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An Effective Strategy to Learn New Music

In today’s piano lessons, Instructor Monica Moldonado details an effective strategy to learn new music quickly.

Piano Lessons with Monica Maldonado, The Lesson Studio, Boulder, CO

Learning new music can be overwhelming for some students. Especially once they begin to reach a late-beginner or intermediate level and are trying to build their musicianship. While not depending on their teacher to guide them every step of the way anymore, there can be many questions left unanswered—so where should we begin?

NRFAD: An Effective Strategy to learn New Music

What is NRFAD?

Notes

Rhythm

Fingering

Articulation

Dynamics

NRFAD is the order of steps to take when learning a new piano piece. So, let’s start with N:

NOTES

It sounds a bit obvious to learn the notes first. But if you are not confident or accurate in the notes of the new piece, it will be very difficult to move forward or change practiced mistakes late in the game. So, don’t just read and play – STUDY it.

Feel free to start hands separate and take as much time as you need to really study the notes. Look for patterns or repeats. Identify tricky parts; key changes, rests, or anything else that stands out to you. You’ll be surprised how much you can learn about the piece or even the composer’s intentions by just analyzing the notes. Once you have achieved confidence and accuracy in Notes, move on to Rhythm.

RHYTHM

Check the time signature and respect it!

I recommend clapping the rhythm before starting slow and counting out loud. This helps you keep a steady beat while also keeping away the tendency to rush through the notes and rests.

As when learning Notes, identify any tricky rhythms and isolate it. You can break it up into measures or even phrases. Play it a few times while counting and keeping a steady beat. Again, don’t overlook playing the rhythms off the piano in addition to playing and counting. Tap it, clap it, jump it. If you can experience the rhythm of the piece, you are more likely to feel the beat with confidence.

FINGERING

Many piano pieces already come with fingering suggestions. But, it is completely okay if you need to change it – especially if it feels unnatural and uncomfortable and just doesn’t help you achieve a beautiful and effective sound.

Experiment.

Try the editor’s or composer’s suggestions. Pay attention to what has been played and what is coming next. Keep in mind sections that include scales, arpeggios, or chords to remind yourself of these standard fingerings. Find what works. Write it in with a pencil and keep it consistent throughout your playing time.

Ultimately, smooth and excellent piano fingering will always be based on the natural shape of your hand.

ARTICULATION

Put simply, articulation is the way the notes are to be played. Legato, staccato, slurs, and accents, are perfect examples of articulation and are usually written in the piece. Be very aware of this step, because articulating one line of music differently than written can give a completely different expression.

Articulation is probably my favorite step because it’s pretty much the part where you begin to add character to the piece through your playing.

DYNAMICS

This goes together with articulation. Dynamics are usually written in the piece (forte, piano, crescendo, etc.). Like with the previous steps, search the piece for dynamics, observe them, and keep it consistent. Look for any sudden changes in dynamics and highlight or underline them.

This is also the step where you can experiment with phrasing, such as the rising and falling of a melody. The way you play one note of a phrase can completely change the mood. This step can also be a great way to work on your technique and artistry. Such as float-offs of your wrist when ending a phrase and other arm-weight techniques that affect how heavy you play a key.

**Where would pedaling land in NRFAD?

In my experience, I have found that it is helpful to play with the pedal from the start. If the pedaling is written in, I usually tell my students to observe that while learning the notes. That way you can already start to hear and work on the character of the piece.

However, always keep in mind the context and difficulty level. For example, some students develop a poor habit of lifting off of notes that should be held just because they assume the pedal will hold it for them.

This habit will not help students with learning how to shape a phrase and can cause a choppy or uneven sound. In this case, I would wait until they achieve accuracy in Rhythm, or even Articulation, to add pedal depending on the student. So, I will leave this to the discretion of the pianist or the teacher as to where they would like to add pedaling in NRFAD.

Musical Progress

NRFAD has not only helped me build independence as a musician, but also, it has helped my students guide themselves and save so much of their playing time at home when learning a new piece.

Obviously, you can go more in depth within each step of NRFAD. So, think of this as the simplified version of what NRFAD is and how it can be applied to your piano lessons and practice time. It is an effective and efficient way to learn new pieces on your own time. Hopefully using NRFAD will help you trust yourself as a musician and will help you learn a new piece with confidence.