Piano is not necessarily a hard instrument to play. Players sit at the keyboard and press the correct keys down. The notes are written out and everything is given to the players. Piano becomes difficult when the mental game comes into play and students need to learn to conquer their own brain.
Especially when talking about classical piano, those multiple pages and squished notation can be scary things to begin practicing. What are the strategies to learn classical piano fastest? How do students go about memorizing multiple page-long pieces?
These can be difficult questions to answer because there is no real correct answer. Luckily, we have gathered a list of 10 mind hacks to help students find the best way to learn classical piano. If students can change their thinking they can change their playing.
10 Best Ways to Learn Classical Piano
Let’s begin with a unique term that should help you very much: chunking.
Chunking is a common psychological tactic that many people use to help memorize large bits of information. In simple terms chunking means breaking down the large parts into smaller bits and practicing them until they are memorized.
Thinking about classical piano pieces, they are long songs with long sections within them. A great mind hack to practice this is to break it down into chunks. After breaking down the long parts into smaller chunks, students should repetitively practice these parts until they become muscle memory and are locked into the brain.
The important thing to remember to make chunking effective is that the chunks must be broken into sizes that are manageable for the students. There is no “one size fits all” breaking point that every student can use to break up their music. Rather, if students need to go measure by measure in order to learn a song, then that’s what they should do.
Chunking is an especially effective tactic to use for classical piano learning because most of these songs utilize patterns. Similar melodies throughout the piece with certain little flairs to enhance the listening, or chord progressions that just use different inversions to make it sound better are common.
By chunking, students can easily recognize these patterns and learn the song faster because they will have already learned the pattern well and simply must implement the musical flairs into the different sections.
2) Don’t Start at the Beginning
This tip may seem counterintuitive to many players. You might think to yourself:
Wait…don’t start at the beginning of the piece? But then it won’t flow well!
These exclamations would be correct, however, this mind hack is meant to change your thinking in order to change (and improve) your playing.
One benefit to starting in the middle is that it trains the brain to anticipate what’s to come in the music. This is a really helpful technique for when students need to sight read, but also normal playing. It is physically impossible to be looking at the hands on the piano and the sheet music at the same time, so players need to learn to look ahead and anticipate what the next moves are. Unless students are planning on memorizing the entire piece (which is possible), the anticipation skill is a must.
A second benefit to starting in the middle is students can focus on the hard parts. Practicing the easy beginning can be a great morale booster, but it takes time away from getting into the parts that actually need practicing. Instead, try starting with these hard parts and only playing through the easy parts after some struggle. This will not only help students gain the confidence to go back to these difficult sections, but also releases dopamine within the brain to help students continue to enjoy playing.
Practicing the hard parts separately will also help with the flow of the piece despite the unreasonable hack. Rather, because the brain will be trained in the anticipation of the next parts, it knows where the hard parts are and will be ready each and every time they appear and execute them well. Additionally, practicing the hard parts within the section, implementing a few measures before and after, will help get the same flow effect as practicing the whole piece from start to finish while still focusing on the difficult sections.
3) Study the Music
Once again, this tip may seem like it’s more work than it’s worth.
Step away from the piano and studying the actual music? How is that going to help get through the difficult parts and improve playing?
Well, just like chunking, studying the score can help students find the patterns within the music which accelerates learning. Patterns make these multiple page songs into less music to learn because they are repetitive.
Once patterns are found within the music, it is easier to learn and understand, and it will even flow out of the hands better. Patterns make less work for the brain. There is less to think about because sections are similar the brain needs to anticipate less. There is no need to mentally freak out about all the moving parts of playing piano such as finger dexterity, note placement, dynamics, flow, rhythm, etc. because some of that has been encoded into the patterns. The less the brain has to think about while playing piano the more natural it will sound.
Studying the music can also help with memorization. Along with patterns making it so there is less actual music to memorize, studying the music can create a mental memorization. It’s similar to when a catchy song get’s stuck in your head, students should try to get the classical pieces stuck in their heads (although if you ask us they are pretty catchy anyway).
The faster songs get stuck in the head, the easier it will be to spot mistakes when playing and correct them. Additionally, it means that students will be consistently thinking about and humming the song. Their brain will be engaged even when they are not sitting at the piano, reinforcing the music and the pitches that need to be played in order or some fingering that the student knows is difficult. This can be as effective as sitting at the piano and playing the same section over and over again.
4) Use a Reward System
Our brain ignores boring things that have no purpose or outcome. While it is a common teaching technique to use for younger students, a reward system for accurately learning or memorizing a section of music can be helpful for students of all ages. It encourages our brain to engage with what we are doing because it will be rewarded in the end.
This technique can also be helpful for students who tend to lose focus after a few minutes. With a reward at the end, learning can easily go faster because our brain wants the reward and the dopamine that gets released each time we successfully accomplish a goal. We become more motivated with a reward system set in place and more encouraged to be successful which will lead to many more benefits in the future.
5) Change the Music
Changing the music to something different from what is written can be a beneficial way to learn music. It doesn’t have to be anything drastic, simple things such as playing a legato section staccato or changing the key can help with finger dexterity. Those tactics especially are great for students to learn classical piano if they continuously find themselves tripping over their fingers.
By playing the music differently our brains are forced to focus on the important parts of the chunk. Obviously playing the correct notes are important, but by changing the key we can learn the hand shape and movement which will place us on the right notes.
Additionally, changing the music into something harder than what is written makes practicing the written notes feel a lot easier. Similar to encouraging students to start in the middle of the piece, this can be beneficial for students to feel more confident in playing the real music after struggling through the changes.
