The Best Learning Trick Ever!

I’m going to share my best learning secret for piano students right here.   It’s a simple trick which works on two basic principles.

♥   The first is that the brain is a computer which operates with amazing precision.

laptop_3D

♥   The second is that fully 90% of those dazzling arpeggios and scale passages dancing off a concert pianist’s fingers are being played by rote.   The performer is relying on something I call “body”  memory.  If you were to stop him at any point and ask him what the next note is, most musicians won’t be able to tell you. That’s because their fingers are moving automatically over those keys.

It is this “rote”playing which requires the oft-quoted “eight months” preparation for a formal full length recital.  Ideally of course the good musician will intimately know the structure of the music,   but that body memory will carry him through very fast or intricately fingered passages.

Most students when they begin lessons will quickly run into a familiar problem.   They play the piece several times and each time they reach a certain note, they play it incorrectly.   They become quite frustrated with themselves and often either they or their teacher will circle the offending note to make it more visible.   But often the problem continues.

piano trick clip

 

“Why do I always miss that f sharp?”   they complain.

Well the answer is simple.   Their body memory is working against their brain.  And it’s this collision which is causing the problem.

Let us assume that when Mary begins to learn a new piece, she misses that F sharp on the second line.    She stops and corrects it.   Chances are overwhelming that with the next repetition, she will also miss it.  But this time, she’ll be faster at correcting it.  By the third repetition, she misses it again but her correction is almost simultaneous.   But she’s exasperated.   WHY can’t she remember that dratted  F sharp?

Here’s what’s happening.

Mary has played the note a total of 6 times.  3 times wrong and 3 times corrected,   Her brain, which is a computer, is now befuddled.   Is it F or F sharp?    The raw data is equal for both.

 Now to add to this confusion, Mary’s fingers have hit 3 ordinary F’s.  And they’ve stretched up 3 times to hit the correct black key, F sharp.  Her fingers are equally confounded.

So how to clear up this mess and shorten the time and the frustration of learning a new piece.

It’s easy.   You have to SLOW DOWN.  Don’t play a note until you are sure it is correct.   Think about it first.  By allowing yourself to think you are learning. And much more importantly you are NOT playing a wrong note.   By not playing that note wrong, you are helping your brain/computer establish the correct note much more quickly.

After three repetitions, preceded by a few seconds of thinking, you will find that the correct note is coming much more quickly each time it is played.   And although you may not be aware of it, your body memory is being formed and your fingers are beginning to automatically reach for the correct note.   This is the secret.

If you try to learn the usual hit and miss way, you will learn much much more slowly.   Three wrong notes have to be corrected  …. which makes six repetitions in all.  And you still have three wrongs for each three correct.   If you think BEFORE playing the note instead of AFTER playing it incorrectly, you will learn so much more quickly.  And it takes less time to think and then play correctly than it does to correct a wrong note.

Try it and see why I am the HappyPiano Professor.      It’s my very best trick!

And here’s a great chart to print out for yourself or your students. Just as a reminder.

***

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10 Responses to The Best Learning Trick Ever!

  1. Susie Rose says:

    Soooo true! And it is so important to keep doing repetitions after you’ve gotten it right. My favorite phrase when practicing with my kids is “now do it again, JUST LIKE THAT.” They always groan when they hear that, but a) they feel proud of their accomplishment, and b) they are reinforcing the correct muscle memory.

  2. Nathan . a says:

    I eventually realised this was effective as I was trying to find better way, then I found your article reaffirming my finding! I was only playing piano 5 min before. Many thanks.

  3. April says:

    I love this idea, I can’t wait to try it out on my students that are struggling. How do you personally go about teaching the notes/locations, flashcards? If a student is struggling through the entire song because they don’t know their notes well enough, do you suggest they slow down, look at a chart of notes, then play the whole song so slow as long as it takes?

    • nikkitytom says:

      Aha … thank you April. I realize I should add something really important to this article. Or perhaps write another one covering it. When my students are learning the easiest pieces I have them SAY each note as they play it. Now when you have more complicated pieces or even very simple ones with both hands operating, then of course you can’t do this unless you have a forked tongue or very special skills. In this case, you may have to backtrack a bit. You can have your student take the hands separately and say the notes. In time. Add a syllable for half beats. ” C E G-yee” if you have two beats and the third is divided ( two eighth notes). In all my years of teaching I had only one little boy who resisted saying those notes out loud. SAYING the note aloud is crucial. It’s a key learning trick.

      Another good trick to familiarize your student with the names of the notes on the kayboard is to have them say the name of a random note as you play it. Then have them do this on their own by closing their eyes, playing a note at random ( kids love swinging their arms around for this one) and saying its name quickly. This little exercise did produce one hilarious reaction in my studio however. One student forgot to open her eyes and assumed she had to know the note by “sound” … and was greatly relieved when told she could LOOK at the key. And then say its name.

      As for the song … your student should try hands separately. Or take it in small portions. But definitely slow down. Rushing through it will only cause more mistakes … and then that “body memory” is destroyed.

      • April says:

        Wonderful. I have always put in students notebooks in the first books to say their note aloud as they play. I don’t know that a lot of them listen when they are home, but I’m going to really push it during lessons. Now I’m trying to apply these principles to my own playing–what if you thought you had it right until you played that chord and hear it sounded wrong (for instance, forgot to sharp the G). Right away should that measure be played several times or?

      • nikkitytom says:

        If you make a mistake .. then correct it. You might even pencil in the note name or the accidental. Normally you don’t need to worry about it, unless the next time you play that passage the wrong note pops up again. Then you should play the measure slowly four or five times and concentrate on your fingers as you do, because you are establishing “body memory”.

  4. But this goes head-on against what the trendy way is, which is, “rhythm is all…keep going and never stop or backtrack to correct notes.” I believe fixing notes immediately is best, but try saying it on a piano forum.

    • nikkitytom says:

      There are so many methods of teaching, many of which are simply fads geared to “instant gratification”. They don’t work and very few serious teachers with valid credentials will support these shabby stop-gaps. Not everyone on a piano forum is a professional. Most professionals don’t have time to waste on piano forums unless they’re on a mission ( which I cofess to …LOL)
      There IS however one occasion where “ploughing onwards without stopping” is absolutely the only way to go,. And that’s during a performance.

      Check out “America the Beautiful” for an account of one student who followed my recital instructions too exactly with hilarious results.

  5. Tony says:

    One thing along the sames line is that a smooth transition between notes always helps me memorize better. It’s not as important when the hands don’t change position, but when they do have to move, the smooth transition makes a world of difference. I first started to notice then when I would have trouble connecting two passages or other random spots in the music where I would play a note and draw a blank on the next one. So very slow and SMOOTH practice while trying to think far ahead in the music has been a world-changer.

  6. nikkitytom says:

    You can even “solidify” those spots where the hands are required to change position. Make those spots your “memory” spots. Let’s say you’re laying a series of notes cascading down the keys and then have to leap up to hit a chord .. fix that spot in your mind as a “memory ” spot by memorizing it. As you descend just remember ..” Yep … when I hit the bottom, there’s a C Major chord in the right hand an octave higher …”

    I had trouble memoriing Baroque music years ago. So I created a whole system of “memory spots” which were points at which I could pick up the music. Normally this broke the music up into chunks of eight or ten or more bars. Then to be sure I knew the music I’d play it backwards … starting with the last chunk and moving back towards the first chunk … at the first part of the piece. The weird practice method drove my mother to the brink of insanity as I played whole pieces in those “chunks” before competitions. But I knew if I got stuck I could either move forward or backward to the adjacent chunk.

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