Discover how to learn a new piano piece effectively, get fast results and be in full control
A revolutionary method
In this article, I am going to reveal one of my best-kept secret regarding the learning and practice of a new piano piece. I have always taught this method to my students, but it is the first time I am sharing it publicly.
What you are about to read is revolutionary. I can promise you that if you follow all the steps diligently, your experience of learning of a new piano piece will be changed forever!
It is rather unusual, but it is an exceptional method that I can only encourage you to implement if you want to reduce the amount of time you spend on learning the notes of a new piano piece and be in total control of it.
The issue we normally face
I am sure that you know the feeling of playing a piece well but with the disturbing impression that you are not entirely in control; This feeling that it can go wrong anytime although there is no specific issue to resolve.
I believe that it comes from the fact that we can indeed play the piece well, but we do not know it well enough to be ensured that every single part of it has been totally ingrained in our hands and minds. It is the reason why we are not entirely at peace and in full control.
I often ask my students how they have been practising, and the answer is systematically the same: “ I have played it several times from the beginning to the end.” I am sorry for disappointing you but this is performing, not practising.
If you really want to know a piece, you must know every single part of it, independently from the others. You must practice each section and each bar as if they were mini pieces. Only after, you can put them all together.
Over the past 35 years, I have experienced various practice methods, and I can assure that practising in the manner I am going to describe is the only way to feel 100% secure and in control.
When and how I discovered it
I was 16 years old when I got introduce to what I call “the practice method that changed my life”. It was in April 1995.
Each year, at the CNR of Boulogne Billancourt, in Paris, we were given a piece to study for a short period of 5 weeks before having to perform it during our exam at the end of the academic year.
In 1995, I was preparing for the final exam and the piece chosen was the 1st mvt of Dutilleux Sonata. I remember very well being rue de Rome in Paris with my mother and opening the piano book which I just purchased. I wanted to find out the difficulty straight away. I recall turning the pages with horror realising that this piece of music would be extremely challenging. I looked at my mother and told her: “There is no way I can learn this in 5 weeks!” I was literally under a shock!
Fortunately, I was due to attend a piano seminar in the coming week with my future master instructor Edson Elias. It was an excellent piano seminar held in the countryside that allowed students to have piano lessons during daytime and the opportunity to perform in public each evening.
All the other attendees were already Edson Elias’ regular students, and they also just discovered the new piece they would have to perform at their final exam. I remember Magalie waiting for the post and opening the envelope. The piece was much shorter than mine but still extremely difficult. She looked at it and said: “I am going to go and practice to perform it this evening.”
I was astonished! How could she perform a brand new piece on the same evening? In my mind, a piece took weeks or months to be learned and internalised before being presented to an audience. I was inquisitive and asked her how she would manage.
She was such a nice girl that she took the time to explain how she would do this in great details. At first, I thought that it was ridiculous, and I could not see the benefits. I was a rebellious teenager unprepared to follow any advice! I went to practice, as I usually did, for the rest of the afternoon, waiting for the evening to hear the performance of Magalie’s new piano piece.
What a surprise! She performed it in public, perfectly well by memory! I was stunned.
The following morning, I started to implement this incredible method that left me speechless!
Here it is:
The concept is to break the piece apart entirely and use the bars as practising tools, like a jigsaw.
- Write all your fingerings down
- Make a copy of the score as it is useful for two reasons: you can make as many practice notes as you want and you can only put one sheet on the stand to avoid being distracted by the numerous amount of pages that you will have to learn.
- Depending on the duration of a practice session, select a section that you will be able to complete during this practice session. It can be as short as four bars or as long as one page, but not more. I would advise starting anywhere in the piece to give equal importance to all the parts without systematically starting at the beginning. Let me explain the whole concept based on an eight-bar section.
- Put your metronome at a speed at which you can sight-read without any mistake. It can be extremely slow. It does not matter.
