Robert Estrin - piano expert

Why You Shouldn't Learn Music One Line at a Time

A useful technique for piano players

In this video, Robert explains why learning music one line at a time is ineffective and what you should do instead.

Released on June 9, 2021

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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

Welcome to Robert Estrin here with a really interesting subject, particularly for those of you who are new to the piano and wondering how much should you learn at a time. Today, the question is why learning a line of music at a time makes no sense, and it really doesn't. And I'm going to demonstrate this for you in two ways. First of all, I'm going to play the beginning of Bach's famous Minuet in G, and I'm just going to play the first line. Then I'm going to do something extraordinarily different to show you the parallel, why this makes absolutely no sense to learn a line of music at a time. And it's not just because it might not be the appropriate length of material to learn at a time, it's something else that you're going to catch onto like that once I give you this parallel. So here's the first line of music as it is published in, if any of you are interested in getting a copy of this.

So that's the first line of Bach's Minuet in G from the Notebook for Anna Magdalena. Bach composed so many of these lovely pieces that are little gems that are accessible even to people in relatively early years of study. I love these pieces. It's a treasure for piano students. And they're great pieces as well. So if you approach this piece and learned that much, why wouldn't that make sense? To demonstrate this I'm going to read you a little bit of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night that is, and I'm just going to redo the first line of this. And it's, "The fog was where I wanted to be, halfway down the path you can't see this."

And you realize that first line doesn't really make sense, because if I were to read the entire line, it says, "The fog was where I wanted to be. Halfway down the path you can't see this house. Ah, that has meaning. Now how does it relate to the music? Well, listen to the rest of the phrase, not the rest of the line, because I played the whole line. Listen to it if I finish the phrase and see if it makes more sense to you. Musically, just as the text and the play makes more sense by finishing the sentence, so it is finishing the phrase, which doesn't always line up with the lines of music. So here's that same Bach Minuet finishing the phrase this time.

That's a complete thought. Now if that's too much material to learn, you could break it in half and learn half phrases at a time, and that would still make sense. That's a complete thought and then you could learn the second half of the phrase. So knowing how much to take, listen if I go further with this Eugene O'Neill play, the next sentence, "You'd never know it was here or any of the other places down the... Obviously, that doesn't work at all. Of course, it's supposed to go on. "You'd never know it was here or any of the other places down the avenue." Much like on the Bach Minuet, if I take the next phrase and just go to the end of the line, you end up with this. It makes about as much sense as learning half a sentence in a play, doesn't it? Because you need to finish the phrase.

So this is the lesson for today. Just because it's laid out in the page a certain way has no bearing upon the sense of how much to take at a time in your music. It's critical to take an amount that makes sense musically. Also, to take the amount that you can digest in a relatively reasonable amount of time. Because if you take too large of a chunk, just like if you are memorizing lines of a play and you try to memorize a whole paragraph, you might read it until your eyes are crossed and you still wouldn't get it. But if you take just a sentence at a time and putting, the stringing the sentences together, it's exactly the same with your music. Taking them out, you can digest it, and in five minutes, hand separately, each hand, you could take five minutes, another five minutes and put them together, and then you can learn and go on piece by piece just like memorizing a play.

I hope this is helpful for you and it's opened your eyes as to the significance of the musical phrase. Sometimes they're delineated with slur markings over them, sometimes you just have to get the sense of the music in order to know how much to take at a time, because it varies tremendously. Some pieces have very long phrases, other pieces have shorter phrases. So there isn't a one size fits all. You have to use your musical sense by reading through the piece first to get a sense of the structure and the sizes of the phrases. I hope this is helpful.

Again, I'm Robert Estrin and this is, your online piano resource. Lots more to come your way. Thanks for joining me and subscribing, ringing the bell and sharing this on your social media. We'll see you next time.
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

William Strickler * VSM MEMBER * on June 9, 2021 @9:08 am PST
"the significance of musical phrase". I am not a computer. I don't believe that a computer could play the piece you are playing. I will emphasize certain notes and sub-phrases and add feeling to it. Everyone will do that differently. Together that makes an orchestra. That has to be done playing and learning the phrases. The reason to divide smaller is to learn the rhythms and timing, something a computer can do exactly. Traditional expected bigger emphases are included in the music but are not in exact computer terms. Much is left to the player (and conductor relationship) and is slightly different every time the music is played. I think it is these differences that contributes a lot to the desire of playing a piece again and again and again just for the fun of it. Gives me a sense of freedom to control the feeling of the music. A lot of that is built into the music and is natural like completing and resolving the music, but never exact like a computer would do. Anyway, these are my feelings to your comments. I am amazed and thankful for Robert's skill in putting together these short "inspiring" videos.
Robert - host, on June 10, 2021 @10:26 am PST
With modern technology, it is possible to program the exact score into a computer for playback. But something is missing. To understand this in an intuitive way, just imagine having a computer recite Shakespeare (or any play). It can recite the words, but lacks the ability to create a unique perspective on the subject. Yet each actor can bring their own voice to the characters. The same is true of a musical performance. Each performer imparts their unique vision of the music in their interpretation. Perhaps someday computers utilizing artificial intelligence and machine learning can approach these human abilities.
William Strickler * VSM MEMBER * on June 10, 2021 @3:14 pm PST
No way on the computer. Listening to a real person or recording of a real person provides a social connection that a computer will never do, at least not for me!
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