Wednesday, February 16, 2011

4 stages of learning a piece.

I've been teaching and performing for many decades now, and I've realized that in too many instances, students get stuck at a certain level of musical preoccupation. I wanted to articulate a little more clearly what seems to be the learning arc when coming to terms with a piece of music. So I wrote up this list of 4 stages of learning a new piece. Because I'm obsessed with anagrams, you will see that the four steps form a call to action...

Here 'tis:

Learning a piece of music: four stages.

I. Discovery

this is the initial phase of encountering a piece of music: hearing it, sightreading, noticing moments of beauty, confusion, or interesting character. getting a sense for the challenges that lie ahead in the learning process, finding commonalities with other music, identifying personal technical difficulties and areas of incomprehension.

II. Organization

the practical phase. making sure you are playing all the correct pitches and rhythms. working out articulation. developing technical skills necessary to serving the specific piece. finding the right tone of voice to convey the character of the music. crafting phrases and seeking to create the right texture of sound.

III. Ingestion

this is the deep emotional work. memorizing not only the sequence of notes but also the dramatic landscape of the music. this work may be done away from the instrument, visualizing the unfolding of the score. it may occur while doing a run-through of a section of the work. this is when the musician makes the piece a part of his or her own being. listening to other recordings may be helpful, but forgetting recordings may also be necessary, so as to cultivate the musician’s own voice. this is when all the carefully worked out details coalesce into a larger whole, and the music seems to become “of a piece”, or singularly cohesive. this work can be done alone, with a teacher, and/or with colleagues.

IV. Transference

this is when you get to share this new part of your being with your lucky listeners! you have done all the hard work of studying the score, teaching yourself new ways of listening, moving and being, and you are now an authentic agent of this particular work. as you stand (or sit) before your audience, trust yourself and focus on the moment. you don’t need to worry about that hard part coming up: you’ve put in the work and internalized what you need to do to be able to execute that difficult passage. allow irrelevant thoughts or nervous mental chatter to fall by the wayside and just play your instrument. and don’t forget to smile at the audience when they reward your great work with enthusiastic applause!

What would you add? It seems to me that too much of the teaching process focuses on stage II.


  1. at what age did u know u LOVED music?

  2. Nice organization, great insights. Off to a great start...congratulations

  3. I like these 4 stages, Heather! And agree that teachers focus too much on stage 2. What I would add is that stage 4 includes an ability to self-forget (for want of a better word), thinking only of sound, expression, phrasing, all those musical things that teachers teach, as well as what is coming from the other players. The major difficulty is getting away from ego, and a narcissistic obsession with how we are perceived by others and whether or not we are perfect. I'm not sure we can reach that without some serious suffering that relativizes the need to be a 'star.' Maybe it can't be taught, but it can be modelled.

    Thanks for putting your ideas out there on cyberspace!