Learning Music - Quickly v. Slowly

November 17, 2006 at 07:11 PM · I would like to hear your thoughts on the time it takes to learn music. In college where there is huge pressure to learn a lot of repertoire in a short period of time, it is benfical to be a "quick learner" - someone who can learn a concerto (and learn it quite well) in a month's time, for example. I consider myself to be slower when it comes to learning pieces - often I don't feel comfortable with something if I haven't lived with it for a least a few months. Do you think there are particular benifits or drawbacks with either method? Do you think we are naturally quick or slow learners? Can one be taught to learn a piece quickly when it is natural to learn slowly? If so, how? I'm interested to hear your thoughts.

Replies (11)

November 17, 2006 at 11:20 PM · Hi,

I find that this depends on the person's abilities, but mostly practice and background. The important is to learn well. But, the better the practice, the quicker the process.


November 18, 2006 at 12:27 AM · I think you are where you are in terms of learning speed--I'm a near expert on this as a beginner. I joke that it took the entire internet to slow me down, but there's an opposite to this.

For someone accomplished, I can't help to think about the things I learned reading about Hillary Haun's learning style, and Perlman's. My personal first impulse is to play, and hope things fall in place with repetition--this does not work for me on violin. So I had to learn to slow down and it made all the difference in the world though I'm still trying to get there.

The opposite, I think, is Haun's attention to details--I think even for accomplished people, yes there are probably those who learn faster, but I think that it's that attention to detail within one's learning range that makes one really sharp. Learning efficency though, from what I understand is something that can be improved as well (not from the world of violin particularly but learning in general). But with the pressures of college, I'm not sure how much time one would have to improve that efficency.

Finally, you didn't say whether it's something like string performance as a major, or violin as 'part' of college,and I think that makes a lot of difference--especially to improving one's learning efficency. So, I think one can improve efficency, especially if a violin student in college, but otherwise, I think I'd be true to myself and what I know I would be comfortable with. You are right--there's enough pressure in college from the start.


November 18, 2006 at 03:17 AM · attention to detail... don't just play through things, you'll never really learn it. So I actually break down small passages, sometimes only 2 notes to get the left and right hand coordinated.

Most of the time people are organized in the left hand but not in the bow arm, which leads to a lot of inconsistent playing. If I do that, I find I can easily learn about a page an hour to a decent standard, if you're talking about a more challenging Sonata, piece or Concerto. Some things take a little longer though. But this all depends on how focused you are for that hour.

November 19, 2006 at 01:52 AM · "I AM a slow learner".

Anakin Skywalker responding to a jibe by Count Dooku.

November 19, 2006 at 02:12 AM · Pieter,

When you break down a passage into two notes, how do you practice? Do you practice the same two notes until your right hand and left hand are coordinated? Or do you move on with different note pair until you feel your hands are coordinated?


November 19, 2006 at 02:47 AM · If you think about it this way, people like Hilary Hahn may not be learning a whole lot of repertoire right now, but rather, re-learning it. And if you learn something early, it's a lot easier to go back to it later.

November 19, 2006 at 07:01 AM · In an interview, Sarah Chang (who we can all assume to have quite the talented fingers and a capacity for a high volume of extensive repertoire), said she had learned the Brahms concerto at quite a young age but isn't ready to perform it until many years later (at 18 y/o - but that's not the point - since she's a crazy prodigy and all).

As a student, advanced or beginning, learning repertoire is mostly a way of advancing technique in a much more fun manner than etudes and scales, and a good teacher will assign repertoire that is just a bit out of the comfort zone of a student. Getting through a piece without stopping isn't the same as polishing it to the point of a concert or recital.

Hilary Hahn said somewhere that performing a piece in concert, in front of a ton of people, is the last stage of her "learning" a piece. To me that indicates total mastery of any technical challenges in a piece (i.e. the annoying measure in Wieniawski No. 2 with the running octaves, tenths, the stupid 4 octave arpeggio in Saint-Saens No. 3, etc.). And what's so great about effortless playing and the mastery of these technical elements is you can be free to do whatever you want with the music (well, hopefully whatever you want to do is well-informed, well-researched, and well-inspired ; ) ).

So, sure Sarah Chang can plow through all elements of Brahms or Shostakovich at a young age, but to own the piece in terms of musicality and sincerity with attention to details (and not just all the notes) seems to be how these great musicians and technicians go about things.

In any case, students will be students, and we only have so much time to learn so much (can't all be amazing prodigies!). Gotta do what you gotta do in order to advance. Though, musicians are constantly going back to masterpieces and "re-learning" them (ahem - solo Bach...). One of the most affective recitals I've attended in the last year is a friend of mine - she performed nothing she'd be working on for the last few months.Instead, she pulled out special sonatas and showpieces she "finished" 6 months prior, and owned it all. Quite wonderful. I suppose learning something quickly is only step numero uno to the continuos process of learning (i.e., learning slowly).

November 20, 2006 at 01:37 PM · Hi,

I have posted this link from Hilary Hahn on Slow Practice many times on this site without ever having much of a response. But, it is still some of the best advice ever on practice from someone who does it.


That said, good practice like this has to be combined with the elimation of things that obstruct your ability to learn, including errors in setup, errors in movements, mental errors. That combined with good practice and knowledge of how things work will make your practice more effecient.


November 20, 2006 at 06:48 PM · Oh but Christian you did receive a response--you just didn't hear it. I not only read the link you posted it, but posted it other places too. The link was very much part of the phenomona that slowed down my learning speed and style... And I am very grateful for that. Indeed, 'the entire internet slowed me down' has become one of my signatures.

Somebody-also here I think-posted Perlman's advice too, but I don't remember whether it was a link or the actual article. Both articles verbatim have been placed over at Yahoo Beginning Adult Violin Students group(BAVS). Incidenly I invite other adult students to join us there as we try to find out way towards better playing. http://groups/yahoo.com/BAVS We often need all the help we can get!. (and I'm not sure who has worn whom out, Buri answering my questions here, or me asking them)

I found Hillary Haun very nice, smart, down to earth, and simply inspiring. The depth of which she shared her approaches is also phenomonal over there. al

November 21, 2006 at 04:34 AM · Vivian,

I look at the passage and figure out why it's difficult. With me it's more often a deficiency in the bow arm rather than a left hand problem. Therefore, I organize my bowing. I make sure that string crossings are done quite consciously, and not just a reaction that becomes necessary in the course of playing.

I find that when learning a piece, leaving fingers down as much as possible helps. When I get comfortable, I tend to let them fly off but at first knowing where everything is and being grounded helps enormously.

November 21, 2006 at 09:46 PM · Almost missed this thread.

Thanks a lot, Pieter, for the tip in practice. In my limited experience, I also found that when I paid attention to my bowing arm (say making sure it was straight), I tended to play a little better, and the fingering became a little bit easier to manage as well.

Thanks again. I copy and paste your post for daily practice reminder. :D

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