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I don't really know what is the correct way of learning new pieces from sheet music and because of this I get distracted really quickly while familiarizing myself with new music. I tend to follow some path like learning single hand, then I start to think that it shouldn't be done like that, so I try to follow with the other hand, in the middle of that all I change my mind multiple times and can't lose the feeling that I'm doing everything wrong. Because of this learning something new has become really "painful" for me.

Should I learn right hand first or try to learn both hands simultaneously? Do you follow any algorithm that helps you with learning new pieces? Do you have any advices for me?

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There really isn't a best way of learning new pieces, at least not one that all piano teachers and pedagogues would agree on.

Some insist that learning hands together is best, and others insist that learning each hand separately is better, so really it tends to boil down to which method works best for you, or which method your teacher advises.

From my own experience, I find the following works best for me:

  • Never try to learn pieces which are much harder than pieces I can already play. Obviously, they need to be a bit harder, or no progress is made, but if I can play pieces at a certain grade, then I restrict myself to pieces which are just one grade higher (unless my piano teacher recommends anything else).

  • Learn the right hand until I can play it accurately at a speed faster than the music requires.

  • Do the same for the left hand.

  • Start practising hands together at slow speed, and gradually get the piece up to speed.

I also think that sight-reading practice is vital, and have spent hours practising sight-reading, using sources like:

  • old piano methods available free (legally) on IMSLP,
  • music for children composed by people like Bartok, Schumann,Tchaikovsky, Kabalevsky, ...
  • any music I find in second-hand or charity shops which is a couple of grades lower than my current grade,
  • old hymn books.
  • Every answer under my question was helpful but this one is most algorithmic one. I'm writing this comment in case someone is wondering why I accepted this one instead of highest rated answer. I really appreciate it John! – wirher May 26 '16 at 12:47
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Part of the problem is that beginners are trying to learn at least three different things at the same time:

  1. How to read sheet music
  2. How to play their instrument
  3. How to play the specific piece that is in front of them.

If you concentrate mostly on #3, then learning #1 and #2 will be slower, and (relatively) unstructured and disorganized. You need to work systematically on all of them, independently of each other.

You can work on "how to read music" anywhere. All you need is some sheet music, and possibly a recording of the piece so you can check what the notation actually means. Your ultimate objective is to be able to look at a piece of sheet music that you have never seen before, and "hear it in your head" accurately just by looking at the printed page.

That might seem impossible to you right now, but don't forget that you have already learned (when you were a young kid) how to read printed text that way. If you can already read a book or a newspaper, there is no reason why you can't learn to read sheet music just as fluently and accurately. But you won't get that fluency just by "picking out the notes one hand at a time" while trying to learn pieces.

You will make progress on "how to play the instrument" much quicker and more reliably by using systematically graded technical exercises, rather than by "learning pieces" and trying to solve the technical problems in the random order that they turn up in those pieces. Otherwise, you will be constantly trying to run before you can walk, which only leads to frustration.

But of course you shouldn't ignore "learning specific pieces" altogether, because, most likely, "wanting to play pieces" is your motivation for spending time and effort learning the first two things I mentioned.

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Are we talking about "piano lesson" playing, or about learning songs? If the former yes, hands seperately, slowly enough to get it RIGHT (and if it isn't right, sort out why - don't just keep making the same fluffs).

But if you're learning songs (which "sheet music" suggests you might be) it can be more about finding out how it "goes" and working out what best to play. Is it just you, or are you in a band? Sheet music for popular songs is rarely played literally. For instance, you're unlikely to want to play the melody all the time.

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I definitely agree with a lot of what Old John pointed out, but I would also like to add certain additional points that are important in my opinion when it comes to learning new pieces.

First about the question of whether to learn a piece with both hands toghether first or not:

I would say this actually depends on the piece/the section of the piece you are currently practising. If it's something that you already have the technique of playing (when for example the left hand is an easy repeating pattern and you can fully concentrate on the right hand) there is nothing wrong with playing both hands together immediately (at a slow pace of course). If you, however, at any point feel like you can't keep up with coordinating your hands, you can just switch back to practising each hand independently.

There is nothing wrong with applying different techniques of learning to different sections of the same piece if it's required.

One thing that I find very important when it comes to practising new pieces is that you need to concentrate on your technique. With every new section you should always focus on whether you are playing everything with the correct technique or not - especially because you don't have a teacher (at least I assume so because you've put "self-learning" as a tag).

Correct technique involves things making sure that...

  • your wrists are high enough (but not too high)
  • your fingers are bent so that you're playing with the tip of your fingers
  • your hands are relaxed at all times (especially when playing fast and/or big chords)
  • you are actually playing everything exactly as is written in the notes - e.g. playing the correct note lengths, staccatos, portatos, legatos...
  • and a lot more that I can't list here because the list would be too long

One thing I slightly disagree on with Old John is the fact that I think trying to learn pieces that seem to be much harder that the ones you have played until now is not necessarily a bad thing.

My experience with several teachers that I've had is that I've always learned the most with the ones that pushed me to play the very hard pieces (that other teachers would have not given me to play). In the beginning it might seem like it's impossible but in the end it just comes down to how much you practise it.

