How To Learn A New Piano Piece

Playing piano is one of my favorite hobbies. I've been through plenty of ups and downs in my life, yet piano (and ultimately connecting with the spirit and source through playing the piano) is something that's been a constant in my life.

There were many opportunities for me to pursue piano performance when I first entered college. In hindsight, perhaps I should have taken the opportunity, but I would have needed to also major in something else. I didn't want to give up the sciences & humanities and really didn't see myself (and still don't see myself) focusing all my energy on one thing.

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I really love listening to and playing classical piano pieces, specifically for the complexity of it. Playing piano is one of the very few things in my life where I feel like I'm using all parts of my brain concurrently, and for this reason, it's very relaxing. Sometimes I have a lot of pent up energy and playing piano acts as an emotional release and allows all the ideas to flow right on through. 

Because I never took the path of becoming a piano performance major, I'm really free to do whatever I want, learn whatever I want, play however I want, whenever I want to. Which I absolutely love. There was a time in college when I took a piano performance one credit course in the music school to get some feedback on my playing (and an easy A because I was one of those pre-meds trying to max out on my GPA). I was playing a Mozart piece and the critique was, "technically proficient, but that's not the style in which Mozart would have played it." To which my response was, "Well, good thing I'm Jackie and not Mozart." 

I don't play piano everyday, or even every week. But when I do, I'll play for hours at a time. I can go 8+ hours until my fingers physically cannot play anymore. Recently, I've done a lot of pop-turned-classical pieces that take an hour-or-so to learn. However, right now, I've been looking more of a "project" that's going to challenge me and take me a little while to perfect. I purchased some books to read about improving my technique written by professional pianists and decided to take a shot at going through Chopin's Etudes. 

The Etudes are pretty standard in the classical pianist's repertoire, but since I'm (mostly) self-taught (minus 3 years of piano lessons), and again, not very consistent about my practicing, I never really got around to them. They seem pretty good for developing technique, plus I think they sound cool. 

Here's my process for learning a new piece and getting feedback.

Step One: Get Inspired

Learning a new piece always begins with me hearing or seeing a piece that I have a strong desire to learn how to play. When I was younger, I got inspiration from classical music CDs. Now, I follow some professional pianists and piano performance students on Instagram and get an idea of what they're learning to play. That's how I ended up wanting to learn Chopin's Etudes. 

Step Two: Internalize the Music

I start listening to interpretations of piece on YouTube and follow along with the music. YouTube is great because there's people who upload their playing with the music so it's all in one. When I was younger, I would have to buy the music and then follow along with the record or CD. There are many variations in style, speed, and dynamic range with different pianists. I find parts that I like from each one and I start pulling the pieces together in my head. When I was younger, I used to fall asleep with whatever music piece I was practicing on repeat. I mentally rehearse each piece until I know all the chords and transitions without looking at the music. This is where learning music theory can be really helpful. It's helped my brain process things quicker by seeing (hearing?) the big picture and then filling in the patterns through rote practice and memorization. 

Step Three: Identify Patterns & Practice in Chunks

Beginning to learn a new piece requires the most heavy lifting. If the piece is challenging enough, the brain and fingers have to learn new patterns. There's a lot going on when you play piano. There's the bio-mechanical aspect of it. You also have to have hand-eye coordination and hand-eye-foot coordination because you're reading the music, moving your fingers and working the pedal. When starting a new piece, I'm always looking for patterns and a path of least resistance. For example, in this piece, it's the first four measures. It's the same pattern (mostly) but in different keys, so it's actually "pretty easy" when you break it down. Master the first measure, you have the first four, which is most of the piece. And then it's just putting all the transitions together which comes from internalizing the big picture of how the piece is composed.


Step 4: Record, Compare, Adjust, Perfect

I record my playing a lot because sometimes while I'm playing I miss things that I notice when I watch a recording of my playing. It could be clarity of a passage, tone, balance, emphasis, phrasing, tempo--lots of different things. I usually compare what I play to the professional recording and attempt to get as close as possible while retaining my own style. This is also the step where the work is never done. There's always something that could be "better" in my playing, which is why I love playing piano so much--you never hit a plateau. 

Right now, I'm not really sure how "long" this piece will take me to learn. I only play when I "feel" like it, so maybe I will and maybe I won't. Perhaps by January? Who knows, but what I know for sure is that it will be learned!