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Learn Those Notes

When you begin practicing a new piano piece, the obvious place to begin is learning the notes. Many people, myself included, want to breeze through this task and move on to more interesting things, but if you are not diligent here you will ultimately spend longer learning your song. If you overlook a wrong note, it is easy for it to become a habit. It will take you longer to unlearn the wrong note and relearn the correct one than if you had just learned it right in the first place.

There are a number of different techniques which you can use in this initial note learning phase. Feel free to choose what you like. Try different methods. See what works for you. Having different options also means that you don’t have to do it the same way every time.

Name game

This is a very simple technique: just name the notes as you play. This type of practice only works for very easy pieces, and you will grow out of it in a few weeks or months of lessons

Count out loud

No more needs to be said. Use this method to learn the rhythm of a piece and to make your playing steady.

Hands Separately

This is a tried and true technique, which also needs little explanation. It is tried and true because it works, and you will never outgrow it, even if someday you are playing concertos. Playing hands separately allows you to focus on the rhythm, notes and musical details of that hand. It is also good for working on the phrasing of one hand without distraction from the other hand.


This is another age-old method. Simply write the most comfortable fingering into your music. Sometimes you may need to try several options before settling on one. Knowing which finger to use ensures that you are comfortable in playing running passages. Don’t think that you can just figure out the fingering and then remember it. Write it down! After you have taken the time to figure it out, why waste that time by forgetting it and having to work it out again? It is not babyish to write in the fingering. Even the best performing pianists do it.

Difficulties first

Turn a trouble section into a strength. Look through the piece or section to find what you think will be the most difficult part. Work out the notes in that section, then do the next most difficult section, and so on. Once you have the most difficult parts down, the rest will go quickly.

Tabletop Challenge

This is a practice routine that may seem difficult at first. When you try it the first time, it may, in fact, seem impossible, but after you have mastered it several times, you will find that a section learned this way will be very strong indeed. The biggest challenge in learning a piece of music is not your fingers, it is your mind. This technique exercises your mind to the fullest. The first time you try this, do it with a very easy piece—one that is much easier than you usually play.

Take a small section of your piece. A measure is not too small at first. Take your music to the table to study. Of course you could also do this at your desk, on your bed, on the floor, anyplace but the piano. Examine the section carefully. What notes are being played, what chords do you recognize, what patterns do you see? Imagine the sound of the piece. Imagine how you will play the piece. Try playing it on the table. Imagine how far apart the notes will be on the keyboard and try to mimic that at the table. When you think you have it learned, go to the piano to play it—but leave your book at the table! If you don’t play it perfectly the first time, go back to the table and study it some more before you try again. Keep trying until you get it right. You can try as many times as you need to, but the rule is, you can not bring the book to the piano!

Pass the test

This practice method is very systematic and easily understood. If you don’t know what else to do, you can always use this method. If you follow this process through to its conclusion, it will actually take you much further than simply learning the notes. To carry out this method, you will put each section of the piece to a series of tests. Once you have passed the test, you can try for the next test. Here are the series of tests:

  1. Play through right hand separately
  2. Play through left hand separately
  3. Play through both hands together
  4. Play through right hand memorized
  5. Play through left hand memorized
  6. Play through both hands together memorized
  7. Play through right hand memorized with metronome
  8. Play through left hand memorized with metronome
  9. Play through both hand together memorized with metronome

A few definitions are in order to make this work:

A play through simply means that you can play from beginning to the end, getting all the right notes and fingering. If you hit two notes at once, you don’t pass the test. If you play the right note, but don’t use the fingering that you decided, you haven’t passed the test. If you play the note but it doesn’t make a sound, you don’t get to move ahead either. The important thing to notice, though, is that you can play as slowly as you want. You even can pause as long as you need to between notes to make sure that the notes are correct. In other words, having the rhythm exactly right is not part of the test.

With metronome means that now those pauses between notes which were allowed for the first six tests are no longer allowed. You still can set the metronome at a very slow tempo, but the piece now should be rhythmically correct.

By using one of these approaches, or a combination, you should successfully pass the Learning the Notes level and be ready to move on to solving any remaining tricky parts.