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I'm currently learning to play piano for 6 months and every time I learn a new piece I learn it like this:

  • learn the first line, play it until its pretty good
  • learn the next line and play the first line each time before it
  • when making a mistake repeat the whole piece
  • etc...

I wonder if this is the good way to learn, or that trying to play the whole sheet at once is a better idea as the whole piece is learnt evenly.
Perhaps the way to learn a new piece is personal, but often there is improvement possible in the way you learn something.

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One of the most celebrated violin teachers, Ivan Galamian, suggested that students should dedicate time to practicing technique and practicing interpretation separately, and to make the distinction between the two very clear. Practicing interpretation means playing the piece from start to finish with the same mindest as if you were in a performance, and practicing technique would mean to focus on very small sections of the piece, devising variations that you think best isolate the difficulty you're having with each. –  Rei Miyasaka May 7 '11 at 1:02
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7 Answers

up vote 15 down vote accepted

One thing one of my choir teachers sometimes did is start at the end and then move backwards through the piece as larger parts starting from the end are perfected, so that you start with some unfamiliar measures then practice the part that you already know to reinforce the knowledge.

However, if you're repeatedly having trouble with a specific spot, it definitely makes sense to work on that specific spot before trying to play it in the context of the entire piece.

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+1, this is also a nice way of learning a piece by heart. –  Gauthier Apr 26 '11 at 20:21
    
My God, this technique is a a pure virtuosity. I never though or heard about it (I'm not a Pro). –  Chiron Jun 7 '11 at 0:35
    
Does this technique useful for Spanish guitar players? –  Chiron Jun 7 '11 at 0:37
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I was taught that it's best to learn small sections independently. That way you can dedicate an equal time to all of them, and play them all equally well. I certainly prefer playing or listening to a piece played moderately well than a song play partially great and partially horribly. And taking the song as a whole is just too much (unless it's very short). You make progress much more slowly that way, and are prone to getting into a rut where the bad playing has become a bad habit/muscle memory.

You do, of course, need to play the parts you've already learned while you're learning a new one, so that your playing of them doesn't begin to deteriorate. You should just play them enough to keep up that playing level, and focus on the new part.

I also practice playing the "joints", if you will. For example, if I'm learning 16 bars at a time I will play bars 9-24 after I've learnt both 1-16 and 17-32, just to ensure that my transition between them is smooth and natural. It shouldn't sound in the end like you learned them independently. And once you've mastered all the parts individually, it's important to practice the song in its entirety to ensure everything is cohesive.

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+1 for tight transitions. –  bearcdp May 14 '11 at 21:21
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I strongly advise to break the linear, from-the-beginning-to-end working method. At the end, you'll end up knowing the start of the piece better. [Each mistake will weaken the chance of playing the piece to the end with the same concentration level.]

Work on the ending, work on the difficult parts, work on the joints as mentioned before. In my opinion, you're ready to the public performance when you can play the entire piece from virtually every point.

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+1 for "you're ready to the public performance when you can play the entire piece from virtually every point". I had a teacher who made me memorize the beginning of every few bars, so that I could pick up the song anywhere and let muscle memory carry me from there if I ever blanked out on a piece. –  Matthew Read Apr 26 '11 at 20:29
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You may find some things to be true:

  • it's usually irrelevant which part of the piece you learn in what order as long as you eventually put them all together in right order
  • you will progress a lot faster if you take the hard parts apart slow and detailed enough that you can have full control of them, and slowly speed them up while maintaining said control.
  • I find that starting at the beginning every time you trip up is a certifiable waste of time. You're not trying to punish yourself, you're trying to build a skill. Skills can only be built by maintaining attentive control of execution. When you trip up, don't go back, simply slow down to where you back in control
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I think it is really very personal. Everyone has a unique way of learning. I tend to learn the piece from start to finish at a steady pace just to get the tune in my head and to get a feel for it, and then practice playing the whole song and stopping to work on the harder parts till its perfect.

And it also depends on the song. With a long master piece like The Entertainer, I would prefer learning each section individually treating it like its own song as each section can often be played by itself allowing you to play something that sounds good without completing it.

Working backwards from finish to start mite work for some, and it sounds like a good idea, but I don't think it would work for me.

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+1 for "tune in my head". I play fingerstyle Guitar and I find it much easier to always start from the beginning so I can find the "tune in my head" instead of blindly following the tab or notation. –  Tanmoy Apr 16 at 9:43
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When practicing it is important to not spend very much time on it in one session. Do small sessions of for example 20-30 minutes and then take a good break. The rest is not that important IMHO and should match your style. I like learning by sections and not by line or pages.

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I would suggest to concentrate on the part you play the worst, the shorter the better. It allows to practice it many times within limited time range. Very soon it will no longer be the worst part of your song.

If I learn "beginning to end" instead, the result is a funny music with the quality of performance gradually degrading from perfect at startup to dreadful at the end.

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