by Javier Arau © 2001
The time you spend with your piano teacher can be really fun and exciting. You get to learn new songs and a whole lot of other details about music making. The time you spend away from your teacher -- your practice time -- can be just as inspiring. Practicing gives you a chance to learn your assignments and to have fun on your own with your piano. I think it is exciting to approach each new song in the same way that you would approach a crossword puzzle or word search: approach it as a challenge. The great thing about learning the piano is that each new song you learn can make you an even better piano player. Your goal with every piece you practice should be to perform the piece confidently, correctly, and with feeling. The song should be played with accurate rhythms, correct fingerings, and not only the right notes, but with a clear knowledge and recognition of what letter each note on the page receives.
Everyone needs a brain, fingers, and a heart to play the piano. Without your heart, you cannot play the piece with feeling and expression. Of course, you need your brain to think about which letter in the alphabet goes with each note. You also use your brain to help you count the beats that go with each note, ensuring that each note is played with its proper rhythm. Without your fingers, you would not be able to play any songs on the piano at all (unless you play with your toes or your nose!). If you ever tried playing a song you thought you knew, and your fingers all of a sudden messed up, then think of this: Our fingers have no brains! They are stupid. All they have is muscles. Your ten, stupid little fingers are your very own precious little students, and you must teach them. Muscles have memory, so the best way to get your students to learn is by repeating, repeating, and repeating. Your fingers will only learn through repetition. Only repeat music that you are playing correctly. If you play music incorrectly over and over again, your fingers will only learn how to play it the wrong way. And fingers are so dumb that it will be hard to teach them how to play it correctly at that point. Also, your little students will learn best if you teach them by playing only a little section of music at a time and if you play very slowly.
Here are my three suggested steps to learning any song:
First step: Know the letter names. Make sure you know the letter names of each note you are playing. Eventually, you should be able to recognize every note and its letter name on the treble and bass clef staves without much thought or effort. The sooner you can get to this stage, the better, as knowing the letter names of all the notes makes learning each song easier and even more fun. To learn the letter names of each song, try a few methods:
Second step: Play using the correct fingerings. Many songs indicate fingering numbers (1,2,3,4,5) for notes in the song. Pay attention to these and make sure you are playing using the correct fingers.
Third step: Play using the correct rhythms. Playing the correct letters for each note is only a small part of the music. Playing with a steady beat and counting correctly is just as important.
These three practicing steps are very important to keep in mind. But do not just jump right in and try to learn the entire song just by using these three steps and nothing else. No matter what song you are learning you should always break the song up into small sections, called phrases. Then learn each phrase, one at a time. Very often, a phrase will end with a longer note, like a whole, dotted half or half note. Phrases also tend to be between two and four measures long. Let's try practicing this song:
First, divide the song into phrases. Look for where the longest notes are in the song. Longer notes often mark the ends of phrases. You should recognize half notes, getting two beats each, in measures 3, 5, and 8. These half notes each mark the end of a phrase. You can begin practicing any of the three phrases. I will choose phrase 1 to begin practicing, because it is my favorite.
Then, learn the notes and their letters. This might take some time. Be patient and careful. Pick a note you remember and use that as a starting place to figuring out the other notes, think of other songs you have played, or use a map. Try not to write the letters next to each note on the page. You will have a tough time really memorizing the note names this way. You should try your hardest to keep the note names in your head. Because you have broken the song down into three separate sections, you only have to learn five notes to begin with: A A C D E. Now try playing the phrase. Make sure you are playing with the correct hand and the correct fingers.
If you can now play the notes on the piano, now make sure you can play the rhythms correctly. The main goal to playing rhythms correctly is to keep a steady beat as you play. In each measure of the song, there are two beats. This means that you should count ¤one, twoË for every measure. Do not pause in between the measures. Pretend that you are in a parade, playing with a band. Even get up and march, calling out, "One, two! one, two! one, two! one, two..." over and over again. If you try playing phrase one with such a steady beat, you will eventually learn it correctly. When you first try this, though, you might find yourself pausing and the beat slowing...way...dowwwnnnn... This might be happening for a couple reasons: (1) You do not know the letters as well as you thought you did. If this is the case, then study the letters some more. (2) Your brainless fingers are having trouble playing the section. If this happens, then you are probably playing the section too fast. Slow down your beat. Count "one, two..." more slowly as you play.
