How to learn a new piece of music

How to practice

You need to learn a new piece of music.  Maybe you just got your audition music, new band music, or a new solo.  You take one look at it and have no idea where to even start. There is no need to fear, learning a new piece of music is easy if you incorporate smart practice. This article will break down how to practice a new piece of music and have it performance ready in no time.

What you need

Listen to a recording

Listening to a recording is a great way to learn new music quickly and in today’s age of modern technology, there is no excuse to NOT listen to a recording of your music. Look no further than your phone for an instant library of recordings. Check youtube, pandora, apple music, spotify, etc. There is a very good chance you can even find multiple recordings of your music.

Listening to the piece you are about to learn is a great way to get a quick introduction to the melody, rhythm, tempo, and style of the piece. Its also a good way to identify sections you are likely to struggle with as you start to learn the piece.

Play through it slowly

Slowly play through the piece. Look for and mark the following.

  • Missed notes (key signature, accidentals carrying through the measure, etc…)
  • Tricky rhythms
  • Alternate fingerings
  • Unusual articulations
  • Anything that changes (the articulation pattern has been two-note slurs, and it changes to four-note slurs)
  • Repeating sections


Make three columns in your practice planner.

  1. I got it!
  2. I maybe have it?
  3. Nope!

Slowly play through the music again. Divide the music you just played into sections and place each section or “chunk” into the appropriate column. Now you know which sections need the most work so start with the “Nope!” column.  As each chunk improves, put it together with another just like you would snap the pieces of a puzzle together.

Slow practice

When you are learning a new piece of music, there is no such thing as too slow. Use a metronome to find a tempo you can easily play the music.  Remember, practice makes permanent, so take your time. Students who go too fast too soon set themselves up for a major headache down the road but students who take their time and do slow, deliberate practice set themselves up for success!

Play through the section with a metronome and pay attention to the following:

  • Notes and Rhythms – are you playing them correctly?
  • Articulation – are you tonguing and slurring where you are supposed to?
  • Dynamics – are you putting them in?

Work backward

We often start at the beginning of the music (or section of music) each time we practice.  When we work this way, the beginning of the music is usually much better than the end.  The end of the music is the last thing the audience or judge will hear you play so it needs to be just as good as the beginning…if not even better! Mix up your practice routine by practicing from the end and working backward.

Start with the last measure.  Play it three times in a row with no mistakes.  Go back one measure and play the last two measures three times in a row with no mistakes.  Go back another measure and play the last three measures, etc.  In no time, the end of the piece or section will be the best part.

Use practice rhythms

Sometimes, no matter how slow you go or how hard you work, you just cant get the notes even.  Practice rhythms are a great way to “trick” your fingers into playing notes evenly.  

Lets use this example from Weber’s Concertino for Clarinet.

how to learn new music Weber Concertino example

Practice the bracketed section using the following practice rhythms.

How to learn new music with practice rhythms
How to learn new music with practice rhythms

Start with practice rhythm #1 and play through the notes.  Do this three times.  Next play through the same notes using practice rhythm #2. Repeat three more times.  You will find that one of the two practice rhythms is much easier than the other.  Practice rhythms speed up every other note allowing the fingers that are slowing you down to catch up.

After you have practiced using both practice rhythms, try playing the original excerpt again and listen for improvement.

Record yourself

Use your phone, computer, or tablet to record yourself. You can use the video camera feature, a voice memo app, or any other recording app.

No one likes to record themselves but unfortunately is is one of the quickest ways to improve. The recording doesn’t lie.  It reveals every little flaw – which is actually a good thing.  Flaws can be fixed but only if you know they are there in the first place.

Recording also makes you nervous which makes it an excellent tool for preparing for a performance or audition. The instant you press that little red record button, the nerves kick in. Use this ability to instantly make yourself nervous to your advantage, practicing what it feels like to play when your are nervous.

Start speeding it up

Once you have snapped together all of your “chunks,” play through the music slowly, make a recording of the entire piece. This will serve as your “before” recording.

Start speeding up each section of the music by increasing the tempo 4-5 clicks at a time using your metronome. Once you have mastered the first two sections at your desired tempo, put them together, and then move on to section three, etc. Make recordings along the way to track your progress. Progress can seem slow, so when practice starts to get tedious and you become frustrated, listen to your before recording and compare it to your most recent recording to keep yourself motivated.

How to learn new music

Mastering an instrument takes years. Every time you practice, and with each piece of music you learn, you get a little better. Learning a new piece of music is like building a brick wall. It takes time. Each brick has to be placed precisely, but with time and patience you will eventually have a finished product that lasts!