Imagine what you could do if you could just learn music faster…
What would it be like to learn music quickly? You could learn more music in less time. You could spend less time practicing and more time playing. You wouldn’t need so much preparation time so you could take advantage of more playing opportunities. You wouldn’t have to beg directors for the music weeks in advance. You could play all the places - and all the pieces - you want.
Does that sound like a game changer for you? If it does, I have some good news.
You probably are suffering from one of three common problems. Any one of these can slow down your music learning speed to a snail’s pace. On the other hand, all of them are easily remedied once you recognize them.
Imagine you are standing at the edge of a swimming pool. Are you the type to dive right in, or do you enter the water one toe at a time? I admit to being a “toe by toe” person myself. I know it’s a slow way to get wet, and it’s actually easier to dive in and get it over with, but I can’t bring myself to take the plunge.
As silly as the “one toe at a time” system may be when you’re going swimming, it is a truly terrible way to learn music. You must get your piece off to a fast start by diving in and immersing yourself in the entire piece right from the first.
All music learning has three stages. I outline them in my Kaleidoscope Practice book as First Sight, the Messy Middle and the Finish. The first stage, First Sight, isn’t just about sight reading or the very first time you see the music. It’s about learning as much of the piece as quickly as you can right at the start.
The First Sight stage is about big picture learning. Work through the whole piece, hands together. Don’t worry about getting every detail right in one measure before you play the next; that’s the work you will do in the Messy Middle.
Your goal in First Sight is to get the outline of the piece. Think about it like a painter putting broad brush strokes on a canvas to outline the figures he will fill in later. The Messy Middle stage is when you will firm up your fingerings and levers, your pedals, the notes, the tempo, the expression and the rest of the nitty gritty. It’s much easier to work on those details when you have some familiarity with the larger context. Plus, that complete view of the piece lets you know right away where the biggest challenges of learning the piece will be. You won’t waste time on the easy stuff and then discover later where the real difficulties lie.
Often, students find their music learning hampered by a weak or missing critical skill, a lack in their foundational training. Sometimes a student has a sense of what skill they need to strengthen, but other times they need a teacher to spot the issue.
Common culprits are note reading skill, hands together facility, technical development, and believe it or not, counting skill. These basic elements, and others like them, are vital to your musical proficiency, and any deficits will be limiting factors on your progress, your performance, and your learning speed.
One surprisingly simple way to find and begin to fix your weak links is to sight read regularly, every day or at least twice a week. When you sight read, you are, in effect, practicing learning music. You aren’t focused on the details; instead you are trying to pull together all your skills to give as correct a reading of a piece as you can. Don’t let yourself start “working” on the piece. Just “play” it.
As you sight read, you will likely notice the particular things that present extra challenge for you. Those are the skills that you can focus on developing in your practice. You will see your sight reading improve and your music learning speed as well.
Could the fear of making mistakes be slowing down your learning speed?
I have heard students worry about “learning it wrong,” or “practicing in” mistakes. In consideration of these fears, they proceed very slowly with a new piece, not learning the next section until the first is “solid,” or working hands separately before they attempt both hands together. This approach is inefficient and can be very frustrating because it takes so long.
Mistakes are unavoidable in the early days of learning a piece; in fact, mistakes are part of First Sight learning. Spend the first week with a piece taking that broad brush approach without being too concerned about errors. By the second week, you will be in the Messy Middle stage of learning in which you will focus on all of the details and on eliminating those errors.
And if you have negotiated the First Sight stage well, you will find that the mistakes are resolved faster and the piece finds its flow fairly quickly.
Sounds like heaven, doesn’t it?