Try the section again. If you still cannot play it, don't panic. This is part of the practicing process. This means that your phrase is too big. Break the phrase down into even smaller sections. If you ever need to break down a phrase into smaller sections, think of this rule: one measure plus one note. This means play A A C. Then play C D E. A A are the notes from the first measure. C is the next note after that. Together they form "one measure plus one note." Same with C D E.
Whether you are playing one phrase or one measure plus one note, make sure that once you have played it correctly, you repeat that section correctly again and again and again. Play nice and slowly every time. This is important training for your fingers. Their muscles must remember how to play the section correctly, and the only way they will learn is through repetition.
After you have learned one section, congratulations! You are well on your way to learning the entire song. The next challenge is to learn a second section. I suggest learning phrase two. This phrase is only two measures long and only has three notes: D D E. It might be a little easier to learn than phrase one. Follow the same steps you worked on while learning phrase one.
Now that you have learned both phrases, it is time to combine them. When you play both phrases, listen carefully. New little problems tend to come up when combining phrases, but none of them are so big that you cannot fix them through some thoughtful practicing. The first step is identifying the problems. Are you holding E in measure 3 for two beats, as you should? Are you holding it too long and pausing before you play the second phrase? Are you accidentally only holding it for one beat? Did you put a pause in between D and E in measures 4 and 5? You might try taking a pencil and marking where your mistakes are. To fix them, you must zoom in on each trouble spot. You are like a doctor fixing up a patient. Zooming in means that you practice and fix just the section that has the mistake. Pausing in between phrases is a common problem. Since pausing at the barline where one phrase ends is the problem, you must practice across the barline. To practice across the barline, pick a note or two on each side of the barline. In our example, the barline that separates phrase one and two is between measures 3 and 4. So the notes to pick are E from measure 3 and D from measure 4. Just practice these notes over and over again. You see, your fingers have learned each phrase separately, but they are having trouble combining the two phrases because they have no experience with the transition between the two.
Once you feel that you can very easily play E and D across the barline, zoom out just a little bit by adding one or two more notes to the section. Try starting on D from measure 2 and playing D E D D. Repeat this until you know it well. Then try from the beginning of measure 2 until the end of the second phrase (C D E D D E). Could you do it? If so, start at the beginning and try both phrases. If you could not do it, just remember, if there is ever a time that you cannot play something comfortably, do not just keep on trying to play it over and over again. You will most likely just keep on messing up. Imagine if you did not understand something in school, and instead of trying a different way to explain it to you, your teacher just kept telling you the same thing over and over again. You would probably get very frustrated and still not understand what in the world your teacher was talking about. Now you are the teacher, so if you screw up, don╠t worry. Just try playing the whole section more slowly or try zooming in again to the trouble spot. You can also try zooming in AND slowing down. Trust your fingers. Eventually they will get it right. They just need lots of practice, patience, and encouragement.
Eventually, you will be ready to learn phrase 3. Go through the same steps that you took to learn phrases 1 and 2. Then combine phrase 2 with phrase 3. You might have some new problems to work out, just like you did when you combined phrases 1 and 2.
One of the final steps is to combine all the phrases. My suggestion is that you try the whole song a little slower at first. New problems might come up, even at this stage. Whatever you do, do not ignore them. Zoom in and keep fixing the problems. If you have to go back to just combining phrases 1 and 2, do it. Eventually, you will have learned all the rhythms and notes, and your fingers will finally be able to play the whole song without much effort at all.
You might find, even after spending a day getting your fingers and mind to play all three phrases together really well, that when you go to practice the very next day, your fingers have forgotten much of what they have learned. This happens to everyone. This is why you must practice every day. The more you practice, if you practice with this much effort and thoughtfulness, the better you and your fingers will get at remembering, and you will be able to learn songs even faster.
The very last step is my favorite. This is where you get to know the song, not just as a bunch of notes, letters, numbers, and fingers, but as a great, fun piece of music! Play the song over and over again, until you can hum it in class, in the bathtub, or on the bus. Try playing it loudly. Try playing it softly. Try playing it really slowly or really quickly. You have put so much great effort into learning the song. Now is your chance to enjoy the music!