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I am a cello player since 30 years and have played for a decade in a string quartet, taken numerous masterclasses with great teachers. I know what the methods are and what works for me when practicing my favourite instrument.

I sometimes play the piano for fun, but it seems I can not practice efficiently. I don't take piano lessons so I am trying to find a good way to learn a new piano piece by myself.

The piece in question is Arabesque n°1 by Claude Debussy which does not look extremely difficult, but it has its quirks (for instance left hand quavers vs right hand triplets).

Here are some questions I am wondering each time I work on something:

  • should I read the score without even touching the piano?
  • should I try and play the whole thing even if I only hit 5% of the right keys?
  • should I work on hands separately? Left hand first, then right hand?
  • should I avoid using the harmonic pedal and rubato?

I am pretty sure there is not a single perfect method that works for everybody and every piece, but advice from experienced players would be really appreciated.

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Repeating what my piano teacher told me.

should I read the score without even touching the piano?

Most definitely. Read the score thoroughly, identify tricky parts, memorize all repeats/stops and tonality/rhythm changes, create a mental mapping between how you know it sounds and the actual notes on paper. Only after you do all that put your hands on the keyboard, regardless of your preferred method (sight reading immediately or learning by heart bar by bar).

should I try and play the whole thing even if I only hit 5% of the right keys?

Never, ever.

should I work on hands separately? Left hand first, then right hand?

While I have seen this method being advised a few times in the internet, it is frowned upon by my teacher. According to her, the only time you play hands separately is when you are learning a new bar: first you play the left hand part, then the right hand part, then you assemble them and only play them together from now on. However, do not play them separately too much because it makes it significantly more difficult to assemble the whole thing (at least for me).

should I avoid using the harmonic pedal and rubato?

No, do not avoid any detail. It is too easy to learn the piece without the necessary detail, which is incorrect. Adding the missing detail later is harder than learning the piece properly.

  • I must disagree with your last two statements; perfecting left hand and right hand alone is essential for playing a piece with two hands. Even after doing hands together it is necessary to go back and practice individually. Too often students will play hands together right off the bat and I can see them fudging details because they didn’t focus on each hand separately. Also, pedal and rubato hide lots of details. Like students play Chopin nocturnes with pedal, lifting up notes that need to be held (causing breaks and unevenness in their sound) because they assume it’s all covered by pedal. – D.R. Jun 8 at 21:48
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It's quite subjective, regarding a given piece but also the individual who's learning that piece.

  • Yes, read the score through, spotting the awkward parts, the bits that repeat (and are still fully written out), highlighting certain important tricky bits.

  • Playing verbatim is for good readers, who may not even have to learn the piece ! Unless that's you, don't.

  • Single hand practice is often good. Timing can be very difficult to achieve if LH and RH are at sea, so get one right first, and it will guide the other, and help to keep in sync.If one hand is repetitive, then the two can be learnt together.If there is a big space between the hands, physically, then it's difficult to watch both when starting to learn a piece.

  • Pedal marks and dynamics can be left for later - there's enough on your plate already. This is the icing on the cake that gets applied when everything else is accurate. I'd rather be playing the right notes loudly when it's marked 'p' than the wrong notes quietly !

  • Don't necessarily start learning from the beginning, and certainly don't play through the bits you do well, to get to the bits you don't.(Unless you are giving yourself a little treat). That's somewhat wasted practice time.

  • Listen to different recordings of the piece, with the dots in front of you, to get ideas of how others have played it. This may come later in the learning routine, but often helps earlier.

  • Try to establish your own learning methods and regime. We all have good (and not so good) ways to learn. Some need to repeat until it's perfect, some work hard for 5 mins and leave it for a few hours, etc.

