How To Learn To Play A Piece Of Music

Learning a new piece of music can be a daunting task. Even if you are comfortable with the rhythms and pitches on the sheet music, getting it all together so it sounds good is hugely challenging. And eventually, you’ll want to play it well fluently every time. If you’re wondering how to learn to play a piece of music you’re interested in, then follow this guide and examples. It’s a comprehensive method to help you play with fluency, confidence, and a good quality sound.


STEP ONE – Find A Piece Of Music

You might select a piece because you like how it looks on the page. Maybe it features on an exam syllabus? Or you might already know of the piece. Perhaps your teacher has recommended it for a study piece? Once you’ve chosen your piece, it’s time to get to work. We’ve chosen Jacob van Eyck’s ‘Derde Doen Daphne d’over’ to use as an example.


STEP TWO – Read The Music

When you’re learning a new piece of repertoire for your instrument, it’s important to study the score. Your sheet music will have all the details of what to play and when. Below is our example piece from van Eyck.


How To Learn To Play A Piece Of Music
Learn How To Play A Piece Of Music

Have a look for the following details:


  • The highest note – can you achieve this with a good quality of tone on your instrument?
  • The lowest note – is it easy for you to sound this strongly?
  • The Key Signature – any sharps or flats to remember?
  • Accidentals – do you know the fingering for these?
  • The Time Signature – how many beats in a bar to count? Is there an upbeat?
  • Dynamics – what level do we start, where does it change, how do we end?
  • Rhythms – circle ones you are not entirely confident to play.
  • Ornaments – are there any trills, grace notes or mordents to tackle?


STEP THREE – Understand The Music

Now you’ve had a brief read through the score it’s time to analyse your sheet music. Find the phrases. The end of a phrase is often identified by a long note. This long note is often the Key note or the fifth note of the Key scale. In our example, the first phrase ends at bar 4 with a minim D. Usually, phrases are structured in a ‘question-answer’ format. So now we need to find the answering phrase. This second phrase finishes on a low D, 4 bars later.


We can see the piece is made up of 4-bar phrases. This helps us divide it up for practice in the same way. This particular piece has 6 ‘question-answer’ phrases. Each is repeated with more detail. We could call the phrases A1, A2 (bar 8), B1 (bar 17), B2 (bar 25), C1 (bar 33) and C2 (bar 45). Understanding these structures could also help you improvise and compose your own music.


STEP FOUR – Starting Practice

Sometimes it is worth starting your practice at the hardest phrase. Most people like to start at the beginning and work in order. This is an acceptable practice, but could lead to more repetition of the beginning phrases and limited fluency for the end. For this tutorial, we will start at the beginning.


Learn How To Play A Piece Of Music
How To Learn To Play A Piece Of Music

Our first phrase has an upbeat and is approximately 4 bars long. This is a good chunk to work on. Looking at the sheet music, we can see that the melody line rises from bottom D, up the scale, and finishes on the higher D. Two bars share the same rhythm. There is a C# to pitch. And there is a dotted rhythm in the penultimate bar. We could split this phrase in half at the middle point.


The upbeat needs to be lighter than the first F. The F should be pronounced but not accented. Heavy is fine but not banged out. Count yourself in two bars of 3 beats, coming in on the second 3. Start slowly, then repeat a little quicker. Hear the quality of your notes. Are they in tune (on pitch)? Are they steady?


The second half of the phrase uses the higher D as an upbeat at the end of bar 2. Play this lightly and again apply a little more weight and energy to the following C#. Pencil in the three beats across the dotted rhythm bar to help you understand where the notes fall in time. Use a metronome to check it. Use the half-beats (quavers) to help you arrive on time with the quaver note D. Finally, make the last note of this phrase strong and defined. It should finish well too as there will be a ‘breath’ break after it.


Now you can play the phrase completely. Add some dynamic interest. As we are rising up through the octave, the dynamic might increase with it (crescendo). Mix up the articulation a little to provide interest through any repeated rhythms or note groups. If you need advice on tackling a phrase in your own piece choice, feel free to contact me for some help.


STEP FIVE – Regular Practice

It’s important to repeat STEP FOUR for each of your phrases, but not today. When you are satisfied with one phrase, check it is right. Repeat it three times without mistakes, and it should be secure. Sleep helps file all your experiences and memories away so you should be able to play it exactly the same way tomorrow (if not better!). Mark in where the phrases are, and add dates to them when you know you can tackle them fully. One at a time and one a day is a good approach. Sometimes we need several days to get a tricky phrase right.


STEP SIX – Listen

As you progress with a piece, you will start to become more familiar with it. Sometimes you may be wondering where the musical ideas are heading. Tackling small chunks deprives us of the bigger picture. Find a MIDI file of your piece (contact me if you are struggling to find one). This is a computerised version of what you are learning. It will be quite metronomic and like a robot is playing. But it’s a great reference for those tricky rhythms and ornaments. Your pitching can be checked against this recording too.


You should also listen to a professional human recording of your piece. This will help you hear ideas about expression. Articulation and dynamic interest is really important for recital or exam pieces. Both a MIDI file and a professional recording of the ‘Derde Doen Daphne d’over’ can be found below. Try to emulate what you hear. You may develop some ideas of your own over time.


Derde Doen Daphne d’over MIDI file
Play MP3 Recording:


Find streaming sources of your music online at places like Spotify or Amazon Music. You may be able to buy a track online. CDs often have detailed information about composers and musical styles to give you more information.

STEP SEVEN – Learn More

Now you have tackled the technical issues of your chosen piece it’s time to find out more about its origins. Recordings by professionals will help you hear how it might have been played when it was written. You can find sources of information from the CD sleeve. Why not Google the composer to find out more?


Jacob van Eyck was a recorder player in the 1600s. This was the early part of the Baroque period in music. It’s thought he played something similar to the descant recorders we play today. The song we’ve looked at is the third song about Daphne. It seems to be a whimsical, almost romantic melody. It’s thought to have been borrowed from melodies heard in English Folk songs of the time. Famous performers of the van Eyck collections include Dan Laurin. What can you find out about your piece? How will it affect your performance? Can you add a stylised twist to your version?


STEP EIGHT – Perform

It’s important to gain plenty of experience of playing in front of other people. This helps your musicianship enormously. You can respond to the audience, and have someone to direct your musical interpretations toward. Performing in front of your camera for a YouTube upload can also be a good way to practice performing. It can be good to analyse your performance as well. We can all improve!


Exam nerves tend to be worse than performing in front of friends and family. Try to enter competitions or attend your teacher’s recitals as a performer. Some people like to memorise the music so their focus is entirely on the sound rather than reading notes. It is never essential to memorise your repertoire but there are certainly some benefits to doing so. Do what makes you feel most secure and comfortable.
Now, find a new piece of music, and repeat! If you would like to share your recital recordings, or if you have any questions, use the CONTACT tab at the top of the page to get in touch. I look forward to hearing you.

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