How long does it take to learn a new piece from scratch?

May 16, 2020, 9:58 AM · Hey folks,

I was wondering approximately how long (in your respective personal experiences) does it take to learn a totally new piece from scratch (say, a 10 minute long showpiece like Introduction and Rondo Capriciosso)?

This is assuming one has (or is nearing) the technical level to play the piece

Thanks in advance, and I'm looking forward your replies!

Replies (20)

May 16, 2020, 10:04 AM · Depends on the quality of practice.
Edited: May 16, 2020, 10:18 AM · Really depends on how much knowledge you bring in with you. If you've never practised line staccato and you want to learn, let's say, Paganini 21, then obviously it's gonna take you a while.

The efficiency of your practise also matters a lot, but it's a lot easier to comment on your habits in hindsight than when first starting a piece.

Edited: May 16, 2020, 12:07 PM · Of course, "it depends" is the only answer anyone can give you, but it probably isn't the answer you were hoping for. So I'll give you a concrete answer:

Three months.

Consider the Queen Elisabeth Competition. There, the finalists have to learn a new show-piece written just for that competition, and they're given a matter of some days -- in seclusion -- to do it. So, for them, in terms of technical readiness, the answer is:

Three days.

On the other hand, let's say you're a violin student who's just finished the first movement of the Bruch Concerto. In other words, you have arrived at the fabled "Bruch Level" of violin playing after, say, six years of diligent work with a great teacher. For you, wanting to learn the IRC specifically, I have a different answer:

Three years.

Then, let's say you're at the "Bruch Level" but you just feel like going back to Suzuki Book 6 and learning "La Folia" because your teacher never assigned you that one. In that case my answer is:

Three hours.

May 16, 2020, 2:11 PM · Depends on;-- How far you take the learning process, the length of the piece, the technical difficulty level. So, at least several days. the four stages of learning a piece: 1) Sight-reading - discover if you want to do the piece. 2) How to play it-- design your personal fingerings and bowings. 3) Able to play it --correct repetitions gradually getting up to tempo. 4) Memorization - more consecutive days and repetitions. Modern, non-tonal pieces will take longer to memorize.
May 16, 2020, 6:44 PM · @Paul
6 years for Bruch seems like it’s too long. Just what kind of violin student are you thinking about?
May 16, 2020, 10:21 PM · Normal ones.
Edited: May 16, 2020, 11:16 PM · Not 6 years to learn the Bruch concerto... 6 years to get from Twinkle Twinkle to Bruch. That's a fast but quite realistic pace.
Edited: May 17, 2020, 12:57 AM · I think it depends on the piece. There are some pieces where 90% of your practice time will end up going into a handful of intransigent, very difficult or just plain awkward practice. And there are some pieces which just tend to eat practice time in general, not necessarily directly correlated to raw difficulty. I suspect "awkward" causes the most difficulties in eating practice time. (But I've been wanting to play the Tchaikovsky Valse-Scherzo for a while, which my teacher warns consumes a lot of practice time in a not-worth-the-effort ratio.)

A while back I posted about levels of mastery in learning a piece, which you can find here: LINK

(Laurie, both that page and the thread that it links to appear to be unfindable using the site's search engine, unfortunately.)

Edited: May 17, 2020, 11:50 AM · Depends on what you mean by learn.
Julian bream would rehearse a piece for a year before playing it in a concert.
When I first read that (in his autobiog) I thought that I'd be driven mad by such intensity, but a few years later I wondered if he meant that he needed a year to memorise it without fear of memory block?
I've known since I was about 14 that my memory was never going to be any use for anything, and indeed I've played pieces inadvertently from memory and had a blackout in the middle of one (but rehearsal time was never more than 6 or 8 weeks). If this was Bream's intention, then perhaps it gives me hope?
May 17, 2020, 8:55 AM · It varies widely depending on a whole lot of factors, including age, motivation, skill level, and what particular assets you have.

For my son (highly motivated, young teen, super fast memorizer, excellent sightreader): one week to actually learn the piece, one more week to get to the point where he can start playing it musically. By the end of three weeks he is usually at 95-98% polished. Now the last little bit and nailing everything consistently...that can take forever.

For my daughter (not motivated, 10yo, fast memorizer, great ear, not a good sightreader): three weeks to learn the notes, four to six weeks until it is performable. She gets bored at that point and since she mostly just plays for fun we usually move on.

