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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? Mar 29 '14 at 11:06
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    No more than an hour a day, at the moment. Mar 29 '14 at 21:33
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    I find that I learn more if I work on more than one piece at a time, as if a different memory buffer opens up for the second and or third piece that I can then start memorizing fresh even while my memory buffer is full on the other piece.
    – amalgamate
    Jan 29 '15 at 19:03
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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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My personal opinion is to play about 2-3 at the same time. If I play only one piece at a time I get either very bored or demotivated or distracted. I spend about 10-15min on one piece. Then move onto the next. Then the next and just rotate around until I feel I've done enough for the day.

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The numbers of songs you practice at the same time is only important if you practice for a performance. In this case you have to be concentrated on these songs and pieces in purpose that you are able to play them perfectly. And the performance will be a strong factor of motivation and concentration. This means: The reduction of songs is an important factor when you want to know a song through and through or inside out and play it by heart.

In all other cases you may play as many songs as you like. Each technical problem you practice, every chord progression, every key change, each function you learn will be transferred to other stuff and you will improve your sight reading. The most important thing is to be concentrated and imagine that you will be performing the music to the audience.

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I never practice technical exercises. Every piece of music has one or more technical exercises, scales or arpeggions in it. If you practice your song and concentrate on the more difficult parts, you both learn the piece and master the difficulties in a single shot. Also try to learn pieces from different periods and styles - it will offer you a wider range of challenges but will make you more versatile and musically mature.

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I mostly agree with Albrecht's answer -- practicing is mostly for performance. If you're playing pieces for your own study and edification, practice individual pieces as much as you're interested in them. If you find a piece you particularly want to learn, spend more time on it. If you find yourself bored, move on (and possibly come back). The worst thing I think someone can do when beginning an instrument or returning to one is spend time doing things that aren't interesting -- it can easily ruin motivation and make it more likely you'll quit.

(I'm not at all down-playing technical achievement or competence. But assuming one has a good teacher or knows the basics already, those will come naturally by playing more. It's better to be motivated to play more rather than get bored or frustrated doing the same thing over and over unless you're interested in it.)

The question notes:

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.

The only way to develop "fast reading" is through reading. If you're struggling enough to read the notes that you can't even play through the song or piece without stopping every few notes, then you probably need to keep reading a single piece or a few pieces for a while until you get those down. But once you are able to recognize most of the notes pretty quickly in a given piece, even if you're "stuttering" quite a bit while reading, you've probably hit the point of diminishing returns on reading ability for that piece for now.

So, if one of your goals is to improve reading, the way to do it is keep reading more music. (Again, I want to be clear this isn't at all to discourage more practicing to improve technical things, but if the goal is to learn to play and read more music, the way to do that is literally to play and read more music.)

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

Yes, a good sight reader has very little limitation in terms of what to play, as a good reader can just pick up a lot of scores and play them right away at a reasonably proficient level. Of course, it's a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem, as to get good at sight-reading you also need to be able to technically execute music well too, which requires technical skills. And you only learn those through practice.

But my personal opinion and experience is that it's generally better to try to read more music and develop technical skills along the way, rather than focus on only one (or a few) pieces at time, if the overall goal is being able to play a lot of music. I've met many, many keyboardists in my life who are terrible at sight-reading music they've never seen before, and while they may be able to play piano sonata X by Beethoven and Y by Mozart at a really high level because they practiced it for a year with their teacher, there's always a huge barrier for new music, as every new piece is a bit of a struggle at first.

On the other hand, most of the excellent sight-readers I've met tend to be a little less technically focused (again, on average), but almost all of them enjoy exploring new music and just playing through new stuff on a regular basis.

Personally, I look at it as similar to learning to read books. Yes, you may spend a year or two as a child learning to sound out words, going through a sentence one word at a time and repeating the sentence (or paragraph). But after that relatively primary level of reading, the focus shifts toward reading longer and longer texts. You don't go back and "practice" reading the same book over and over after that initial stage. You stutter and stumble your way through more complex and longer books, and you gradually become a better reader, acquiring new vocabulary, absorbing new grammatical and rhetorical constructions and conventions along the way. You'll naturally become faster and more competent at reading, just by reading more. Meanwhile, most kids do acquire a few "favorite books" that they read over and over again at bedtime or something, that they'll naturally "practice" reading with -- which probably helps to cement some basic reading patterns with common words, etc. too.

Why should reading music be any different? Again, as Albrecht said, it's different if you're practicing for performance. (Just my own opinion, but I believe we put too much emphasis on this perfectionism with beginning musicians.) If we were training a child to learn to stand up and recite only one or two speeches -- rather than to read in general -- that would be a different thing. If you want to learn to read music (and enjoy exploring new pieces), I'd personally encourage you to keep reading and exploring as much as you'd like. When you reach a piece you really want to learn well, you'll naturally tend to practice it a bit. Make a list of those, and come back to some of each of those each day along with your reading practice. Along the way in those bits of practice you will gradually pick up some more technical skills.

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