The Best Way to Learn Challenging Music
By Jean-Philippe Comeau
No matter your skill level or experience , you ’ ll encounter some music that ’ s challenging to learn . In 15 years of teaching , I found a way to approach this that works well for my students of all levels , as well as myself . Let ’ s dive into it !
Dissect the part When learning difficult music , it ’ s important to understand how everything fits together and to take the time to really hone in on what ’ s making it challenging . Once you know what to look out for , figure out the best way to technically accomplish it . The fingering , the picking pattern , the right position , etc .; they all must be clear from the get-go to help you be as precise and fluid as you can be , but most importantly so you don ’ t practice with any bad habits that might impede your progress .
Divide and conquer Dividing your endeavour into easily-digestible snippets is key in practicing efficiently . Sometimes a piece is already divided into clear phrases , so you can start with that and divide it further if need be . Other times , it seems like an endless flow of notes , in which case you ’ ll need to mark where you ’ ll stop ahead of time in order to keep your practice organized . Once you ’ ve accomplished that , play the first phrase alone until it feels comfortable , then play the second one , and then the first two together . Next , play the third phrase , the second and third together , and then the first three . Keep doing that until you ’ ve gone through the whole passage , lick , or song .
If there are no rests between phrases , it ’ s crucial that you always practice the transitions between them as they are essential to achieve fluidity further along . If a whole phrase is still too much or a transition is giving you a hard time , “ zoom in ” on as few as two to three notes until you get them right . Then , “ zoom out ” gradually by incorporating a few notes before and after that sequence until you can play the whole phrase or both phrases with the correct technique and rhythm . Don ’ t hesitate to isolate the melody or harmony from the rhythm and practice them separately if you need to as well !
Slow and steady wins the race It is of paramount importance that you start at a slow pace and work your way up to detect any unforeseen difficulty you might have missed and to make sure you play everything exactly right . To do so , a metronome will be your best ally . It ’ ll ensure that you play at a consistent speed , allow you to measure your improvement , and let you set goals for yourself . Another considerable advantage of working with a metronome is being able to set it with subdivisions so you can better understand the feel and rhythm of what you ’ re trying to play . I personally like to use a drum machine for subdivisions as it ’ s more fun to play to than a metronome !
A chain is only as strong as its weakest link Find the most difficult part of what you ’ re practicing ( the one you play the slowest ), figure out the speed at which you ’ re comfortable playing it , and use that as your starting point . It ’ ll allow you to have a steadier tempo and it ’ ll also make things more satisfying to play because you won ’ t interrupt the flow of the song or lick by changing speed every other phrase .
Now , to increase the tempo , I suggest what I call a drill . Start by playing a phrase at the tempo you set for yourself earlier . If it ’ s comfortable , increase the tempo by one BPM , and then another one , and so on . Once you reach a tempo that ’ s more challenging , go back a few notches and repeat it multiple times before increasing the tempo again . It might seem tedious , but you ’ ll progress faster than you think if you do it diligently !
Three rules for success Learning difficult music is physically and mentally demanding , so here are a few important things to keep in mind :
First , remember to breathe . It ’ s easy to forget to breathe consistently while being so focused , but doing so will keep your muscles well oxygenated and your body relaxed , thus helping you to achieve better results .
Second , you need to take breaks . Once you feel you ’ ve got solid bases and your technique is on point for the part you ’ re practicing , stop and come back to it the next day . A break will give your brain time to organize the information it received ( this is mostly done while we sleep ) and you should feel that it ’ s easier when you get back to it after a day or two .
Third , practice regularly . Indeed , a few minutes daily will be far more productive than a few hours once a week . You need consistency in order to see any sustainable improvement .
Ready , set , go ! I ’ m confident these tips can help you become the best musician you can be , so take the bull by the horns and attack those challenging parts with aplomb !
Jean-Philippe Comeau is a Montreal-based guitar player / multi-instrumentalist , singer , and teacher with a bachelor ’ s degree in music performance . He ’ s been active for more than 15 years on the local scene playing in various bands . In 2021 , he teamed up with long-time collaborator and singer-songwriter , Karolane Millette , to co-produce and play on her debut album , La Tête Haute , which was released at the end of the year .
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