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I'm coming back to piano after years and years away, so I'm back at beginner level again. I know I can get a bunch of etudes together and do technical exercises, but of course, the main thing is playing songs.

If I want to make efficient progress on playing and remembering songs, how many should I practice simultaneously at each level? Right now I'm drilling away daily at one song (both hands, LH, RH), but I don't have any fast reading or playing ability right now, so I'm cautious of putting too many irons in the fire.

How many should I add down the road as I improve? If I ever reach good sight reading competency, does the limit basically vanish?

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For how long do you practice each day? –  Meaningful Username Mar 29 at 11:06
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No more than an hour a day, at the moment. –  Trevor Alexander Mar 29 at 21:33

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Some songs are very easy to learn and remember, other songs take longer. I usually learn a song's intro for example, just the intro, until I have the intro in fluent memory. If the intro is simple, that doesn't take long, it can be memorised in minutes, but if it's not, it can sometimes take days to master.

Then I go back to adding the next phase of the song to what I've learned. Some parts have to be broken down into manageable pieces.

The more songs you commit to memory, the more you will have to practice to keep some from becoming rusty.

If I learn a new song, it won't stay in memory if I don't return to practice it soon, preferably the next day.

I usually learn songs in groups, this is because I read music very slowly, I commit to memory out of necessity (I close my eyes a lot when playing). This either happens if I'm in the mood to learn some new songs, or because somebody buys me a book.

I will only learn 1 song by itself (not in a group) if I've decided there's a particular song I would love to be able to play.

Suppose I get a new book of songs, I will figure out how to play the songs I am familiar with and like. I put post-its in the book to find them quickly. I will find that I enjoy playing only a handful of those songs, and soon be able to play them without the book.

In an hour's session (that's short for me), I can practice about 15-30 songs (I rarely play all the songs all the way through when practising them, some songs I abbreviate to intro-verse-chorus-ending), if I have recently learned some new songs, I will usually play those first, then take a break by playing my favourites, and then return to the set of new songs.

Since I play mostly rock/pop, some songs just don't sound as good as piano solo, or they go out of fashion, so there are a few that get dropped from my repertoire, and I forget parts of those songs over time.

I think songs that you compose (if you compose at your instrument, as a performance), are very easy to learn and to remember.

I don't know if sight-readers have a greater capacity for remembering the music. I suspect they can spend less time figuring out the notes and more time playing, but speed is not capacity.

If your goal is to be able to perform without the music (like a rock star would!) then I guess it's a matter of practising without reading the sheet music.

There was a documentary on the TV years ago about a blind boy (I guess he's a man now) that had perfect recall, he could play any piece just by hearing it once, now I guess that's the level at which the limit basically vanishes. I'm not sure how to acquire that particular skill.

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It depends on the time you practice and the time you need for the songs you play. Hard to say without knowing you. General rule of thumb:

  • if you don't see progress in the songs you play or don't remember well enough what you practiced the day before, you need to spend more time for the songs you play, so probably you need to preactice less songs.
  • if you see progress in the songs you are playing and, at some point, you feel bored of spending a lot of time in the same songs, probably you can try to play more songs.

Hope this helps.

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From another answer at this SE I got notion of the book The Musicians Way by Gerald Klickstein. While its main audience are university level musicians, there's a lot of stuff that is useful for those of us not playing for a living. He talks about how to practice, methods for remembering songs, how to approach new material etc.

I think there will always be a limit on how much new material one can work on in parallel, no matter the level. Depending on how much time you can practice each day, one song might be good, or you could add another. If it becomes boring hammering away at one song, just add a new one. But keep them quite simple in the beginning. It's not good with too much repetition due to the material being hard.

It's a hard question to answer, since it has a lot to do with personal ability, but I think you're right to not take on too much in the beginning. Later on, you might have e few new pieces going on in parallel, depending on how difficult they are. If some are quite easy, it might be just to ingrain them, while another has some hard passages which need extra attention.

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