A powerful method for learning new piano pieces
Want a great way to learn new pieces on the piano? You’re going to absolutely love this method as it’s very simple and at the same time VERY effective at learning the notes of new pieces!
So what is the method? I call it the “2 bar method” and it’s both very easy to start using right away and is useful for both beginners and advanced players.
All you do is pick a starting bar in your piece, usually this would be bar 1 if it’s a new piece, but you can start this anywhere you’re currently working on.
Once you have your starting bar, you’d learn each hand separately for the starting bar and the next bar that comes after. I recommend using a metronome set to half or less tempo (speed) the piece is supposed to played at and gradually work your way up to full speed. (Example If full tempo is 120 BPM = 1 quarter, then start around 60 BPM = 1 quarter)
Once you’ve got both bars joined together and learned up to full tempo hands separately, then work on putting it all hands together at half or less the metronome speed and work back up to full tempo again.
Keep practicing the first two bars until you can play them perfectly up to tempo, then once they’re very solid you can move your starting and ending bars one bar forward and then repeat this process over and over again until you’ve finished learning the piece. Example: If starting on Bar 1 and 2, once completed, move to bar 2 and 3, then 3 and 4, then 4 and 5 and on and on until you get to the end. That’s it!
That’s all you need to know if you want to get the benefits, but if you want to learn why this method works so well then keep reading!
Why does it work? Because the 2 bar method is leveraging two ways* our **brains learn best.
Focusing on small bits of information that fit in our working memory.
Using our referential memory to link those bits together.
Let’s explain what that means in more depth.
Our brains can learn smaller groups of information much better than large groups. Why? Because we have a limited capacity for our working memory and when what we’re learning is larger than that working memory, we start forgetting things. To help illustrate this: if I asked you to memorize the number 829 and the number 829103929171435525 which one would be easier? The answer is obviously 829, but why?
Because it’s short enough to fit in our working memory.
However when it comes to the longer number, it doesn’t fit inside our working memory all at once. How do we know it doesn’t fit in our working memory? A simple way to test is if someone started saying each number aloud to you quickly without stopping, ( eight, two, nine, one, zero, . . . . . ) and then asked you to repeat the number back to them (unless you’ve got an exceptional brain) you probably won’t be able to repeat the number perfectly. So, is there a way we can learn longer numbers than our working memory can hold onto? Absolutely!
To memorize longer numbers we need to break the large number down into smaller bits so they can be memorized one at a time and once learned we can then link each group together so we can memorize the whole number and repeat it back. This approach is called “chunking” and you’ve probably already used chunking even if you didn’t know you were using it, because we break up longer numbers into shorter groups in phone numbers and credit card numbers.
How do we chunk the big number from the beginning? 829103929171435525 would become 829 103 929 171 435 525. Once broken into chunks it becomes much easier to memorize each group of numbers, but there’s still one problem! How do we remember the order these 3 digit groups come in? That’s where the 2nd part about memory comes into play.
Our brains can remember to do a next action in a series of steps by using something called referential memory.
When your brain operates on referential memory, it’s remembering the next step because it’s using the current state as a reference, which is exactly how we tend to remember the order of the Alphabet or how to tie our shoelaces. You’ll understand better if you experience it for yourself: If I ask you what letter comes after J in the alphabet, you’ll probably need to start singing the alphabet song we all learned as kids until you get to the letter H and then you’ll remember J and then K. That feeling of needing to be reminded of what comes next is what referential memory feels like, and when you learn a piece on the piano, it’s the same mechanism we use to remember what note to play next. You can think of referential memory as a chain, where one link is connected to the next... and the next... and the next... to make one long chain made up of smaller chain links. So whether you’re learning a group of numbers, or letters or notes to play in a piece of music, it’s all just a chain.
Once you understand how your brain is learning and storing information, you can take advantage of this to learn faster in a way that works WITH your brain and not against it. So going back to that number 829 103 929 171 435 525, each group is like a bar in music, we’ll start by learning 829 and 103. Say “829 103” to yourself aloud 20-30 times in a row. (yes really do this! I’m serious!) Now look away and see if you can remember those numbers, say them once again without looking. If you can easily remember them, it’s time to move on, if not, keep repeating them until it feels effortless.
Once you’re ready to move on now say “103 929” back and forth many times as before until it’s effortless again. Next, “929 171”, then “171 435”, then “435 525”. Great! Now you’ve got the small links built, and we’re ready to start assembling the longer chain.
Begin by putting chunk 1 [829-103] and 2 [103-929] together now, say “829 103 929”. It might still be a bit fuzzy so if you need to repeat it a few times that’s ok, but as soon as it’s effortless again, then move onto chunk 2 and 3 “103 929 171”. Once you have that, then combine chunk 1 2 and 3 by repeating “829 103 929 171” until it’s effortless. What you might start noticing now is how your brain knows which numbers are coming next as you say the current group. That’s because you’ve created a link from 829 to 103 and also another link from 103 to 929, which means once you start 829, you’ll remember 103, and then when you say 103 it then reminds you about 929 and each next link down the chain. To finish up the rest of the number, you’d just start somewhere you’ve already got linked and then add-on to it. Since you have 171, we can begin there and say “171 435 525” over and over until it’s easy to remember. Once that’s done, connect it to the rest of the number by saying “829 103 929 171 435 525”. Try running this through while closing your eyes, and if you make a mistake here or there and need to peek that’s ok. Eventually you won’t need to peek anymore, and suddenly you’ll be able to repeat this 18 digit number from memory. This is the magic of how the 2 bar method works for piano, and you can use it to remember thousands of notes from memory.
This exercise of memorizing a number by saying the numbers aloud is a great way to help introduce you to how and why this method works so well! Please try it for yourself as there’s no substitute for putting yourself through the experience! It’s the difference between believing it will work to knowing it works from past experience.
As you practice chunking and creating links, you’ll actually get better at using it at the piano. I highly suggest you don’t stop here, and that you make up your own numbers to memorize! See if you can eventually work up to memorizing a 100 digit number. This training will give you the ability to put this method into your piano learning and will vastly speed up your learning process. Some people are so highly trained that they can almost memorize a piece instantly as they learn it.
So that’s the amazingly useful 2 bar method! If you use it regularly it will save you many hours learning pieces. (You might even have fun learning with it! ) ^_^