Changing the music can also input some fun into practicing those hard sections that are so frustrating. There are many obvious benefits to this, the first being that students are more engaged and excited about practicing when it’s fun. Our brains function better when we enjoy what we are doing.
6) Stay Consistent
This is less a tactic about playing piano, and more a mind hack about how to retain the learnings. Staying consistent in practice time and developing a routine can help memory retention. Similar to muscle memory development, practicing development can help the brain remember chunks from practice to practice rather than needing to start over each time a student sits down to play.
A great thing to make consistent during practice time is to spend the first 15 minutes on warm ups and fundamentals. Many of the difficult sections in piano pieces can be solved through remembering fundamentals. These hard sections seem complicated, but in reality they are usually simply an expansion on some piano playing fundamental.
It’s also important to consistently practice the hard sections of a piece. If students sit down and practice the hard section until they get it manageable, but then don’t go back to look at it for a while, their hard work on improving this piece will be forgotten. To build muscle memory and enhance learning and retention, students need to be consistent in their practicing.
7) Take Breaks
Getting overwhelmed is not going to help any student learn new things. While learning new songs and practicing the difficult sections, students can easily get frustrated which blocks the ability to learn new things. Rather than go through the cycle of anger, take a break!
Taking breaks are important for any activity, not just playing the piano. They help to reset the brain to be able to learn new things and be excited for whatever it is that’s going to happen. Similar to playing the easy parts of practicing the hard ones, taking a break can help boost dopamine and allow the brain to recognize that not everything in life is difficult.
With specificity to piano, taking a break doesn’t necessarily mean stepping away and doing something completely different. Obviously if that is what the student needs then feel free, however it could be more beneficial to simply step away from the piano but continue the musical learning. This could be something like studying the score for a bit, or thinking over the melodies. Either way, this way the brain stays in music mode and it’s not a complete start over when the break ends.
8) Bring it Back to the Basics
Every difficult piece in a piano song can be broken down into its basic fundamental principles. Especially with classical pieces that were one of the first styles of writing for piano, composers relied on fundamentals to make these pieces sound good.
In even simpler terms, hard sections are just expanded fundamentals with flourishes. This may be a difficult mind hack for beginners to employ, and they may consider asking a piano teacher for help, but identifying these fundamentals make learning classical piano a whole lot easier. It’s less about each individual note and rhythm and more about what they look like together. What has the student already learned that can be applied to these pieces?
Students should be reinforcing their piano playing fundamentals each time they practice. For intermediate to advanced players they should be second-nature, and not require much thought or effort to execute. This means that if those difficult sections are simply flourished fundamentals, they should not require that much thought or effort to execute either. Students simply need to learn the flourishes to make it sound fancy because they already know their fundamentals.
The same thing goes for hard rhythmic sections. While there are no real fundamentals for the rhythm, there are fundamental problem solving strategies that can be used. The absolute most basic one is simply clapping out the rhythm. With the complicated notes rhythms can seem a lot more complex than they actually are. Clapping it out without the notes and fingerings getting in the way make it more basic for the brain to understand and them execute with the notes and fingerings.
Blocking is an especially good mind hack for students struggling with finding the patterns within the music. Similar to all the other strategies we’ve put forth, blocking is meant to give the brain less to focus on to make learning easier.
Originally developed to help students identify inversion patterns (very common within classical piano music), blocking is essentially taking up the broken chords and simply putting them back together. Once again, it helps to develop muscle memory of where the notes are, freeing up the brain to be able to think of other things such as dynamics and anticipating what’s next.
This technique does not only have to be helpful for inversions and chords though. Rather any tricky fingering part (again, quite common in classical piano pieces) can be blocked into chords, even if they aren’t meant to be. It may not sound great to the ears, but it helps develop note placement memory and clear space in the brain to accelerate learning these difficult parts. The only thing left to learn after the blocking notes is the order the fingers should push them down!
10) Take a Deep Breath
Before any professional piano player sits at the bench or puts their hands on the keyboard they take a deep breath. The breath is meant to center them, put them in the moment and focus on the music they are about to produce. This can be applied to everyday students as well.
Creating the space needed in the brain to learn new things is extremely important, and especially during normal practice sessions there are most likely a million things running through the mind not related to piano. While obviously these things are important, they are not going to help students learn classical piano.
Classical piano requires full attention of students. There are so many intricacies and details that students need to be able to notice, and without a clear brain they will skip right over them. It’s also been proven that intentional breathing can have an effect on body awareness, so students taking a deep breath to center themselves can help them be more aware of their fingers and arms, helping them play better.
That cleansing breath can also be beneficial for learning new things and practicing the hard sections. It can help stabilize the frustrating emotions that come with practicing difficult sections and learning hard songs. It can also help recenter students into what they are trying to accomplish and learn because it can get quite messy while learning a new chunk, especially with all the intricacies of classical piano.
Piano playing is meant to be fun. Especially with classical piano playing, it is meant to be flashy to look and sound impressive. Any player can learn classical piano, it just takes time and practice. Remember to be patient and make it fun! Classical piano is a worthwhile cause because it’s the music that was first written for piano, any player who learns to play it will find contemporary songs much easier to break down.
These mind hacks, while especially helpful for learning the difficult classical piano pieces, can be applied to learning any piano piece. Every song is going to have it’s hard sections, things like breaking it down and bringing it back to the basics can help students digest them. Plus, if all else fails, piano teachers are here for a reason and most likely have many more ways to help students learn classical piano.
If you’re still interested in learning how to play piano or keyboard, get your copy of Piano for All today, which features 10 eBooks, 200 video piano lessons and 500 audio piano lessons!
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