It seems like in every song there is one section that refuses to be conquered. While the rest of the piece may sound flawless, you dread a specific line and tense up as it approaches. There’s no need to be afraid of anything in your piece of music, and with the right techniques there is no reason why you shouldn’t be able to play it as well as the rest of the piece! In this article we outline five strategies to use when you are completely stuck on a section of music.
Step 1: Label Any Notes You Don’t Know
This may seem like ‘cheating’, but if every time you approach this part of the song you have to stop to count out the ledger lines, you are never going to be able to play it smoothly! Don’t be afraid to mark up your music with notes to yourself, and don’t be ashamed of writing out a note name! Having the notes that confuse you written out will prevent you from hitting wrong notes or pausing while you try to figure out where your fingers are supposed to go next.
Step 2: Get Your Fingering Straightened Out
It’s hard to hit the right notes if you don’t know which fingers you should be using. Go through the section of music very slowly and hands separately to figure out which fingering patterns work best for you. Many repertoire books have fingering included, but you may find that the fingering that works best for you is slightly different – that’s okay! Mark the fingering directly on your sheet music so that you can use the same fingering consistently, helping you to get the correct notes and timing saved in your muscle memory.
Step 3: Look for Patterns
Sometimes the parts of your music that look incredibly complicated are actually much simpler than they appear! Look closely at the section that is giving you difficulty and look for musical patterns hidden inside. Patterns commonly used by composers include scales, triads (or broken triads!), or a repeating sequence of notes. Once you identify these patterns you will find that you have a much easier time playing the section compared to when you approached the music as individual notes.
Step 4: Take it Slow
It might be part of the reason you're having difficulty with this section is because you are trying to play it at the same speed as the rest of the piece. Slow down while you're learning complicated sections! One of the best ways to increase your accuracy is to set your metronome for a speed far below what is expected. Play at this speed until you can hit every note accurately on three consecutive play-throughs. Increase the speed by only a few notches and repeat the process over and over again until you are playing the section accurately at full speed. When you increase your playing speed gradually, you will often find that you don't even notice how much your playing is improved.
Step 5: Listen
Sometimes no matter how much analysis you do, it seems as though you will never be able to get a difficult section of music to sound right. In times like this, it might be worthwhile taking a step back from the piano and listening to a professional recording of the piece that you are working on. This can help you to identify rhythms and nuances that you may be having difficulty with. Sometimes being able to hear what a difficult bar sounds like in the context of the whole piece can revolutionize your approach or correct any misconceptions you have made about timing or emphasis.
If you have tried all five of these steps and you are still having difficulty with a specific section, you may want to try taking a break from the piece for awhile. While it is incredibly important to focus on the difficult parts of piano (rather than ignoring them and hoping that they disappear), sometimes it takes a day or two for your work to sink in. As well, if you are really struggling with a specific section your piano teacher may have some better suggestions related directly to the piece you are learning!