The Learning Process

In most cases, very little is ever explained to students regarding the learning process of a music repertoire.  Successful learning is not about how much time we spend but rather about the quality of the time invested. There is no shortcut to this process, but if a student applies him or herself intelligently much time can be saved and she or he can expand his or her repertoire list more rapidly. Students need to work on some preliminary work prior to approaching a piece of work on the piano. This time away from the piano is worth investing as it will prepare them to play accurately and hence save the time that spent on correction.

Typically, a teacher will teach technical mastery first by asking the student to learn a notation and then correcting any misreading of the notation at the weekly lesson. This is complete waste of time for students, other than beginners if the goal is to encourage critical thinking and self-correction. Such typical approaches to learning treat the student as a ‘machine’ by denying the opportunity for emotional engagement and expression as the practice becomes very clinical. An over emphasis on the technical aspects of the lesson, with postponed feedback on accuracy, may lead to frustration and undermined confidence. The second one is a deeply feeling artist with too many wrong notes. This is most devastating since the musical and technical mastery is absence in both situation. This is an extreme of each spectrum. Nonetheless, if we can meet in the middle ground, we can lead a successful musical and artistry performance.

It is very useful for the student to research the composer of the piece being learned as it will provide an understanding of what might have motivated the composer to produce the work. This would help to cultivate an appreciation for the stylistic influence in the composer’s work.

Please note that the student should refrain from listening to any recording of the composer’s work during preparation time since he or she is still forming a personal interpretation of the work and an emotional response.  Once that is achieved, listening to other artists’ interpretation can instill inspiration.

We can now proceed to the following basic techniques:

  • Determine the character and the mood of the music so as to set the tempo inwardly and aloud.
  • Decide the tempo at which the music would be best characterised.
  • Play the music through at HALF THE FINAL TEMPO as accurately as possible, observing all articulations; e.g., which notes are to be linked or detached and to which degree, play the musical text in perfect rhythm, apply pedals and fingerings.
  • Refrain from changing position as much as possible to avoid unnecessary leap and gaps.
  • Play each hand separately to take note when the change of hand position is required (not to write every obvious fingering in consecutive notes but ONLY the necessary ones).
  • Play the ornamentations that are stylistically adequate to execute the character of the composition. Decide upon which note to start, what speed to maintain and how you will end.

I recommend spending 1 week to prepare and practice the process above. Once the student achieves success with the preliminary work, he or she can proceed to the next stage:

  • Choose the tricky and challenging areas to practice. Apply the 3 times practice that I wrote on in The Practice Management.
  • Play each hand separately again at HALF the final tempo. Then play with both hands together with the same requirements
  • As soon as you gain regularity, set the metronome to match the tempo that you have achieved for the day.
  • Take note of today’s peak tempo.
  • The next day, practice 2 tempos below yesterday’s tempo and gradually increase the speed until you reach today’s high.

As the student and I review what was practiced on the previous day, we will still be acquiring new information to be applied, such as richness of tone, clarity of sound or pedal adjustment. This is an overlapping process applied while we are still consolidating yesterday’s learning. This explains why what we practiced earlier can feel strange and unfamiliar.  The brain is still in the process of consolidating the previous information, registering notation, articulations, fingerings and muscular motion. We will usually spend half a day to review yesterday’s practice so that, as we practice again the next day, we remember how to execute it. This will continue until such time the consolidation is completed.

At this time, I would attempt the less difficult yet challenging bits of the composition. To gauge the level of fluency achieved, we play the whole piece through in order to gain technical fluency and musical mastery.

The learning process may not be completed until we accomplish the necessary musical idiom, expression, shape or dynamic contrast and prepare artistic pursuits. These need to be put together with precision, in terms of when we begin and end our crescendo, so it sounds effective. A ritenuto in broad terms means playing slower but in an emotional context; e.g., holding back as the composer may be expressing sombreness momentarily before resuming the tempo when the feeling is revived. A term Con Forza means with force; for instance, when the composer wishes to ‘express’ a storm and thunder if the composition is related to sea and waves. We need to convey this expression by way of touch and movement.

This learning process can take weeks if not months to achieve depending on one’s practice discipline, musical maturity, interpretation and skill level.

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