I'm a grade 2-3, and last week my piano teacher gave me "To a Wild Rose" (Edward MacDowell) to learn - page 1 for now anyway. At first glance it seems quite straightforward, but 5 days on and I still can't play the page without hesitating or fluffing it at least once. I've practiced it over and over for 30-45 minutes a day, so I must have worked through it 100+ times now, and starting to feel a little frustrated!

I'm in my early 50s by the way, so don't have a "memory like a sponge" any more unfortunately, although I have played this page so many times now that I have memorised most of it. Similarly, muscle memory is working well (possibly better than "brain" memory) and in certain sections I can feel my fingers instinctively moving to the next notes, but again not 100% there.

It's hard to explain the problem, but it almost feels like these three things (memory, muscle memory, reading) are "fighting" with each other rather than working together. It's as though my brain has one (incomplete) view of the piece and my muscle memory has another. I suspect the main issue is that I'm reading the music as I go along, but in all likelihood more slowly than the brain/muscle memory wants to try and play it, so my eyes start throwing more information into the mix and is possibly what's tripping me up. Sorry if all that sounds a little "over analytical"!

I tend to pick up practice pieces from grade 2-3 books fairly quickly, so I'm at a loss as to why I'm struggling with this particular piece, although I realise it's a "real" piece rather than a "made up" practice piece (where hands often don't move from the same spot so much). It's possible that I'm committing these practice pieces to memory more quickly, hence the feeling that I can progress with those faster than I am with To a Wild Rose.

I suppose what I'm asking is - is this normal behaviour for a relative beginner, and are there any techniques to help when learning a new piece?

  • 1
    Welcome! There are many "I worry that I'm not progressing fast enough" questions from adult learners on here; you might find some benefit among them. (One of the remarkable things about adult learners is that it concerns them!) But I'm surprised that you expect perfection in only five days. That ought to be possible only when attempting a piece far below your level—below your "zone of proximal development," as ed folks like to say, at which you're attempting something challenging but accomplishable. As you move into longer and more complex pieces, you should expect it to take longer to... Apr 27, 2022 at 13:31
  • ... to reach even a point where you can play straight through it at a reasonable tempo, and even longer to be 100% error-free. Apr 27, 2022 at 13:33
  • Does "learn a piece" mean to play it from memory? You mentioned reading it as if that was a "cheat." I get the impress your hands/technique aren't the problem, but you're really asking how to memorize? Apr 27, 2022 at 16:15
  • The difficulties for reading this piece are: a) the left hand is written in bass- and treble clef, b) the halfnote accompaniment is distributed in both hands. Play 1. only the chords and 2. only the melody. Apr 28, 2022 at 10:23

5 Answers 5


There are two important techniques when practicing and learning a new piece which should help you.

  1. Start slowly and only increase speed very gradually. If you play the piece very, very slowly then you should be able to play it without glitches. Using a metronome is very useful for controlling your speed and making sure you don't start running away. Start with a slow metronome speed and then gradually build up speed by increasing the metronome speed.
  2. With most pieces you will find that they are not completely uniform in difficulty. There will be bars or short sections which are more difficult and cause you to stumble. Identify them. Mark them and then add practice in which you just practice one of the tricky bits over and over again. When you have got all the tricky bits to the stage where you can play them smoothly there is often a need to also practice the transitions between the tricky bits and the easy bits.
  • Practice with full attention ... but 15-30 minutes at a time with a few hours in between. The brain needs time to 'rest' to 'respond' to the new patterns. Look up "inculcate". Apr 27, 2022 at 19:06

There's a myriad of different ideas for learning! My first is to become so good at sight-reading that you don't need to learn a piece ever again. That may sound trite, but I play with those sorts (I struggle!), and know that it's more than possible, and saves so much time and effort - eventually.

I find a lot of folk just haven't found out how they themselves learn effectively. Some by simple repetition, some by analyzing the piece to the nth degree, some by listening to recordings, some by watching someone else (monkey see, monkey do), and all sorts of other strategies. Some benefit from sitting down for hours, and repeat, repeat, others get better in short (5-10min) bursts - several times daily. Some find they're more productive at certain times of the day - restricted by their own kids, neighbours, tired after work - all work against.

So, bearing all that in mind, you need to capitalise on all those factors - and probably more! Like setting a deadline for performance works for some, recording what you've played warts an' all. Like listening to a recording and following the dots, etc., etc...


Sounds familiar. I'm in my mid 50s, played piano a couple of years in my teens, left music for decades, and picked it up again a couple of years ago. After a few months I learned Gnossienne 1 (Erik Satie, slow and fairly simple): I learned the bulk of it in an hour or two, but it was weeks before I could play it through without any hesitation or mistakes.

I think that's just how it works. Over time, by learning many pieces, you will pick up new pices faster because you already know many of its constituent parts, from recognizing patterns in the sheet music to having the muscle memory for playing such patterns. Kind of like having to spell your way through an unfamiliar word vs recognizing a familiar word at a glance.

For practice strategies, I don't think there is an "one size fits all" strategy. It's more a matter of trying things out to see what works for you. But here are a few things I found useful when I (re-)started:

Secret on how to practice. It suggests that there is a limit to how much we can learn in one sitting, so it's a waste of time to spend too long practicing the same thing over and over. But we can learn several things in parallel, that's the way to speed up overall progress despite the limit on how fast you can learn any one thing. I have found this to be largely true, and generally split my practice time into 10-20 minute blocks where I practice different things.

Fundamentals of piano practice, a free PDF book with many tips on how to structure your practice. I found it very useful, there are many resources on how to play but few on how to structure your practice.

How to practice to increase speed part I and part II. Basically, start slowly, ideally so slow that you never make mistakes, with a metronome to keep the flow. Spend most of the time at slow speeds, then ramp it up gradually.

Part I suggests a "change the rhythm" practice, I have found that one mildly useful for scales and such. But for music I prefer the ones in part II, "interleaved clicking up" method 1 or 2 or "chunking" method 1 or 2. Currently trying them out on a pice that's a bit beyond my level, looks promising so far.

My best general advice is probably to pick a few promising suggestions, try them for a week or two each, and see what works for you. And try something new once in a while, to see if you can find something even better.


Good answers from others.

Based on your description, I'm thinking it would make sense for you to take a few days to finish memorizing your chunk of the piece, and then the various things you're doing will probably fall into place better.

By the way, do you ever practice in your head? For example when you're falling asleep? You'll be able to do that once you have it memorized. A side benefit of memorizing.


Instead of practicing a 100 times these few bars you should spend an hour for learning elementary harmony: triads and their inversion:

  1. Write them down in C major and A major.

  2. Analyse the chord progression of the piece. Notate the guitar chord symbols above the chords. (If you have problems with reading the notenames copy them by handwriting the halfnotes on a grandstaff with larger linespace - only writing the notenames instead of the noteheads).

  3. Transposing step 2 in C major will help you to understand the harmony.

  4. Learn to play the single melody by sight reading, by ear and by heart - in A and in C major.

  5. Assemble both hands, add the half note to the melody.

Analyzing the chords and learning the basics of harmony on a Guitarist's level for reading a lead sheet will help you a lot in sight reading a simple piece like this. You'll become very auccesful.

P.S. My answer is referring to this piece.

If there is a more difficult original version then learning a simplification would be a good approach.

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