Learning a new piece of substantial length can seem like an impossible task for some students. Here are the steps I use when I am learning a new piece of music (I also use these steps for students above intermediate level or so).
- Listen to 4-5 different recordings of the piece without the score. Go into this process with a goal of knowing the form and structure of the piece on a "surface" or "macro" level. Knowing exactly what notes will sound next is not really that important at this stage. Memorizing what I feel when different parts of the piece occur, how they connect, hearing if there is anything connecting the sections thematically, if they are all the same mood or different is what is important here. Using just my ears and emotions to guide me is more important than what the notes actually are at this stage.
- Listen to 3-4 (could be the same or different recordings from Step 1) recordings following along in the score. At this stage, I sort of decode what is happening from the notation in addition to seeing how the composer decided to encode the information.
I also use this step to break down the piece into manageable practice sections. Parts that look easier can be longer in length, parts that look more difficult can be shorter. My section length is always determined by technical difficulty along with "aural" difficulty. A section could be very easy technically, but hard for me to memorize the melody or pattern contained in the section. So that section would be relatively small. My sections range from 2 measures to 2 lines of music. These sections are also pretty malleable. They can change within the practice time of a piece. A section I thought was easy may be more difficult than I thought, so I alter it with no shame. I do the same with sections I thought might be difficult but end up being rather easy.
- Now I actually get to the piano! I usually try to learn at least two different sections in a practice session. Usually one difficult one and one easier one. They can be anywhere in the piece. I look through it, try to play through that part in my head, and see if there are any patterns I can notice that will facilitate my practice. Then I write in finger numbers, any accidentals, or extremely high or low notes I might need. Then I play through it (hands separately, if needed). My goal is to make no mistakes, to reinforce my memory from the first play-through, so I go very slowly and with a lot of focus. But, of course, I rarely play it perfectly the first time, so I just correct it as soon as possible. My goal is to be able to play that section memorized by the end of the practice session.
I should also mention that when I practice in this way, I always learn a "section" plus the first note of the next section. If I do not practice this way, there ends up being a small break in between each section in a play-through.
It is also important for me, once I learn adjacent sections, to practice combining them, as to not wait too long before putting together all of the puzzle pieces. So a typical practice schedule (usual setbacks included) for a moderately difficult, 50 measures long piece, split up into 10 sections looks like this for me.
Day 1: Learn Section 8 (difficult) and Section 1 (easier)
Day 2: Learn Section 2 (easier), review 8 and 1, combine 1-2
Day 3: Learn Section 9 (difficult), review 8, combine 8-9, review 1-2
Day 4: Learn Section 4 (easier) and Section 7 (difficult), review 8-9
Day 5: Learn Section 3 (easier), review 7 and 4, combine 7-9, review 1-2
Day 6: Learn Section 5 (difficult), review 3 and 4, combine 3-4, combine 1-4
Day 7: Learn Section 6 (easier), review 5, combine 1-5, review 7-9
Day 8: Learn Section 10 (easier), review 6, combine 1-6, review 7-9
Day 9: Review 10, combine 7-10, combine 1-7
Day 10: Combine 1-10, review difficult sections
Day 11: Review difficult sections, combine 1-10