What is the most effective way to practice a challenging passage or begin learning a new piece?
Think of your piece as a big puzzle, when you dump it out of the box is it already put together? Of course not. Do you focus on one area first? Perhaps you focus on the edges first, or the red puzzle pieces that create the brightly colored tree in the picture.
Your assigned piece may be ‘put together’ in the sense that it’s in the correct order, but it will need attention and focus on many small areas to create a ‘finished picture’.
What is the best way to focus on small areas?
Start by numbering starting spots or phrase numbers with the help of your teacher. These create great areas of focus, help with memorization, but most of all can help you visualize the function of the phrase as a ‘musical sentence’ within the piece.
Work on small areas and check note and rhythmic accuracy. Do this one phrase at a time or in an even smaller area and practice it repeatedly. I'll refer to this as 'repetition practicing'. The area could be as small as one beat or half of a measure depending on the difficulty of the passage. When practicing a phrase or whole measure it’s a good idea to play the next beat so the chance of a pause in playing will be lessened. I'll refer to this as ‘overlapping’.
For accuracy and note learning start with slow, forte practice with repetition. Ignore dynamics and do not use the pedal. I'll refer to this as 'forte practicing'. These details can be added in after the notes and rhythms are comfortable. You may need to learn the notes hands apart first then hands together. If there’s inaccuracy then you are practicing too fast!
'Slow to fast practice' is extremely valuable but don’t start this practice technique until comfort and accuracy is achieved at a very slow tempo. Use the metronome and count to do this correctly. Start at a slow tempo and once accurate raise the tempo on the metronome gradually.
Pay attention to articulation, dynamics, and fingering, as well as any musical directions. Look up the meanings if needed. Include these details in your repetition practice.
These are just some of the many effective practice techniques I have found useful, and the ones I have found most successful. Try using a chart or a game in connection with these techniques to make them more motivating and enjoyable. Good luck and happy practicing!