In piano playing you must repeat something many times. But you must have a night’s sleep between repeats so that the unconscious brain can work it out. When you start dreaming with your piece you know you are starting to learn it. Dreaming is the proof that the unconscious brain is working.

In order to learn anything in the most quickest and easiest way, work on a section with full concentration for 15 – 20 minutes and then forget about it until the next day.

The next day repeat the same procedure for the same amount of time and again forget it until the next day. Repeat this as many days as necessary to be able to play the section in such a way that you cannot get it wrong even if you try. I am 100% sure you that you will get to this point in a maximum of seven days or less. This will require incredible discipline and consistency. But it works like magic.

Now consider this example. You decide to practice 5 hours every day. These five hours can be divided in 12 practice sessions of 20 minutes each.

The worst thing you can do is this: “Today I am going to practice bars 12- 24 of piece x”. Then you do that in each of the 12 practice sessions for 5 hours. It does not work. It is a waste of time.

The brilliant thing you can do is to use each of these 12 practice sessions to practice something completely different in each.

It does not matter if you work on a section for 20 minutes or for five hours. Whatever you accomplished in 20 minutes is all you are going to accomplish that day. You need a night’s sleep in between. It is far better to work twelve days for 20 minutes everyday in a passage than to work on that passage for 12 sessions all in one single day. Instead use the other eleven daily sessions to learn eleven new things. At the end of a week you will be amazed at the fantastic amount that you have learned. Try it out if you don’t believe me!

To practice like this you must have a plan. You must make sure that everything that you are practicing in these sessions adds up to something at the end of a week. This is the simple secret of all those pianists who were able to learn massive repertories in no time at all.

The good news is that you do not need to practice 10 –12 hours a day. 20 minutes is plenty. But the amount you will be able to learn in 20 minutes will be one twelfth of what you could learn in 5 hours. Do not think in terms of hours of practice per day, but in terms of number of 20-minute sessions per day and stick to whatever you are doing for seven days (or until you master it - usually less than seven days).

Now let me say a few more words about 15 - 20 minutes, so that it is perfectly clear what I mean.

The important thing to understand is that you should have a section perfect at the end of 15 – 20 minutes.

If it is taking more than that, then the passage you chose to work on is too big.

Cut it in half.

Most people select sections that are bigger than they can chew. This leads to practicing for hours on end with no noticeable improvements. Eventually you become tired, fingers get sore, and you become discouraged and end up hating practice.

Here is another way to practice and you can be combining it with the 15-20 minutes practice.

It takes 7 repetitions for the human brain to learn anything. So, choose a section and repeat it seven times. If after seven times you have not learnt it, it is because the section or chunk is too large of information.

So instead of doing what most people do, namely keep repeating endlessly the passage hundreds of times, do the clever thing and make the section smaller.

Try again seven times. If you still have not got it, make it smaller again. Certain passages will require that you cut it down to only two notes. I assure you that anyone can learn two notes after repeating them seven times. Then you go to the next bit (make sure you overlap to avoid stuttering).

So you must organize your 15 –20 minutes so that the section is small enough that it will fit in the 15 – 20 minute session.

In the beginning this will all be a bit too much for you, but as you keep at it, very soon you will be able to look at a piece of music and quickly work out how long it will take you to learn it. You will know exactly the size of passage you can manage and how to break it down.

There are three basic stages in learning and practicing a new piece.

1. The first stage is exploratory.
· Sight-read through the piece to identify the difficult sections
· Analyze the piece.
· Listen to CDs of the piece
· Break it all down in manageable sections to practice.
· Figure out for each section the best fingering.
· Plan how you are going to tackle the piece; how many passages, how long the passages are going to be, how you are going to join the passages.

Most of this stage is done away from the piano. The end result of this stage is to have a thorough knowledge of the piece (theoretically) and to have a plan typed up to master the piece in as little time as possible.

2. The second stage is mostly technical.

· Go to the piano to teach your fingers to play the several passages in which you organized the learning/practicing of your piece. The main aim here is to ingrain the correct movements and fingerings in your subconscious, and to smooth the movements so that they become automatic.
This is the stage where you work with separate hands in small bits, then join hands, and use all sorts of practice tricks. The end result of this stage is to have the piece learned as far as playing the correct notes at the correct time is concerned. You want to get to that magical moment where your fingers just know where to go, without you having to think about it.

