harder for yourself. Take your time and follow a few logical steps, however, and you should be able to get it under control with confidence and accuracy.
The secret to successful learning – on the piano or in any other form of endeavor – is to make sure you give yourself enough time to master each element before moving on to the next one. Here is a step by step format you can use to learn any new piece of piano music, although for this article we’ll be concentrating on the piece entitled “Finale” – which is in the style of J.S. Bach.
You can see, hear and print the piece in question by following this link to its page on Score Exchange.
Learning a Piano Piece in Sections
Remember that there are two parts to the learning curve with piano music:
- The sheet music
- The piano keyboard
Your job will be to translate the notes on the page into a representation of the composer's wishes, and you'll do that by working methodically and being determined to get it right. Here are the steps you need to take to get this piece - or any other - comfortably under your belt.
Learn the Piece by Studying the Score
Before you sit down and start bashing away, take a good look at the notes written on the page. With every new piece of music you're trying to learn, you should be able to find out some basic information just by glancing at the score.
For example, a quick look at the very first bar (see picture below) tells us the following:
- It's in the key of F major - there's one flat in the key signature, and the right hand melody starts on the note F
- It's got 3 beats in a bar - the 3/4 time signature tells us that
- It should be played moderately loud - as indicated by the "mf" expression marking
- It's meant to be played quickly - the tempo indication is 188 beats per minute in quarter notes, so it goes pretty fast
Now you're ready to take your seat at the keyboard and get started.
Learning a Piano Piece in Simple Steps
Despite everything that you can glean from looking at the score, your main priority will be to get your fingers around the notes. These steps will give you a basis from which to do that, after which you can worry a bit more about dynamics, tempo and so on.
Step 1: Work in Small Chunks
Start with the first line of the piece, the first four bars of music. Try playing the right hand first, and then the left. Go slowly to make sure you play every note exactly as it's written. Watch out for the fingering and articulation - these are usually included to make playing the piece easier, so try not to ignore them.
We say music is contrapuntal if there are independent melodic lines being played by the two hands, rather than a melody in one hand and chord in the other. Counterpoint first became a significant musical device during the Renaissance, but is most closely associated with the Baroque period, notably in the music of J.S. Bach.
You can probably tell from listening to the piece that it includes a lot of repetition. Notice how the left hand echoes the right hand to begin with. This kind of contrapuntal texture was popular in the Baroque era. You can also hear how the melody is formed using plenty of sequences, phrases that are repeated at a different pitch. By spotting these little intricacies you'll be able to get to know the music a lot faster.
One quick note: some people advocate just learning the notes and ignoring the phrasing, playing the whole thing legato until your fingers get used to moving around the keyboard. That's perfectly acceptable, but it might be a good idea to do that after you've played it through several times.
Step 2: Try Playing Hands Together
Once you've got the first four bars sorted, try playing both hands together. If you can't do it, it's not the end of the world. It will simply tell you that more practice is needed.
If that is the case, practise playing the right hand until the left hand comes in, and then continue with the left hand for a few notes. Keep doing this until you feel able to continue with the right hand, which will happen automatically the more you practice.
Also remember that whenever you try doing something new or more complicated - like playing with both hands at the same time - you may need to slow things down even more. Don't be afraid to go as slowly as necessary: once you've learned the piece it won't matter how you managed to learn it, just that you did.
Look at the fourth bar of music. I'll bet you can play that section on its own with both hands together right now. This is another trick you can employ once you've been through the piece. Pick out single bars here and there and try playing them with both hands - you'll probably be amazed at how many of them you can perform flawlessly.
It's a good idea to move on to the next four bars of music as soon as you feel ready. You'll notice in this piece that the right hand in bars 5 to 8 is almost the same as it is in the first four bars, only played an octave higher and with a slightly different conclusion. The more you can relate bits of the piece to each other, the quicker you'll get it under control.
Step 3: Combine Sections of the Piece Together
Generally speaking you should work slowly, one hand at a time, until you start to feel comfortable playing the notes. When both hands begin to respond and you think you're ready, you should make an effort to combine smaller sections of the piece and play them together. For instance, maybe you could attempt the first 8 bars, then the next 8 bars, and so on.
Also be sure to take plenty of breaks. Don't try to learn the piece in one go at one sitting. No matter who you are your brain probably won't be able to take in all of the information. So work for half an hour or an hour, and then get up and do something else. This also ensures that what you've learned has a chance to sink into your brain without being bombarded by additional data.
