Robert Estrin - piano expert

How to Practice a New Piece on the Piano

Learn how to approach and practice a new piece

In this new in-depth video, Robert teaches you how to practice a new piece on the piano by focusing on the Mazurka in A-flat Op. 24 No. 3 by Chopin.

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Released on April 9, 2019

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Hi, and welcome This is Robert Estrin. Today the subject is how to approach a new piece of music on the piano, and I've randomly opened this big fat book of Chopin Mazurka's to, let's see which one this is. This is an E flat, pardon me, an A flat opus 24 number three. I do not know this piece. I literally flipped through the book, and we're going to see what happens here.

Now the first thing you want to do when you're approaching a new piece of music is to sight read it to get acquainted with the piece. And there's a fundamental difference in the way you'd sight read a piece when you're just playing it for someone or certainly when you're accompanying someone where you have to keep everything moving. So obviously, if you're playing with someone else, you don't want to get off, otherwise you're not playing with them anymore. And even playing a piece, if someone says, "Oh, can you play this piece?" And okay, and you do the best you can, and maybe you flush it out, maybe you leave out some interludes or kind of surmise what it should be and do the best you can.

But in the case when you're reading to get acquainted, you really want to make sure you're playing everything accurately, even if you have to kind of slow down a bit here and there, even though you don't want to do too much of that because then you won't get the sense of the fluidity of the piece. So I'm going to start off and kind of sight read this, and like I say, this is truly random, I'm going to sight read it and I'm going to do it the way I would if I was playing it for someone. When it starts, maybe I'll know if I've heard this one before. Here we go.

I'm going to stop right there. You see in this section over here, I'm sort of getting these chords in here. This is the repeat, that's why I'm stopping. And you know, if I was playing it for somebody, yeah, I'd do that, I'd kind of struggle my way through it, you know, certainly not using the best fingering and not quite getting all the notes. So if I was reading this to get acquainted with it, I wouldn't do that. Instead, I would take it slowly. What are the notes over here and how do you negotiate this properly? I wouldn't get too hung up because I don't want to start practicing yet. I just want to get acquainted. So you have to draw that line of how far to go with your reading where you're going to get a sense of it, yet not start pounding out wrong notes and getting the wrong idea. So let's see what the heck is going on over here.

Notice also I'm not using the pedal now because I really want to hear what's going on. Now I have a sense of the harmony. I got it mostly right actually. I wasn't sure. Now here we go. Double checking that note. It's a double flat. I knew that sounded wrong. So you get an idea. The first time I kind of went through it, it wasn't perfect, but it was kind of like a performance at least. So if somebody wanted to hear the piece, it could be satisfying for them because I wasn't like stopping and starting all the time. But when you're approaching a new piece of music, you want to take a moment to make sure that you're playing the correct notes, the correct harmonies, double check your accidentals and things of that nature.

Now the next step, after you've read through the whole page in the manner I've described, you really don't want to read the piece ever again. If you want to read pieces, pick another Mazurka or another piece of music entirely. Why is this? If you continue to sight read the piece, unless you played it perfectly the first time through, you're going to continue to miss things, right? And even though I played fairly accurately most of the piece the first time, there were all kinds of details on the score that are essential for the piece to really gel, the exact place where slurs end, the dynamic start and end points. Composers aren't haphazard with these details. These are intrinsic to the composition, and you must learn them meticulously.

So if I was practicing, the very next thing I'd do after that fundamental, not fundamental, precursory reading, quite the opposite really, is I would go to the very beginning and break it down to the smallest possible elements to check my work, not assuming, oh yeah, I could probably go and start from the beginning, even kind of already, if I read through it five, six times, I'd sort of know it, and then I'd go back and keep reconstructing the score and try to fill in the details I didn't quite get. But that's really not what you want to do. Now in a piece like this, I might be able to get away with it honestly, because I can almost read it anyway.

But let's say I was doing a Bach fugue or late Beethoven sonata or Ravel. There's no way that that method's going to work. So you might as well use this method with everything you learn. The method I've described in a video years ago that's worth a watch of how to memorize music, and I'm just going to basically show you that here with this piece. The very next thing I would do if I was doing this piece, even if it's a piece of Mozart that's easy to memorize relatively, I would break it down like as follows. So you're going to see what I'm going to do here. I'm going to start from the beginning, just the right hand, the very, very first tiny phrase. Believe it or not, that's all I would take because I can learn that really quickly and it's satisfying.