3. Finally on the third stage, you will be dealing mostly with interpretation and performance issues.

· The piece is learned and memorized at this stage, but you still need to work things like phrasing and dynamics

These three stages are not separate.
One stage informs the other. It may well happen that in the second stage, when you actually start practicing the piece on the piano, you find out that the fingerings and movements you decided on the first stage actually do not work. So you may have to go back and change them. Also, although the second stage is mostly technical, you should not leave interpretation completely out of it until you get to the third stage.

Two important principles on the 15 – 20 minute method:

1. The human brain learns by “chunks”, and then by joining these chunks into larger chunks. Anything that can be learned by repetition will be learned after seven repetitions. If after seven repetitions you have not learned the “chunk”, it means that the chunk was too large for the brain to handle. You must break it down into smaller chunks.

Let us say that you want to learn a poem with 200 verses. If you read the full 200 verses seven times, chances are that after seven times you will not have learned it. Most people who are not aware of what I am about to say, will just keep repeating the whole poem in the hope that by increasing the number of repeats they will eventually master it. Let us say that it takes 30 minutes to repeat aloud 200 verses. Repeating the poem seven times will take 3.5 hours, and at the end of it you will not have learned it. So you repeat another seven times. You still will not have learned it. So you do another seven times with the same dismal and pathetic result. Now you have been reading this poem for 10.5 hours. Do that for a whole month. I bet that at the end of the month, practicing 10.5 hours a day (21 repetitions) you still will not have learnt the poem. This is partly because you cannot fit enough repetitions in a day (the poem is simply too large), but also because if you have not learned after seven repetitions increasing the number of repetitions will not make any difference.

So what should you do? You must decrease the size of the chunk of information that you are trying to learn. How much should you decrease it? Well, start by cutting the poem in half: 100 verses. Now this takes only 15 minutes to read through. After seven repeats, did you learn it? If you did, this is the chunk size you can cope with. If not, the chunk size is still too large. So cut it in half again: 50 verses, which you can now read in 7.5 minutes. Now let us say that by cutting it in half and trying to learn the chunk in seven repetitions you finally got to 1 verse. That can be read in 9 seconds. This is the exploratory stage of your practice: when you find out what is the larges chunk you can learn by repeating it seven times. With experience you will get this size fairly immediately. But in the beginning expect to spend sometime learning about yourself and your learning capacity.

So you figured out that one verse is (for you) learnable after seven repeats. After seven repetitions you just know it. So it is going to take you (9x7) = 63 seconds to master one line of the poem. To master the 200 verses will take you exactly 3. 5 hours, the same amount of time it took you to read through the whole poem 7 times without making any progress whatsoever. The conclusion is obvious: Breaking your learning tasks into chunks that can be learned after seven repeats will save an amazing amount of time, as compared to the alternative of reading the whole thing seven times.

2. The second principle is: You learn nothing until it is processed by the unconscious. Dreaming is one of the symptoms of this, so you need at least one night sleep in between learning sessions before you actually learn what you have been practicing. Usually you need several nights sleep depending on the complexity of your task. This is the 20-minute principle.

Going back to the 200-line poem. It took you 63 seconds to repeat and learn the first line. That’s it! You do not need to do any more work on this line today. You can do, if you want, but it will not make any difference whatsoever.

If you do your seven repeats (63 seconds), stop and go to bed, next day when you wake up you will find that you pretty much forgot the line. So you must start again, and repeat the line seven times (63 seconds again). But you will discover that although you felt as ignorant as in the first day, this time it took you only 5 repeats to get to the stage you were in yesterday after 7 repeats. So you re-learnt the line in 45 seconds, instead of the 63 seconds. Never mind that, do your seven repeats again (even though you have mastered it by the fifth). On the third day, you wake up and to your dismay you realize you cannot remember a thing. However, this time by the second repeat it is all back in your mind. This time it took you only 18 seconds to get to the stage that in the first day took you 63 seconds and in the second day 45 seconds. Again, even though you mastered the line by the second repeat, you do the full seven repetitions. On the fourth day, chances are that you will not need to do any repeat. You simply know the line. I have never met anyone who needed more than seven days to get to this stage. Usually by the third/fourth day they have learned their chunk of information (provided that the size of the chunk could be learned after seven repeats).

