Learning a new piece – the different stages

Piano playing entails the constant acquisition of new skills and their subsequent integration with previous learning. Pupils therefore often find themselves simultaneously involved in several learning processes at different stages. The teacher’s task is to ensure that there are not too many demands that are overly burdensome and may make learning no longer feel meaningful.

Learning a composition begins by finding out what it is like, reading the score and working out how to play the piece. The teacher gives a demonstration, breaking down the task into elements that are practised one at a time and subsequently linked together into a logical whole. Especially at the early learning stage the teacher should explain and play as much as possible, to give the pupil both an aural and a visual model of how the piece progresses. Pupils should also be encouraged to observe the playing process and thereby gradually find out what it is all about. Young learners need to realise, for example, when their playing is “right” and when it is not.

The early stage of learning a piece is when many mistakes occur, the playing lacks fluency, and pupils frequently break off, needing to collect themselves to be able to continue. At this stage they learn what is expected of them, but are still unable to comply with sufficient fluency. The teacher’s task is to support them and give instant feedback.

When the pupil knows the score, the process of assimilating the composition continues. The prerequisite for attaining fluency is sufficient repetitive practising, which activates the necessary neural functions. If there are small breaks in the playing at first, the teacher should give the child time to consider what comes next, to build a mental model that is consolidated by the teacher’s feedback. Children should gradually be taught to perceive and utilise feedback conveyed by the various senses: having established a mental model, they are no longer dependent on external feedback. The repetitions [i.e. practice] allow the neural connections to fall correctly in place chronologically, and playing becomes easier and faster.

The teacher thus directs the pupils’ attention to crucial aspects of the learning process. The playing gradually becomes smoother and breaks no longer occur. Pupils learn to self-evaluate their playing, which makes practising more efficient and at the same time consolidates metacognitive skills.

Learning a composition to the point at which it merits performance in public requires the seamless integration of the various elements. The playing is not disturbed by the need for cognitive thinking, and becomes more and more fluent until it reaches a quasi-autonomous stage, where skill permits anticipation and attention to expression. Talking aloud or to oneself does not necessarily regulate or help the action at this stage, but may rather disturb it.

The pupil is no longer playing at a conscious level now, as the process becomes automated. This does not mean merely repeating over and over what has been learnt. The implication is that movements and notes are not perceived consciously: the compositions are, as it were, transformed into musical storytelling.

Playing skills become increasingly precise and personalised at this level, the teacher’s task being to help pupils find the most economical and individual mode. The process of preparing for public performance is never complete. As every player soon finds out, you can hone your interpretation endlessly.

Does this subject interest you?

Read more (research results with source references). Junttu 2010 pp. 106-108

(http://www.junttu.net/ / /raportti.html)  


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