Learning new pieces

Have you ever spent countless hours studying a new piece of music, and when you think you finally have gotten it all down, you realize you learned a certain part wrong? You go back and try to correct the mistake, costing you even more time and aggravation? If you are lucky, your hard work will be rewarded by finally correcting your mistake. But for others, they cannnot relearn things over, no matter how much they try. Having a solid studying pattern can not only help you avoid this situation, but can also speed up the whole learning process as well.

Take things slow
Before you even begin to learn anything, you need to get into a relaxed mentality and know that going slow and learning something right the first time will, in the end, save you more time than quickly and haphazardly going through a piece. Now this doesn’t mean that you have to go at a snail’s pace either, but pace things out.

Sightread or memorize
Depending on the level of difficulty of the piece you are learning, and your playing/reading skills, it may be wise to decide beforehand if you plan on memorizing a piece or sight reading it. In a way, this is a trick question because with both ways there is a lot of memorization and familiarity being developed as you learn a new piece of music. Even for pieces I sightread, I have memorized a great chunk of the music simply from playing and studying it so many times. But still, there is a lot more concious effort needed to memorize a piece of music PERFECTLY than to just become famiiar enough to be able to sight read it. Why not just memorize eveything? Well, that’s definitely something many guitarists, and musicians in general, try to do. I personally try to memorize all the more difficult pieces of my repertoire. But in the time it may take to memorize a 4 page piece of music, you could be able to sight read 2-3 other ones of similar length and difficulty. Plus, as we move on to our next project, and the next, etc, we are prone to forget older pieces we may have memorized. Perhaps you can start with the intention of sight reading a piece and then decide to fully memorize it as well.

One measure at a time
I personally try to solidly learn a measure before I seriously look at what’s ahead. This is especially true with more difficult pieces with a lot of information in them. Really examine all the hand movements you do, and work out the timing slowly at first to help become familiar with each measure, and then speed it up to tempo. Basically, you should be able to play a measure almost flawlessly 3-5 times in a row with all the same fingerings before you advance to the next measure. Isn’t this a bit extreme? Remember, if you learn something right the first time, you won’t have to go back to it again to fix things. Also, it is wise to examine the first couple of beats of the next measure to see that your fingerings of the measure you are doing won’t conflict with the new measure. If you find that some of the fingerings you worked out don’t work with the next measure’s fingerings, it’s best to know that now while you still have the old measure fresh in your mind and fix things right from the get-go. Don’t forget, what makes fixing mistakes tough is that we usually discover them long after the fact. Correcting mistakes that just happenned isn’t much of an issue at all.

Don’t change fingerings
When we learn a piece of music, the hand we pay most attention to is the left hand. Obviously, that hand is the one that presses on the frets and thus moves the piece along. But it is wise to pay close attention to your right hand just as much. Try to ALWAYS play each part the same every time with both your left and right hand fingers. If you are constantly changing your fingerings, it will take you longer to memorize a part or it will just make you more prone to making a mistake. Carefully study each part of the music, choose the best fingerings for both hands, and stick with them. Mark down fingerings on the sheet of music so you don’t forget.

Working with a metronome as you are learning a new piece can really help in the learning process. For newer players especially, I recommend using one regularly. It takes some time getting used to using one, but it can really help you to develop your own personal metronome over time. Look for the article “Using a metronome” in the “Editorial” section of this site for more info on using a metronome.

Don’t forget your pencil
If the piece of music you are currently studying doesn’t have ANY pencil markings on it, then you are making things harder on yourself. Make it a habit to mark down important things on your music sheets, like when to play a certain note pressing down a fret instead of open string; where bars are; right hand fingerings; and pretty much anything that you think might help you the next time you sit down to play the same piece. Always use a pencil because you can fix mistakes easier, or you may have just changed your opinion on a marking you had done before and wish to change it to something else.

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