Getting the music from the page into your brain and out through your instrument or voice is all about processes. In this post, we’ll explore some of those processes, along with strategies for starting a new piece.
The first part of making music is internalizing the piece as a concept. Perhaps you know every song from Moana, or have a favorite song that gets stuck in your head. Listening is a really great way to get a piece of music into your imagination.
When listening, pay attention to any repeated material. Does the song have multiple verses with the same melody? Does the opening material come back at the end of the piece? Also take note if there are any moments that seem uniquely different from the rest of the piece.
Of course, playing a piece only by hearing it is a lot more complicated than it might seem. To play the piece accurately, you have to know precisely how it goes, rather than simply getting close. This is where your music reading skills really come into play, because your sheet music can tell you exactly what is happening as you listen. Scan your music. Are there any notes, words, or symbols that you don’t understand?
As you scan, here are some things to look for:
- Get a pencil and circle the key signature, and any other flats, sharps, or naturals in the piece. Remember that flats or sharps at the beginning of a piece apply to the entire piece!
- Understand the time signature. It looks like a fraction at the beginning of the piece (¾ in the example below). Remember that the top number tells you how many beats are in each measure (3), and the bottom number tells you what kind of note to count (4 represents the quarter note).
- Look for any rhythmic patterns that happen throughout the piece. Try tapping the pattern with the recording.
- Know the letter name for each note. Pay special attention to the first note of the piece or passage, notes approached by a skip, and notes following a change of hand position. Depending on your instrument, there may be finger numbers or other technical indications to guide you. Try to imagine the physical process of playing that note or passage on your instrument. For pianists, which finger plays each note?
- If there are chords (two or more notes played at the same time), practice each chord by itself. Make sure you know each note in the chord, and are comfortable playing the chord. This process makes it easier to play the chords in the context of the piece or passage.
- If there’s a melody that is repeated during the piece, look for it in your sheet music. Is it exactly the same, or are there small changes? Then look at the contrasting material.
Now you’re ready to try playing the piece! As you work through the content, here are some things to keep in mind:
- Work in small, meaningful sections. Instead of just playing from the beginning to the end (or until you crash), work on just one section until you’re comfortable with it. Then move on and learn the next one.
- Set a clear goal for each section (for instance, to learn the notes and rhythms, to play an appropriate dynamic, to play more stylistically, to shift hand position correctly).
- Let your tempo be slow and steady at first, so you have time to process all of the information and to perform the technique correctly.
- After you’ve played through each section a few times, find which parts are the most difficult and focus on them. Is there anything that doesn’t sound right? Make sure you’re reading the notes correctly (including key signature and accidentals), and are using correct technique (pianists, check hand position). If the rhythm sounds off, count out the note values, and compare to the recording.
- If you get stuck, move on to something else (musical or otherwise) and come back to the problem later. If you’re tired, hungry or thirsty, feeling unwell, or worried about something else, take care of your needs and practice later. If you’re still stuck, ask your teacher to help you.
- Listen to the recording between practice sessions. This helps you hear how each section fits into the piece as a whole. Listening can also inspire your own creativity as you make artistic decisions about the piece.
Learning new music is an important part of your musical and personal development. Being proactive in this process makes you a more agile learner, and helps you take your lessons to the next level. By learning on your own, you are more prepared for your lessons, allowing you and your teacher to work faster and more effectively in preparing your music for performance. As your level of playing advances, your work will become increasingly independent, with your teacher helping to fine-tune your technical fluency and musical interpretation, and providing direction for your work. You can also use your skills to explore different kinds of music according to your personal interests.
Keep playing, listening, and learning!