April 10, 2024

About the Author: Sonja Joubert

Sonja Joubert is a master pianist classically trained by the late master Mr Josias Van Der Merwe and the late Adolph Hallis. She is also an excellent piano teacher with over 40 years of teaching experience specialising in both jazz and classical piano.

Most students, when receiving a new piece to learn, will immediately try to play it from the first notes of the written music, being eager to hear and play the melody. However, there are a few factors to take into account before even reading the very first note. Important factors like the key it’s written in and the time—whether a waltz time or maybe 6/8 or the normal four beats in a bar.

Woman holding a music sheet

So, What is the Best Approach to Your New Piece?

The most important aspects before playing a single note will be the key signature and time signature, but factors like the layout, the length, the composer, the name, the form, the dynamics applied, and the tempo, etc., also play huge roles.

For most of us, we will definitely not be able to first do a study of the name of the piece or of the composer or even listen to the music should it be available on youtube. We will simply want to play and try it! And it’s all fine!

I would suggest that you first of all look at the key signature so as to see which black notes will be used while playing. After that, look at the time signature so that you can count or feel the right timing. After having done the above, by all means, go ahead and try out the first line, at least! It’s so exciting to learn a new piece! See how far you can get and enjoy the scramble if your sight reading is not yet up to scratch!

After this first encounter, I suggest the following:

Scan and discover the piece from the very first dot on the page up to the last.

Hands playing piano

Discovering My New Piece:

What is the heading or the name of the piece?

This can indicate a lot concerning the feel and speed of your piece. If it’s a “Lullaby,” it will definitely not be at breakneck speed. It will probably be quite slow and mostly played in softer dynamics, not boisterously and loudly.

If it’s called a “Study”, it will most probably address some area of technical development that will be developed through the learning of this piece as in the Chopin Studies.

It helps to do a little study at some point on the title of your music piece to help with the interpretation and how to play it. Some pieces are called Allegro, which means “lively,” and are played faster than a piece called Adagio, which means “at a walking pace.” These names are Italian names used to indicate speed and dynamics for interpretation.

As you can see, the name can give huge indications as to how a piece should be played. Always analyze the name and read up info on Google. It’s informative and helpful for performance.

Who is the composer, and in what period did he/she live?

If the composer is a well-known composer like Bach or Beethoven, your teacher can help you understand the style of music played in the period they composed in, whether it was Baroque or Classical.

It’s always helpful to know a bit about the composer and the style that they prefer to write in. You can go and listen to some of their music on YouTube and get familiar with the way it sounds, which will, in turn, help you with the playing of your piece.

Do an overall thorough, quick scan of your piece.

I suggest that you scan through the whole piece from top to bottom. Be aware of how it looks, where it starts, and where it finishes. Are there any parts that clearly end within the piece with a double bar? Look at the sharps or flats written at the beginning of every line. Do they change at some point?

Let’s make a list of interesting points to examine. We are focusing on obvious visual indications rather than conducting an in-depth study.

  • Where does it start, and where does it finish?
  • How many sharps or flats are at the beginning of each line?
  • Do they change at some stage? In other words – the key signature changes.
  • Are there any clear markings of endings (double bars) within the piece?
  • Can you see any clear format of sections probably formed by a double barline?
  • What is the tempo indication at the beginning of the piece? Are there any tempo changes within the piece?
  • Look at the dynamics through the pieces. Does it vary a lot?
  • Is the melody in the right hand or in the left? It’s often clear to see without reading or hearing the melody.
  • Does the left have an obvious set pattern, like the Alberti bass pattern found in classical music, or are there no real set patterns?
  • Is the left hand playing chords or an arpeggiated pattern?
  • Is the piece chordal or more melodic on the whole?
  • How does the ending look?
  • Are there clear indications of form, for example, new beginnings, etc.?
  • Could you, in this quick scan, see any repetitions?

After scanning your whole piece from a distance, it’s time to get a closer look. You could also rescan your piece line by line before really starting to work on it in detail.

Where do I start to play or practice from?

There could be a few places to start or to practice from. One does not always have to work only from the start. I personally love to sometimes go to the very last bars and work out the ending. It encourages one to know where the music is going and how it is ending.

Maybe some will not like this idea, but I love it. It gives you something to work towards, especially if the piece is a long one. It helps a lot to do the last few lines fairly early in the learning of your piece. You can also have a few places to work from in a long Sonate for instance.

Ready to learn the notes, or rather melodies!

Now you are ready to look at the piece of music in depth and start to learn the notes and movement. It can be learnt both hands together or separately.

Do I learn to play the piece with hands separately or with both hands at the same time?

One can debate for a long time about whether a piece should be learnt first by each hand separately or together from the start.

I think it helps a lot to try to play it together from the start, as it gives you a better idea of what’s happening with the music.

It could however be too difficult to do so from the start, in which case, just do one hand at a time.

Taking your piece apart, (if you have learnt it with both hands together), by playing each hand separately, is always very helpful. It helps with sorting and correcting fingering and making sure everything is in place and perfect.

I suggest that you use both methods.

Sometimes, putting your piece together afterwards can be more challenging than doing it with both hands from the start. Here, you will have to see what works for you, considering the difficulty of the piece and your ability.

Woman with laptop and wearing headphones

A Last Suggestion:

Listen to a recording of your piece, BUT ONLY AFTER doing the work of properly sight-reading and studying the piece!

Today, we have the great privilege of being able to listen to music on YouTube. If you can find the composition performed by an excellent pianist on YouTube, please listen to it.

It will help you with learning it much quicker, as the melodies will be a bit more familiar.

I would, though, not continually listen to it, as one wants to play your piece true to your own interpretation within the composer’s indications rather than sound like another player—unless they are playing beautifully and really well.

Enjoy your new piece! It’s so exciting!

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