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“…when we are silent enough, still enough, we take a step into such mystery, the place of spirit …” Linda Hogan

January 11, 2016


I have several ways to approach learning a new piece and the one I choose depends on the situation. This situation includes my own state of mind and body as well as the type of work that needs to be accomplished.

First, it is always a good idea to survey the piece visually and try to get a sense of the various challenges and needs. This survey includes making note of repetitions, familiar passages, hand patterns and potential difficulties. It might conclude with an estimate of the difficulty and the processing time required. This estimate is likely to updated on day two of the work.

DSCF8023If something looks complicated and worrisome then I will always start with the easy parts first. This way one can create a sense of accomplishment quickly, avoiding feelings of intimidation that follow when confronting problems early. Committing to learning only the easy parts creates a sense of achievement, as you learn bits here and there that process quickly. If your piece is twenty lines and you learn four on the first day then you have made a tangible dent in the workload. On the second day you commit to learning the easy parts overlooked the first day and ones that are easy but not as simple as the first day’s work. I think of this a decoding a piece and this is how we put a jigsaw puzzle together. This is non-linear but with a clear rationale.

DSCF8027If I want to tackle challenges first then I will start drilling a difficult run. I will always start from the end. A run usually has a sense of drama and needs to finish with strength and conviction so it makes sense to process from the last few notes. One makes sure the fingering allows for a secure, strong finish and with the metronome clicking at close to the desired speed. Fast playing requires a different kind of finger motion as well as a different way of thinking. It is best to figure that out as early as possible. When the finish of the run can be executed with ease and confidence, the next step is to move backwards by four or eight notes – depending on the complexity. We add those notes to the ones already learned. This allows a fresh brain to concentrate on the newer material while re-enforcing the learned bits, making them ever more comfortable. As one continues to step back through the passage the fresh brain is always focused on the new material as our comfort with the ending grows.

If a piece seems easy enough to play through then a good approach is to simply run through it about 25 times, suspending our judging brain until the work is completed. This process allows us to figure out what kind of work we will need to do in order to finish processing a piece. Frequently we make mistakes early on in our processing but with repetition things that seem tricky will cease to be so. This process moves from the general to the specific, getting a sense of the particular narrative flow and how the various sections fit together. If one has made the same error 25 there is an obvious need to excerpt and break down that part. One of the tremendous advantages of this process is that the brain learns where the easy parts are, and relaxes through those sections leaving some brain energy left for the more challenging parts.

If there is work that needs to be done – for example a concert coming up – but feeling ill, another approach is necessary. Short spurts of focused work [5 to 10 minutes] can be broken up by longer periods of rest. I have found that when my brain is groggy this is the only way to accomplish something. Otherwise, a bleary brain forgets and time spent is negated.

The ideas in this post were inspired by reading an article from the bulletproof musician, my own approach has not been tested formally but sometimes I think of my teaching studio as a laboratory and try to accomplish as much as possible with every student.

A donkey was given to the sultan so the people in the court whispered platitudes about how beautiful the donkey was. Nasrudin, tired of the whisperings and small talk blurted out: “Sultan, this is a very clever donkey and I will teach it to read!”

When the Sultan stopped laughing he said, “Allah be praised dear fellow, do you expect me to believe that?”

With a straight face Nasrudin replied, “Give me the donkey for a month and I’ll prove it,” so the Sultan agreed and Nasrudin went home with his four-legged pupil.

One month later Nasrudin came back to the palace and in the middle of the courtyard, there was a table with a thick book on it. The donkey stood in front of the table, looked at the book and began to turn the pages with his tongue. When finished it began to bray.
Nasrudin said, “You see, the donkey has read and turned all the pages of the book, giving you a summary when he finished.”
One of the courtiers said, “but Nasrudin, we couldn’t understand anything.”
“Of course you couldn’t understand,’ said Nasrudin, “he was speaking donkey which is much easier to understand, if you are a donkey.”

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  1. A very inspiring piece.

  2. glad you think so alan!

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