Do You Know the Three Stages of Music Learning?

musicianship practicing May 19, 2014



When you learn a new piece of music, you take it through three distinct stages of learning: First Sight, the Messy Middle, and Finish. Each stage has different learning objectives and techniques. This series of posts will introduce you to each of the stages to help you focus your practice and speed your learning.

So that new piece of music is on your stand. Maybe it’s one you’ve wanted to learn for a long time. It’s like a gift waiting to be unwrapped.

What are you feeling? Excitement, a sense of adventure, determination, maybe a little fear? How you feel as you approach a new piece depends greatly on your past experiences, good and bad, with practicing and performing.

Ideally, your past successes should have built your confidence in your abilities. You should know that you have the musical, technical and personal resources to tackle new challenges.

I call this beginning stage of learning First Sight. It’s that clean slate feeling when the notes on the page have yet to acquire the significance and meaning that only comes after the familiarity built through many hours of practice. It is often daunting to a less experienced student.

When I was four or five and taking piano lessons, I remember being convinced that each week’s lesson material was too hard for me and that I couldn’t possibly do it. It wasn’t my teacher’s fault; her teaching methods were excellent. It was all me. I didn’t have the inner confidence that a track record provides. And the fear of starting something new was overwhelming to me. Needless to say, I got over that problem.

So what do you need to know, what tools do you need to have to progress quickly and calmly through this first sight stage?

First, you need to keep the end goal in mind. What is the end goal? It is a finished, polished piece that you can play for yourself or others.

So start with the big picture. Some people like to sightread their way through the whole piece, or at least as much as possible, to see what musical and technical challenges lie in store.

Another good approach is to find a recording or two, perhaps on Youtube. Listen to the recording with your music in hand so you can follow along. This is a great way to start associating the music with the notes on the page. It also helps you establish a goal tempo and can help you notice expressive possibilities.

Then start diving deep, using a variety of practice techniques to learn the piece from as many angles as possible. Don’t just make your practice about the notes; keep your goal in mind. These learning techniques were the focus of my recent Kaleidoscope Challenge.

Important! Set a deadline for yourself to move to the next stage of learning. Too many times I have seen students linger in this stage because the notes aren’t perfect yet. Ask your teacher to help you set a timeline for learning your music and then follow your teacher’s advice. Some of the best note learning comes as you move closer to the finish line.

What are some of your challenges with a new piece?


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