Edited: May 17, 2020, 9:25 AM · It's worth pointing out, though, that a violinist can get to the point with their technique (and it sounds like Susan's son is close to that point) where one can learn to play just about anything in the musical violin repertoire, and the only things that one still struggles with are the things that were written with difficulty and crowd-pleasing showiness rather than musicality as the composer's primary objective.

Probably Susan's son will get to conservatoire and there he will have a teacher who knows how to take a violinist who sounds awfully damned good to most of us and make them sound good to the vastly more critical ears of competition judges and orchestral audition panels. And that point on the learning curve is probably very exciting and thrilling and maybe a little scary too. I'll never know, but I certainly wish him the best on that journey.

May 17, 2020, 9:39 AM · Regarding Julian Bream, solo classical guitar is extremely exposed. You can hear every tiny flaw. Many of us would spend extra time polishing solo Bach too.
Edited: May 17, 2020, 11:29 AM · The Bach is humbling, Paul. Yesterday, I was promising myself I would upload the Allemande, which I had been working on for the last month and memorizing, so I kept recording takes, over and over, and invariably I would have a memory slip somewhere in the second half after feeling pretty good about the first half. What I ended up with after many takes is the one where I made it to the end, and there are some spots with some definite intonation issues. I was actually kind of horrified when I listened back, but a promise is a promise. I will be back, Allemande!

But I think Bach, and trying to record it will push me to really polish-out the intonation stuff and be rigorous. Those kids that are "naturals" surely had to work hard for it too!

May 17, 2020, 1:42 PM · Currently, I'm learning the Bach Partita. Each section seems to take a month to really be able to play. Currently, I just started the Gigue. I'm a slow learner I guess you could say.
May 17, 2020, 5:43 PM · Christian, I have no shame: I just start over at the most recent double bar and then edit the video. I figure people would rather see the sudden "jerky movement" of the splice than listen to me murder a double-stop or lose my place.

I missed an entrance in a performance once (a solo with orchestra) and I had to crib the conductor's score. Fortunately it was "just" the "warm up" concert for a small audience of seniors but I learned my lesson about studying my entrances. In the main performance I nailed it.

May 17, 2020, 7:03 PM · I was considering that, but then I figured that the time spent editing would be prohibitive, and I also kinda want it sitting out there like that, taunting me. Something something rage-to-master.
May 18, 2020, 11:43 AM · The answer to this question depends on what your purpose is in learning a specific piece or part.

If you learn an orchestral part the time you have is from the first rehearsal (ideally some little time before that but in my experience you rarely get your hands on the sheet music before the first rehearsal) to the performance and you have to make the learning happen in that time no matter how short it is.

For a private string quartet session you may sight-read without any learning. Or you can agree beforehand on the pieces to be played and you'll have a couple of days to raise the level from sight-reading to prepared sight-reading. It depends on the group.

If you learn a piece as part of your violin lessons you keep learning until your teacher decides that you have learned enough or else that you are unable to lean more about the piece, whichever comes first.

If you learn a piece for yourself without a teacher it is the same thing except that you have to decide yourself. Or you give up because the piece starts to bore you...

The common denominator in all these cases: There is no definite endpoint to the learning; you can always go on improving details, trying different ways to present the music etc.

May 18, 2020, 12:04 PM · As others have said, it depends on what level you are trying to move the piece into and Lydia's linked discussion covers this extensively.
I tend to take, what I believe, is a long time on my pieces - but they are often "stretch" pieces, and the ones that are not stretch pieces are developed for musicality. I've been "passed" on pieces within as little as two lessons, and as many as 6+ months.
My music, at this stage, is chosen most often by my teacher.
May 18, 2020, 2:56 PM · There is maybe one more point to add here: One does not have to "learn" a piece in one big effort. I have made good experiences with taking a piece to a certain level, putting it aside (for anywhere between months and decades!) and then take it back up. Generally one gets to the level of before quite rapidly and can then push for more quality.

Of course sometimes you just ask yourself: Did I really choose this fingering (or bowing) a year ago? How stupid I was! But even that helps you improve.

Edited: May 18, 2020, 3:33 PM · Joel,

It depends... Principally it depends on you, your ability to focus, practice, study,...

Most of all I have to quote "The Spice Girls" - "Now tell me what you want, what you really, really want..." The reality is that if you "want" to accomplish something, really, really want to accomplish it the amount of time required to accomplish the task will not matter. If, what the goal is something that you don't really want to do or is being imposed on you, you will never completely learn the piece or enjoy the process of learning it.

The one thing I have learned in my seven-plus decades is is that motivation comes from within, or it doesn't come at all.

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