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If you are starting a new piano piece (song), I have a few suggestions that may help you practice the piece more efficiently and learn it faster. These suggestions are not the only important steps but they are some of the more important ones. Let's take a familiar musical example, 'Do-Re-Mi' from 'Sound of Music' and talk about these different steps in the context of this piece. I have added color coding to help you navigate through the steps.
How to practice a new piece for piano
a guide for beginners
C D Eb F G A Bb
Bb C D Eb F G A
4 quarter note beats per measure
Each phrase is 4 bars
Practice each blue chunk until you master it and then move to the next one
Getting familiar with the pitch collection (looking at the key signature)
The majority of the music around us uses only 7 different pitches (of all the 12). So, it is a good idea to get familiar with the 7-note pitch collection of the music you are playing. For that, you can take a look at the key signature of the piece (that is the sharps and flats at the beginning of each line) and see which notes are sharp or flat and which ones are used in their natural form throughout the piece. Write these pitches down at the top of the page, in order. Then you can make a mental image of the black and white keys on the keyboard that represent that pitch collection. These are the keys you would be using in this piece.
Next is to find the pitch center of our pitch collection. Again almost all the music around us has a pitch center. That pitch center has a significant role in the 7-note pitch collection of the piece. It is like the sun in the solar system. It sounds very stable and feels like home. For this reason, very often, a piece of music ends on its pitch center. To find the pitch center of the piece you are playing, look at the very first and very last notes of the melody, or if you know a bit about chords look at the root of the very first and very last chords. These pitches are very often the pitch center you are looking for. After finding the pitch center, rewrite the 7-note pitch collection at the top of the page this time starting from the pitch center.
Figuring out what the beat value is and how the beats are grouped (looking at the time signature)
Beats and measures guide us with the timing of the notes. In a musical score (sheet music), beats and measures are like a ‘tape measure’ for time. Therefore, to keep the timing right, it is very helpful to see and follow the beats. But how can you figure out what the duration of each beat is and understand how they are grouped in the piece you are playing. For that, you can look at the time signature and also observe how the notes are beamed together. To keep it simple for here, just know that quarter-notes, half-notes, and dotted quarter notes are the most common beat values, and that there are usually 2, 3 or 4 beats in each measure. Also note that, in good notation practice, each beat is beamed separately to visually clarify where the beats are for the performer.
Identifying the phrases
Phrases in music are similar to sentences in a language. If you know where a musical phrase starts and ends it helps you understand and connect with the music better and faster. The length of a musical phrase is usually 2 bars or 4 bars. This is not always the case but it is very common and helpful to know.
Practicing hands separately
After this preparation, it is time to get familiar with the musical material in each hand. For each hand, decide on your hand positions and their changes, and group the notes accordingly. Then for each group of notes (each hand position) put in fingerings that are logical and more importantly comfortable. Finally stick to these hand positions and fingerings and try to master each hand separately.
Practicing hands together
The final stage is practicing hands together. Knowing the musical material of each hand separately is very helpful, but it doesn't mean that you can put your hands together automatically. When you are playing hands together for the first time you are creating a musical texture that you have never played before. So, lower your expectations and try to sweep all the notes from left to right in time, playing those that are vertically aligned together. There are 2 very important rules in practicing that are very helpful: (1) Play very slowly and (2) practice in little chunks.
(1) It is always better to be slow and play the write notes than fast with lots of mistakes. You learn what you repeat. If you repeat a lot of wrong notes that would become what you are actually learning. So, don’t underestimate the importance of playing slowly.
(2) The processing power of your brain is always limited, including when you are practicing the piano. It is very efficient to practice in little chunks to decrease to processing load on your mind. This way you can focus on smaller amount of information, and better understand what is going on in the music. Start by practicing in one-beat or two-beat chunks, and repeat each chunk until you master it. Then move on to working on measures, and repeat each measure many times until you master it. And finally move to practicing phrases and sections.
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