Now the things I just noticed is it starts with a decrescendo on the ... And then you have also another decrescendo. And the very first note starts with an accent. Interesting, huh? Now that doesn't take me very long to learn. I probably have it down. I'm going to check my work. Yeah, I want to change my notes on the two repeated A flats. Change fingers on those two notes. I didn't that time and it's a better fingering. So I'm working out the fingering as well as the notes and the phrasing and the expression. Everything. That one I was happy with. I'm going to check my work again, make sure it's right before I solidify it. And once again from memory. Now I've got it. I'm going to do it a few more times so it becomes automatic, I don't even have to think about it. I really feel like I have it, so I'm going to do it one more time. All right, I certainly have that.

Now let's look at the left hand. That's pretty easy, because on the top you'd have ... And the bottom ... And put it together. I'm going to check it over, make sure there's no other markings, no indications of expression or phrasing that maybe I missed. Nope, it's pretty straightforward. I'm going to do it again just to make sure it's there. Great. Now just to refresh my memory of the right hand that I learned earlier, make sure I still remember it. And I'm going to even check it with a score once more. And you might wonder, why am I going through this tremendous pains to learn this? Well, because once I learn it, I don't want to have to unlearn anything, so I'm making sure it's right.

Now the hardest part. The hardest part is always putting the hands together. All right. And notice I put the hands together from memory the first time. Very important. And you challenge yourself. You don't want to just read it. You want to try it even if you have to play it much slower. I missed the repeated A flat there, so I going to get that. Now I'm going to check it with the score, with the hands together. You notice it sounded different. You know why it sounded different when I played it just then? It's because when looking at the score, I got the expression in exactly the right spot, so there was a little tiny detail that made a big difference in the sound, didn't it. So now I'm going to see if I can get that. I'm going to just look over the score and see where those decrescendos are. Now I'm going to play it again. I think I've got it right.

And finally the last thing is to add the pedal. That's your reward for a job well done. Still tripping up the repeated A flats. Should be able to get that, right? That one I was happy with, and then I'll do it a few more times before going on to the next phrase the same way. All right. Now the reason why this is so great is that now I have that first phrase on performance level. It's just the way I going to play it. I go into the next phrase the same way. Going to remember the dotted rhythm the first time and then the straight A's the second time. And the next measure is ... Once again, decrescendos in both little sections. All right.

Now we go to the left hand. Little more complicated than the first phrase, huh? And believe it or not, I'm going to break up and just learn that second measure first. I checked to make sure there were no dynamics there. And it's just at the tail end of a decrescendo right at the beginning of that measure. And the first one also has the decrescendo. That made it easy, breaking it up into two measures. I'm spoon feeding myself. Why? You know, here's the reason why, because I could do this all day long because it's so darn easy. Where if I tried to memorize an eight measure phrase, a 16 measure phrase, could I do it? Of course I could, but it would take me so long that how many of those am I going to want to do? I could work through this entire piece in two measure phrases and never get mentally tired. And better than that, I know that it's secure. I know I've got it, because I'm looking at every detail and solidifying as I'm going.

And let me just refresh the right hand. I'm going to check it. I just noticed there's an accent on the A flat. Oh no, the D flat is a chord note. And the left hand again. Now when I put this together, I've got to go very slowly because both hands have things going on. The first phrase the left hand was so simple I could do it up to tempo. This one I'm not going to drive up to tempo first. All right, I think it was okay, but let me check my work. I had to remember that accent on the A flat. And one more time.

Now let's see if I remember the first phrase I learned. I'm going to use the music first, just to refresh my memory. Oh yeah. Now I going to figure out how to put these sections together. Once again, it's an eighth note. The second phrase is a quarter note. But the first phrase is the eighth note. So that was the two phrases put together. I'm going to do it again, this time with the score and make sure I've got it right. And that accent on that A flat, I missed it again. So now I'm going to try it from the beginning from memory and see if I can get everything, including that accent on the A flat. I believe I've got it. Let me try it again. I'm going to check it again with the score. And again from memory. All right. Now I'm rewarded with the pedal.