If you split it up into small parts and pracitse and perfect those at a time you will eventually find yourself able to play something that you wouldn't have ever imagined to be able to play. Also these are the pieces that will improve your technique the most.

Also, as Old John said, sight-reading is not only very important but especially really rewarding in the long run when you have played so many pieces from sight that you can just open up even demanding pieces and play them from sight without needing to think about it.

I wish you the best of luck with your playing!

  • Check what you say in your penultimate para. I also think that getting the notes right is more important than playing them staccato, forte, etc in the early stages. – Tim May 21 '16 at 16:07
  • Oh yes, thanks for the hint. I was missing the "not only". Of course it is important and necessary to get the notes right before you start to add dynamics and play faster but in my opinion it's just as important to also concentrate on these other aspects. I mean yes, if he's only been playing for like a couple of months then the pieces he plays probably don't even offer very much in terms of dynamics or ornamentation. My answer is more about the general approach of learning new pieces :) – Keiwan May 21 '16 at 16:20
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There is no 'correct' way to learn a new piece. There are many good ways, but they are quite subjective. They will depend to a degree initially on how good one is at sight-reading. In fact, several of the guys I have played with over the years are so good at sight-reading, they never have to actually 'learn' pieces. If that's not a great indictment to learn to be a good sight-reader, I don't know what is!

Back to the question in hand. Some will get pretty good on each hand separately before putting them together. Some will work, more slowly, on getting it together from the start. It does depend very much on the sort of piece: with a rhythmical left hand accompaniment, the two together will be a good idea, whereas if it's more of a question-answer type, separately works well.

There is also the important factor, missed by so many learners, that it's the tricky bits that need to be practised, not the 10 bars that you play well before and maybe after them. So isolate those nasty bits, and just work on them, otherwise a lot of time is being wasted. Once a section is learned, there is no special reason to keep playing it, but rather wait till the part before or after is as good, then run them together.

Some need to see (and hear!) the harmonic structure and format of the piece, so listening to renditions first is good for them. Some like to do it in little bites, say 2 bars at a time, and again it depends on the way the music goes - if 4 bars makes a sentence, then 4 bars is a good bite. Some like to start at the beginning (a very good place to start, so we're told), but others will take a passage half way through, or even the last part, so when it's nearly learnt, they already know what's comong next.

Some may lock themselves away and repeat as many times as it takes, before letting themselves out,that works for me!, whereas others prefer simply a few minutes on a particular part, and return a couple of hours, whatever, later, and do the same.

Some find they're most receptive at certain times of the day or week, so attempt to put the work in then. It may be first thing in the morning, when they're freshest, or later at night when the worries of the day have subsided somewhat. Some need the high expectations of their teacher to spur them on, others work better without external pressure. Some give themselves a deadline - I'll perform this for my friends at the end of the month - while others plod happily on, knowing it'll be there in the end - if they live long enough...

In amongst all this, you need to find YOUR best way, by trying out some of the suggestions. No one way will be best for each and every piece, but those are some ideas for you. Good luck!

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Should I learn right hand first or try to learn both hands simultaneously? Do you follow any algorithm that helps you with learning new pieces?

This really depends on your overall skill level, and what you're trying to achieve in learning a particular piece. If you're advanced enough so that you can read proficiently and have the technique to play standard repertoire (Mozart sonatas, for example), then very slowly learning both hands together works for many people. Some prefer, and may even require, that they learn each hand separately, and then put them together. If preparing for a performance, then many will learn, or at least practice, separately. In all cases, do in very small chunks (as little as one beat or one bar), not entire phrases.

For me, I've always been very methodic, and have always learned hands separately. Many others I know prefer to always play together, even all the way through, enough to become familiar with the piece. Also, a trick that I sometimes use on very difficult passages is to play one hand while fingering the other hand. Going through the physical motions of fingering the other hand, while not actually depressing the keys enough to make a sound, forces your inner ear to hear/sing those silent notes, but frees you up enough to not deal with the technical aspect of actually playing them. (I also do this with both hands for the same purpose.) Doing this is actually more difficult than playing both hands, but it really solidifies my learning and memorization.

Reading between the lines, it may be that you're having difficulty putting the two hands together? If so, no worries. This will get easier with more practice, I promise. At whatever point is giving you the most difficulty, freeze on the note(s) right before that part, and then look, feel, and hear the very next note(s). For example, while holding down the previous note(s), look at the next key(s) you'll need to press, hear the notes in your mind (or better yet, sing them if you can), and maybe even finger them. Sometimes when learning a new piece, it's not always obvious that the difficulty may lie in the parts right before and after what you believe to be the difficult notes, and the connections between all of them. If your difficulty is rhythmic or hand independence (which is really also rhythmic), again, no worries. If you do all of the above, and give it time, this is a skill that will naturally improve on its own. The biggest of these hidden skills that you naturally acquire is the ability to hear and feel multi-line voices at the same time. We're not used to that in the real world, but it's like the tapping your head while rubbing your stomach trick – it's not a trick at all, but an acquired skill.

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