Cramming: Tips to Learning Piano Music Quickly

As a pianist with a small child at home living in a small apartment, finding time to practice can be tricky. Playing piano and accompanying is important to me, but I can't sight read everything. Last year I resorted to hiring a baby sitter so that I could practice. That is not really a sustainable option, so this year I have been trying to make it work with the time that I do have. I've decided to share some of what I have found that works for learning music quickly and using my time most effectively. At the end I'll give you some of my practice techniques for learning hard music (the kind of stuff you can barely sightread) relatively quickly. 

1. Know what kind of practicing you need to do

Can you sight read the piece perfectly? Do so and move on. If you are a professional pianist you need to use your sightreading to your advantage. 

Can you sightread the piece fairly accurately? Then you just need familiarity. Practice accordingly.

Is the piece playable but not sightreadable? Identify the sections that need work. Practice accordingly.  

2. Don't underestimate the power of 10 minutes. 

Most days I can count on getting at least two 10 minute chunks of time to practice. Now, I know that doesn't sound like a lot. I used to practice for 6 hours most Saturdays. But 10 minutes can be plenty if you do it right. 10 minutes is enough to learn a tricky passage on one page. Practice effectively and you won't have to do the same kind of work again, next time it will just be review. Don't look at the clock and say, "I only have 10 minutes! I'll practice later". Instead, sit down and do it now. The 10 minute sessions add up. 

3. Have a plan when you sit down to practice. 

It doesn't matter if you have 5, 10, or 60 minutes to practice. Efficient practice starts with a plan. That doesn't always include playing through a piece first. If, as in #1, you need to play through the piece for familiarity, go ahead and do so a couple times. But if you need spot practice and you have identified the sections that need work, don't do that play through first. You'll waste 2-5 minutes of pure gold practice time. If you take those 2-5 minutes to learn one hard section, you'll be closer to your goal, and maybe then ready for a play through. 

4. Be willing to only play/practice one page, or one measure, and nothing else. 

This is hard for me. Really hard. Although it is similar to #3, it is important enough to be a separate point. How many times do we sit down to practice, and first we play through the piece? THEN we work on a section. Or we even start another play through and stop when we hit a hard spot. If you've done #1 you know where the hard spots are. To maximize time, you do not always have to do a play through. Get comfortable with sitting down, starting in the middle of the piece, working on one measure or two measures, and then moving on to the next problem area. 

5. Learn to ignore distractions. 

My practice life right now is a lot different than it was 3 years ago, or even 1 year ago. This may not be the same for everyone, but for me undisturbed time at the piano is almost impossible to come by. Instead of waiting until I have that perfect time to practice, I have just had to learn to ignore the distractions and play on. For some people this may be the phone, or the dog, but for me it is the child pulling on my belt or playing along in the high treble. It is a practice session, not a concert. A little background noise is ok. And everything except for the pot boiling over can wait another minute or two.   


Now some final tips for learning HARD music quickly.  I've accompanied saxophonists on and off, and while their music is really fun, it is also really hard. Changing keys and meters and chord clusters and some of it is super fast. Most of it I can't sightread. But I CAN play it! So, here is how I learn it fast (as in playable-in-1-2 weeks-fast). I like to tell my students you can't cram piano music, it takes quality time over multiple days. That is also true even of this method. But this is how I make the most out of my quality time: 

Work ONE page at a time WITH a Metronome.

That's it. Simple to remember, right? 

When I need to get something tricky learned and up to a reasonable tempo quickly, I start with my metronome.

First, I play through (at most) one page (usually it is a line or two) very slowly until I can get through it without stopping.

Then I turn on the metronome and play through a small section (at most two lines) at a super slow tempo. The goal is to have a starting tempo which is slow enough I can play the section nearly perfectly. Then I bump the tempo up a notch and do it again. And bump it up a notch and do it again. When I can't play it perfectly at the new tempo, I go through it several times at that tempo. Once I can do it well, I bump it up again.  

 When I reach a reasonable tempo (usually 20-25 bpm higher than I started- don't try to go too far too fast), I move on to the next line and restart the process. This sounds (and is) time intensive, but I can usually get through one page in half an hour.

Then I stop!

This is important: Give your brain a break! Don't expect to learn too much in one day. This is the ultimate cramming. The best crammers know you need breaks for it to stick. Don't expect to be able to play that page the exact same the next day. But it will be better than when you started. The next day I review a little (Be careful! This can be a time drain) and start on the next page.   

This technique follows the tips I gave. I know what I need to do. I sit down and do it. Even if I only have 10 minutes, that is enough to learn one line. And that, my friends, is how I learn music quickly with (very) little time to practice. 

The Rite of Passage: Fur Elise

When my first student came to me and said she had learned the first part of Fur Elise,I was pleasantly surprised.

When a second student student did the same thing... I was a little less surprised. Apparently it is one of those pieces people hear pre-recorded on their keyboard and pick up by ear. Well at least the first part. This part: will help you learn it with easy to read notes...

 In fact, so many people want to learn it, there are tons of tutorials online. Like this one too:

And most people only learn that first melody. Such a tragedy!

Here's the thing: I remember wanting to play it too.

When I was in 8th grade, I went to my piano teacher and told her I wanted to play Fur Elise. I think she was a little baffled because I usually didn't want to play what everyone else was playing. I guess it is like a right of passage though, and I wanted in. So she bought me the music and we worked on it together.

I would say I'm a bit of a purist. When my younger students come and tell me that they want to play Fur Elise, we have the conversation about how long the piece actually is, and if they want to work on it with me, we are both committing to learning the whole piece.  And yes, we are both committing, because it is usually quite the undertaking for these young students and it takes determination on both our parts to get through something this long (especially when I have other students doing the exact same thing). I guess I could just say, no, you're not there yet, but so far the ones who have asked me are not that terribly far away. And if they don't get scared off by the talk, then they have some nerve and will likely make it.

After this talk, my student was still determined to learn this classic. We start in, and the student has really been doing great work.

However, after some extreme-note-learning, that lovely beginning starts to get banged out on autopilot getting faster and faster, and then phrasing, dynamics, mood, tempo...come up, over and over again. All those things that make a difference between playing black notes on a page and making music. I turn to recordings and analogies and stories and try to shift the focus from extreme-note-learning to lovely-music-making.

I wanted to share with you a recording that I've shared with my students.

You may or may not agree with the interpretation, but that is the beauty of making music- there are lots of different ways to play one piece.

And I think this recording helps turn those hardworking-student-minds back to the beauty and simplicity of the piece.


Fur Elise, played by Valentina Lisitsa

What do you do when your students tell you they want to learn a rite-of-passage piece like Fur Elise?