Learning a New Piece: From Unfamiliar to Polished

Learning new repertoire is always exciting and can be a mark of your improvement. It is an everlasting cycle of starting a fresh work, perfecting it to the best of your ability, and then starting anew with a different work. There are many different strategies and approaches one can take when beginning a new piece and I am by no means an expert. However, I will share some of my best advice from what I have learned.

Learning a piece starts before you even begin getting the notes and rhythms into your muscle memory. You truly begin learning the music when you sit down and study the score and learn not just what your part sounds like, but also how the orchestra part fits with the solo line. While you study the score, it is important to decide musically what you want your interpretation to be. Many students (myslef included sometimes) make the mistake of first diving into the technical passages to nail those in place. My belief is that you can’t truly perfect the hard parts if you don’t know musically what they mean or why the composer wrote them. Always strive to find musical solutions to technical problems.

Once you have studied the score, maybe listened to a few recordings (not too many), and thought about your interpretation, then it is time to choose carefully your fingerings and bowings. Bowings in my opinion are the most imporant thing to do before starting on the notes. As a student, most of my bowings come from my amazing teachers. As I continue to grow as a player, I put in more of my own bowings to fit what I want to sound like. Fingerings are also very important, as having a bad fingering can make a challenging passage much harder. When choosing fingerings, it is important to think of what makes sense both musically and technically. You should aim for a fingering that makes the passage flow seamelssly, but also gives the color you want and perhaps helps to set you up for the passage or phrase ahead.

With bowings and fingerings in place, it is important to try not to play the piece through, however enticing that may be. Find the hard spots and use practice tools to solidify it. I love to practice rhythms, seperate bows for a slurred passage, doubling the notes, and slow practice with metronome. These are just a few of my favorite practice strategies. To save yourself the time and trouble of correcting later in the learning process, it is important to start a piece making sure you solidfy intonation and do not jumble notes even in fast passages. Start a slow tempo if you need and only speed it up when you are sure you can handle it. Learning a new piece well can be a challenging and time consuming process, but in order to have a fulfilling and enjoyable performance, you must prepare in the right ways.