And there you have it. And that is the secret, the secret of taking your time when you're learning. Remember, first read through the piece a little bit more carefully than you'd read it if you were just reading it for somebody or accompanying somebody certainly. Take the time to make sure you have all the notes and at least have an idea of places you need to work out fingering later, even if you can't quite work it out. And then get to work and practice, and don't take more than you can bite off at a time. If you're taking more than a minute to learn something, you're taking too much because that way you can learn every single minute of your practice and make it really productive and you could just stay in the practice.

I of course, as I said, I could probably read through this whole piece a bunch of times and almost have it memorized, and almost as the key word here because you don't want it almost. You want it precise. You want to get every last detail of the score because that's what makes it sound so beautiful. Chopin crafted these pieces. He was a master, and you want to take advantage of every marking in the score right from the beginning. Don't get used to playing it wrong, because the correct phrasing and expression and fingering are going to bring the peace to life for you. I hope this has been enlightening for you and you could see the way I work. I recommend that you try it with your music. And I would go through the whole piece, connecting phrases as I go. Memorize it first, after you've just read through it, and you won't believe the difference it'll make in your practice. I hope this has been helpful for you. Again, this is Robert Estrin here at living, your online piano store. See you next time.
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Margaret * VSM MEMBER * on August 28, 2021 @10:30 am PST
Excellent!!! So much good information.
John Morris * VSM MEMBER * on August 11, 2021 @11:01 am PST
Wow! As a beginner trying to learn from a online course, I have struggled to get pieces right even when I 'know all the notes'. But this is brilliant, and it is already helping
Robert - host, on August 12, 2021 @10:29 am PST
That is great to hear! This video and article may be of help to you:
Gregory Payne on August 4, 2021 @2:51 pm PST
Best of these lessons I have ever watched!
Robert - host, on August 5, 2021 @10:52 am PST
So glad you like this one! It reveals the process in a totally honest way instead of making it look like learning music is easy for accomplished players.
MaryEllen Grigor on July 10, 2019 @6:47 am PST
Good tutorial-I will recommend to my students to watch.
Have you done a tutorial on articulation in Bach Prelude and Fugues.
Robert - host, on July 11, 2019 @5:10 pm PST
There may be videos coming which will discuss how to play Baroque pieces such as Preludes and Fugues of Bach on modern piano since the compositions were composed before the modern piano existed.
James Potter on April 30, 2019 @8:16 pm PST
Hey Robert, could you do a video on how to accurately do page turns during a Performance?
Robert Estrin on May 2, 2019 @12:25 pm PST
This is a good topic for a video! I will make one.
Max on April 17, 2019 @10:03 am PST
I love for videos. I learn so much. You're a great teacher. Thank you so much!
Robert - host, on April 17, 2019 @3:07 pm PST
So glad you were able to get something from the online lesson. There are more in the works for you!
Richard Blocher on April 11, 2019 @6:41 am PST
Dear Robert,
I think you hit the nail on the head with this new program.If we do not have accuracy, it will not work.This has changed my concept of practice.This video has given me hope, and possibilities with my playing. Thank you.I am currently working on J.S.Bach Prelude in C Minor.I have been having problems with my study, probably because of my concept for Practice.I would love to see a video of this done. Thank you for sharing. Richard Blocher.
Robert - host, on April 11, 2019 @12:13 pm PST
We are pleased to see the input we are getting from this video and hope the demand is strong enough to produce more in depth videos on a great variety of repertoire, possibly including the C minor Prelude (I assume from Book I of the Well Tempered Clavier).
Soner Arifler * VSM MEMBER * on April 11, 2019 @4:46 am PST
My impression is that, this video will also be a very useful guidance/lesson for someone like me who is trying to learn how to play the violin. Thank you dear Robert Estrin.
Nate on April 11, 2019 @12:55 am PST
Help and the extra depth I think will let the principle things stay with me longer.
Ken Cory * VSM MEMBER * on April 10, 2019 @8:18 pm PST
I find it helpful to practice short passages like these with my eyes closed. It guarantees that I really have them memorized, but also I find that it helps me to concentrate on the music itself, and not the dots and squiggles on the page.
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