Contemporary Piano

How to Learn a Difficult Piece
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You are assigned to learn and perform a new work for solo piano. The performance will take place in about two-and-a-half months, at that Prestigious Summer Festival you have been aching to play in for a long time, and you are delighted. The composer of the new work is flying into town the day before the performance and will be “anxious to meet you,” you are told. You suspect he will be anxious to hear a run-through of his piece, too, and this adds a bit of extra pressure.

You decide to get to the piano with the new score and start things going with a preliminary read-through. You sit down, open the score, and stare. Read-through? Who’s kidding? Look at this page! It’s really terribly complicated, and a few slow, tentative bars indicate that a reading of the opening passages will be immensely difficult. What about the next page? Or the other 12 pages? Wow, it’s a pretty big piece!

Suddenly two-and-a-half months seems like a shorter time than it did before. But you shrug bravely and do what you have always done—with Mozart sonatas, Chopin scherzi, Schumann suites—you go back to the beginning and play it through, doggedly, frustratingly, often coming to a complete standstill before pushing on. It takes about an hour to do it, and at the end of that time you find that you remember virtually nothing of the piece except that it is demanding throughout. In an hour you’ve accomplished nothing. And you’re confused about what to do next.

Back again to the first page, now with just the slightest tinge of panic. How does one learn such a piece? With traditional music it is so much easier to get started! Are you going to have to give up this concert appearance? What to do?

All of us, at some time or another, have experienced something like the above scenario. For many, the initial learning difficulty associated with contemporary works is the principal reason for making forbidden territory out of most twentieth-century music. Piano teachers steer away from it so that their students won’t take time away from working on “real” music, and students—who often would like to do challenging new things—are baffled by a kind of music that seems to be many times harder to read than the traditional music on which they have been raised.

I believe it is necessary—urgently necessary for the sake of the art of pianism—that we all perform new music, so I shall directly to the problem: What to do?

First, forget about reading the piece through. With a great deal of new music—unless you are a phenomenal sight-reader and well-versed in recent musical and notational styles—this will just waste time and make you tired. Instead, work out the first line of the first page. Five or ten seconds’ worth of music, no more. Study everything about it: rhythm, fingering, dynamics, all expression and articulation marks. Write in every fingering that requires a decision so that you’ll always do it the same way.

If there are complex rhythms or if the rhythm is notated spatially, carefully line things up with light vertical pencil marks so that you will always play the correct rhythm, even if at first it is at a very slow tempo. Try immediately to sense the shape, the expression, the articulation, of what you are playing. Try to get the musical sense of this opening fragment.

Then try very hard to memorize it. Right then! Divide the line into segments and learn each, eventually joining them all together. A line can be a lot of mental work to memorize, but try. And when you think you have it, challenge yourself to play it through five times in a row without looking at the score. This will help to set things in your mind. You may not think so at first the next day. That same first line may seem completely strange, but don’t worry; it will come back fast if you have done your initial work well.

By this time your memorizing faculties may be very tired, and it would be pointless to work so intensively on the second line. However, you can do some preliminary work on it—fingering and the like—in preparation for the next session’s memorizing work.

Soon you will be moving through the piece, and you will quickly fall into the routine that works best for you. For example, the first thing each day, while your mind is freshest, it might be best to memorize a new line. After you are sure you can do the five-times-through test on that line, you might go on to review the previous day’s work. As I have said, this can be discouraging, but it must be done; otherwise, the work you did the day before will be lost due to lack of immediate reinforcement.

Third, work back to the beginning of the piece, line by line. Actually, by the time you have done two or three pages, you will have an idea of the work’s phraseology, and you may wish to divide what you have learned into more musical units than you were able to do at first.

The first page-and-a-half, for example, might now be labelled ‘A’ because you see that the material included is related and could come under a single heading. ‘B’ starts with new material on the middle of page 2 in this hypothetical example. Section A is divided into, shall we say, six short phrases, which you mark A1, A2, A3, etc., and section B is in eight parts, similarly marked. The divisions should be as musically logical as possible, of course.

By the time you have learned all of sections A and B, four pages out of 14, you have used up two weeks, and you can project another four weeks of work to get to the end of the piece, leaving an additional month before the performance to polish and perfect. The schedule is a little tight, but you know now that you can manage it. You learn each part of each section so well that you can call off: “A3, B2, B7, A4,” and play each of those parts immediately and confidently. And meanwhile, you can explore deeper into section C, then D, then E...

You may ask, “What if I don’t want to memorize it?” I suggest that you do it anyway. You can always have the score in front of you during the performance. The point is, if you have the piece well lodged in your memory, you will almost certainly have a better conception of it as a whole, as well as a much more confident sense of how you want each individual sound to fit that conception, than if you had not memorized it. Memorization is not done to show off what a great mind you have, but rather to allow you to get deeper into the music by making it thoroughly your own.

By moving slowly, methodically, and thoroughly through a score, not worrying about anything except the specific material—the single line of music—that you are concentrating on at the moment, you will be able to develop a performance that is a credit to your capabilities. And when the visiting composer hears you at last at the Prestigious Summer Festival, there is a good chance he’ll be so impressed that he’ll give you the ultimate accolade, which is: “You know, you do this piece so well that ...well, I’ve got this mammoth piano sonata, about a forty-minute piece, that I wrote about ten years ago that no one has been able to play. Maybe you’d like to look at the score...”