- Go to bar 1. Play each hand separately up to the first note of the following bar, at least three times to ensure that you know what each hand must play. (If you need to play it more than three times, it means that it is too fast so down the initial learning speed). Start with the left hand to avoid giving too much importance to the right hand, as we tend to do. Then put them together. Play this bar as well as the first note of the following bar until you feel confident.
- Tick this bar or highlight it, as you prefer. It means that it is known.
- Then, go to bar 4 and repeat the same process.
- Continue in this order to ensure that you do not practice consecutively two bars that are next to each other: Bars 1 – 4 – 8 – 2 – 5 – 7 – 3 – 6.
- You can now play each bar separately at a chosen slow speed.
- The next step consists of pairing them. At the same speed, play bars 1+2 – 2+3 – 3+4 – 4+5 – 5+6 – 6+7 – 7+8. Always play up to the first note of the next bar to work on the transitions.
- If you can play a couple of bars easily, you can now play four of them: 1+2+3+4 – 2+3+4+5 – 3+4+5+6 – 4+5+6+7 – 5+6+7+8.
- The last exercise consists of playing these 8 bars consecutively.
It is okay if there are still some hesitations there and there and you are not feeling 100% confident yet, but you can at least be sure that you have learnt this section in and out.
Cover the entire piece using this method. When focusing on another section on the next day, play once the section that you have learnt the day before to gain confidence and ensure that you do not forget it.
Once it is done and that you play the piece from the beginning to the end at the same speed, restart the entire process from the beginning (working on one bar at a time) at a faster speed. Do not up the pace too much, be careful.
This method is extraordinary, but it must be followed very diligently to make it work well. You must be patient, but you will see that in the end, you will know the whole piece well much faster than by using a more traditional method. It will also feel much more secure. While it may seem a little pedantic at times, I can assure you that it is the most valuable way to learn. The result has been proven to be incredible!
My own experiences
There are several examples when this unique method helped me achieve a terrific success but let me just give you two. I believe that it is sufficient to illustrate the benefits of this phenomenal practice method.
As I said earlier, I discovered this fantastic method during the preparation of my final exam at the CNR of Boulogne Billancourt. I was due to perform a selection of pieces learnt throughout the year as well as Mozart concerto for two pianos and the 1st mvt of Dutilleux Sonata which I had five weeks to prepare.
I do not know how I would have been able to perform this last piece perfectly well on stage with only a few weeks of preparation. I am sure that you will not be surprised to hear that I was the only successful candidate!
A couple of years later, I was suffering from a disease that could not be either understood or solved by the several doctors I saw. For about a year, I would get extremely high fever at any given time, without a real explanation.
It happens that I was not well at all on the day of an important exam. Despite my deplorable state, I managed to perform Prokoviev Sarcasms very successfully and pass my exam with distinction.
I managed to do this thanks to the method that allowed me to rely on body and mind mechanism.
Master Pianist Edson Elias
Time to try it out
I could write pages upon pages about this extraordinary practise method, but I believe that it is now time for you to try it out on a short one-page piece.
Remember to write your fingerings down first and to start practising only a bar at a time + the first note of the following bar. Do not learn the bars in order. Break it apart as if you were building a jigsaw at a slow speed first. Then put two bars together and then four and finally, the entire page. Keep it at the same slow tempo until you are 100% confident. Then, make sure to start the work all over again, a bar at a time, at a higher speed, and so on.
Most of my students seem to do the work well at a slow speed but do not have the patience to up the pace a bar at a time only. It is a real shame as following my instructions exactly is the only way to enjoy the real benefits of this incredible practice method.
In addition, to help you learn a piece must faster and be in full control of it, it will also help structure your practice sessions and avoid wasting time or focusing on the sections you are already playing well!
I am incredibly thankful to the late Edson Elias, who has taught this fantastic method to all his students. We were all hugely successful at our exams, concerts and competitions as we were blessed enough to have such a remarkable master instructor.