Then, the next time you sit down to practise the piece, see how much of it you can play straight through from the beginning. Don't worry if you get confused and have to stop - that happens to everybody. But take note of where you're having problems...
Step 4: Practise the Tricky Bits of the Piece
Inevitably, some parts of a new piece will be more difficult than others. In this piece, for example, there are lots of sections where one hand echoes the other. Often the right hand is playing eighth notes while the left is playing quarter notes, which makes navigation a bit easier. The picture below gives a good illustration of this.
This pattern continues through bars 13 to 16 as well, as shown above, but then there's a change. In bar 17 things get slightly more complicated (see picture below), as both hands are playing eighth notes at the same time. The one saving grace is that the eighth note patterns are moving in exactly the same direction, which helps keep the hands moving in sync.
Later in the piece - at bars 36 and 37 - the two hands are playing eighth note patterns again, this time for a longer period. The trick with these is in pushing the notes down with each hand at exactly the same time. Most of us favor one hand or the other, so it can take a lot of practice to get the hands moving together as one unit. Without that sense of unity, though, it will sound clunky and disjointed.
Step 5: Perform Your Piece
This shouldn't freak you out, because it's not as dramatic as it sounds.
The suggestion is to try and perform the piece - or as much of it as you feel able to - for somebody you trust. It might be a family member or close friend, but it should be someone who's not overly critical.
If that's too taxing, then you can take the less stressful route and make a recording. Simply play as little or as much of the piece as you want to and record it with any device that's handy. Use your phone if it has that feature, or your laptop's web cam. You don't have to record the visuals if you don't want to, just the music. It's the sound you want to be able to hear, so it's better not to have anything else distracting you.
Once your recording is made, sit back and listen to it. Don't be too hard on yourself, though; chances are it won't be perfect just yet. The best thing you can do is put the recording aside or leave it alone for a couple of days. Keep practising the piece, and then make another recording. Compare the two recordings to give yourself an idea of just how much progress you're making, and then - when you feel like it - give your long-suffering friend or family member another mini recital.
Step 6: Polish your Piece to Perfection
By this stage you'll probably have the piano piece learned - and probably have most of it memorized. This happens just by playing it over and over again. But there's one more trick that will ensure you don't fall apart during a subsequent performance.
When you sit down to play, instead of starting at the beginning every time, try choosing a different section of the piece to work on. You might start practising the last page, or the final 8 bars, or the middle section of the piece. This particular piece has three sections, arranged as follows:
- Bars 1 to 20 - the introduction of the main theme
- Bars 21 to 46 - slight variations on the main theme, moving towards the relative minor (D minor)
- Bars 47 to 66 - return to the main theme in F major
As you probably realize, most of us practise by sitting down and playing the piece through from the beginning. But that's not necessarily a good idea, especially if you always get thrown by one particular section of the music. I wrote this piece, but I still had a bit of a struggle with bars 56, 58, 60 and 62, where the left hand has an eighth note rest at the beginning of the bar. It's tricky, and that's all there is to it. Of course, once you've got the music memorized you can go over sections like this as often as you want to until they start to feel natural and comfortable.
The way you practise will influence how quickly you learn any new piece of piano music. Don't be afraid to go slowly and spend as much time on difficult passages as you think you need to. As I mentioned earlier, once you can play the piece to your satisfaction, it won't matter how you went about it or in which order you practised the various sections. All that matters is that you can play it smoothly, continuously, from beginning to end.
I hope these tips help you do just that - and good luck!
Additional Piano Piece Learning Tips
You may be wondering how you can learn to play a new piano piece quickly, when all the advice tells you to go slowly. It sounds like a paradox, but it isn't. The point is that, unless you go slowly and make sure you learn the notes and technicalities, you'll be learning the piece incorrectly. And once you've learned it a certain way it'll be twice as hard to re-learn it. So to learn it "as quickly as possible" you need to take your time, break it up into smaller chunks and focus on the most difficult aspects.
I should also point out that the fingering indications in this piece - and in many pieces of published music - are simply there as a guide. It may be that using alternate fingerings works better for you, in which case you should follow your instincts. Fingerings are there to give you one way to approach the music, but they're not written in stone. If anything feels uncomfortable, do something else.
You'll also notice that occasionally the left hand notation moves from the bass clef to the treble clef. This is because the left hand moves up into the treble clef range, which would be difficult to read if it was notated with ledger lines. Using the treble clef makes it easier, so just watch out for it when it happens.