The important information here is this. If you repeat your verse 700 times (instead of 7), It will make no difference whatsoever to the speed with which you will learn it. It will still take four days. You do not need to believe me. Just try it. Get two passages of a piece. Size them so that they can be learnt after seven repeats. Do only seven repeats on the first one, and 700 repeats on the second. See which one is thoroughly learnt first. My prediction is that they will both take exactly the same amount of time to be learnt

In the case of a passage of music, you will probably do more things then just repeat it. After repeating seven times, I would work on hands separate and hands together. Depending on the passage I might use rhythmic variations, or play it in chords, or other practice variations. So it may take 15 – 20 minutes to go through all these routines, maybe a bit more, maybe a bit less. Then that is it for the day! Only go through that passage again next day. If you want to devote 5 hours a day to piano practice, use the remaining time to practice other passages, or even passages from other pieces.

So use the 7-repeat principle to define the section you are going to practice. Then practice it only for the time necessary to master it (usually less then 15 – 20 minutes, but rarely a bit more). Then leave it until the next day. Repeat the same process again until you finally know it (should take 3 – 4 days).

The 20-minute sessions are an average figure. Learn it in less time if you can. The idea here is to set a limit that should show you when effort is being wasted. For instance: if you practice a passage for 20 minutes and you have not mastered it, you have chosen a too large chunk; practicing it for a further 5 hours is not going to do any good. So, don't. Instead break it down into smaller chunks that you can master in 20 minutes. This will be quicker and more efficient in the long run. By the same token, if you have mastered a section in 20minutes, there is no reason to keep at it for 5 hours (although most pianist can display this sort of compulsive behavior).

No one can tell you the size of section that you will be able to master in 20 minutes: it depends on the section and ultimately on your own ability. You have to discover that by yourself. Here is the method: repeat the section 7 times. Have you learned it? (Learned is different from mastered). Yes? Then move on. No? Cut it in half. Try again. Learned it? No? Cut it in half again and so on and so forth. Eventually you will be able to get a chunk that you can learn in 7 times (sometimes, this can be as little as two notes). Now you can practice this chunk until you master it (but for no more than 20 minutes - if you are dealing with just two notes, this will probably require only a couple of minutes; if you are dealing with a one minute section of a sonata, this will take you 20 minutes). If you are practicing a whole sonata that lasts for 18 minutes for your performance, then of course the directions above do not apply. The directions above are for learning a piece from scratch, not for polishing a piece you already mastered.

Come the next day, you may be shocked to realize that you have completely forgotten the section you worked on for 20 minutes and thought you had mastered the day before. So you see, there is the difference between mastered and learned. You learned the passage - and possibly to a high degree of facility - but you have not really mastered it - as shown by the fact that the next day you don't know even how to begin. If this is the case, you must treat the passage as a completely new passage and follow all the steps you did the previous day. Don't cut corners and don't skip steps. To your surprise, you will learn it again much faster. If it took you 20 minutes the first time around, now it may take you only 5 minutes. Next day, try again. Either you cannot remember it, and in which case you should repeat it all again - and it will take now perhaps 1 minute to remember it all, or you simply know the passage. If you got to the point where you can simply go to the piano and play the passage perfectly straight away, you have mastered it. You don't need to practice it anymore. So these are two very different stages: Learned and mastered. You must keep "practicing" (which is a very specific process) a section even if you feel you have already learned it. And you must keep "practicing" until you master it. After you master it, all you have to do is keep "playing it".

There is a third stage. After you master a passage, neglect it completely for one month. Then go to the piano and try it again. Most likely you will have forgotten it. If so, relearn it from scratch as if it was a new section. Don't skip any steps, and don't cut any corners. Even so you will relearn it again in a fraction of the time you did the first time round. If you do this neglect-relearn process three or four times, you will get to a new stage all together, that is beyond mastery: you will never forget your piece, even if you don't play it for 30 years. You will always be able to play it. This is the piano equivalent of riding a bicycle: Once you learn it you never forget it. The problem is, since piano playing is more complex than riding a bicycle - which by the way has the same stages of learning/mastering/never forgetting - most people neglect their pieces far too soon, either at the learning or at the mastering stage, so they never experience the "never forget" stage.



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  2. That's a good article.

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