  • I would not agree with leaving pedals for later. A piece without pedals just does not sound or feel the same. Same for ignoring dynamics and loudness. What is the point of just pressing the correct keys if you are not playing the right music? – Mischa Arefiev Sep 18 '14 at 17:45
  • Plus in my experience saving pedals for later and trying to add and polish them after I had learned the piece without them actually uses up more time than learning the piece bar-by-bar with pedals and everything. – Mischa Arefiev Sep 18 '14 at 17:46
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    Depends what is meant by later ! I meant later, after the notes and fingering are all good, not very late, when the piece can be played and all that's left is dynamics/pedalling - which, for a musician, will most likely happen in a natural way. – Tim Sep 18 '14 at 18:01
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I agree with @Mischa Arefiev. Learning the piece sloppily is not the way to go about it. As one who had studied the 'cello, you should know better than that. :)

The same practice methods you use for your 'cello are the same for the piano. There's no shortcuts in this at all. Over the years, I've spent countless hours reading through new music, slowly and accurately, and those pieces that I rushed the process on, or did not focus enough energy on, are the ones I am revisiting now to clean up.

So learn the piece slowly and accurately while paying attention to details. The duple-triple quavers can be tricky, but think of this as Cup of tea with the last quaver in the right hand falling just after the second quaver in the left hand.

Another way to try to explain it is the mesh together with the two quavers starting on the first beat with the triplet and the second falling in between the last triplet-quaver. (I hope I got this right for you).

A good way to practice this is to set your metronome to two beats and play the triplets against it then do it the other way around. Try this at a very slow meter so you can hear the beats. There are other exercises, such as playing chromatic scales in contrary motion starting a major third apart at middle C and the E above respectively.

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should I read the score without even touching the piano?

Definitely. Sports coaches use the term "visualization". If you can't imagine "inside your head" what you are trying to achieve, most likely you won't achieve it. You don't need to be sitting in front of a piano (or a cello) to do the thinking.

should I try and play the whole thing even if I only hit 5% of the right keys?

should I work on hands separately? Left hand first, then right hand?

should I avoid using the harmonic pedal and rubato?

I would lump those into one bigger question:

Should I be learning to play one particular piano piece, or learning to play the piano?

Put like that, the answer seems obvious - "learn to play the piano", and you can then quickly learn play any piece up to the technical level you have reached.

If you have specific technical problems, like "playing some type of passage accurately at the correct speed", "playing independent rhythms in each hand," "synchronizing hands and pedal", etc, it is much more efficient to work on technical exercises for those things, with progressive levels of difficulty, rather than trying to master whatever examples happen to occur in just one piece that you want to learn.

If may take longer (even years longer) to "learn" your first piece of Debussy that way, but it will be much quicker in the long run!

Incidentally, your Debussy arabesque is on the ABRSM Grade 8 examination list - i.e. an average-ability "complete beginner" piano student would take about 7 or 8 years to reach that standard. It only looks easy! Your 30 years as a cellist will shorten some parts of the learning process, but it takes longer to learn a new physical skill starting at (I'm guessing!) aged 40 than starting at 14 (or even better, 7 or 8 years old).

If you want a good set of pieces that are both "real music" and will take you from complete beginner level up to Debussy Arabesques (and perhaps beyond), I would recommend the 6 books of Bartok's "Mikrokosmos." Don't ignore the simple-looking early pieces as "too easy" - work out how to play them as music, not just as technical exercises.

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My piano teacher has me learn hands separate first, then identify and loop short tricky bits - which can be as short as one or two beats of a measure -like this: play section (left hand alone, then hands together) repeat. Go as slowly as needed to do without mistakes before speeding up. This works very nicely for me. She prefers for me to use the pedal as soon as I can manage it comfortably. I also get the technical exercise that fits the problems in the piece and am very happy with this approach. I learned duple-triple quavers by dividing the beat into 6 and counting. duple is on the one and four, the triple on the one, three and five. Got this from a book on how to learn rhythms.

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You said that the piece does not look very difficult but only has "a few quirks". You may be looking at this from your experience with the cello, it may "look" easy, but you may need first to build your skills on the piano. Piano pieces are graded, so go to lower levels of difficulty and build up your skills. Be patient, and remember that you are starting over with a new instrument.

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    Hi cdowis, could you add a little more detail to address the specific concerns mentioned in the question? While good advice, this isn't quite an Answer. – Matthew Read May 12 '16 at 5:01
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Agree with most of the answers below, mentioning the importance of taking time to read the sheet, not exercising too much with separate hands etc.

I would also recommend practicising hard parts... apart. What I do is playing hard parts alone a sufficient number of times in order to get a good fit, and I sightread the easy parts thereafter.

This way you have less to remember while being perfectly able to play properly.

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