How Long? As Long As It Takes
Pianist Stephen Hough gives a thoughtful answer to the question, “How long does it take you to learn a piece?”
“In a way it’s one of those ‘how long is a piece of string’ questions, but it does raise some important issues about how we learn new repertoire and how we organize our practice time. Actually it’s impossible for me to give a clear answer because I don’t work in the same way every day. The number of days a year I can give undivided attention to the piano or to studying a new score are few. Not only are there travel days when I don’t see a keyboard and concert days when rehearsals dictate the pattern of work and rest, but my home-days usually involve at least two hours of office work. Furthermore, when I can finally sit at the piano, phone turned off, there are three different stages of preparation: the pieces being played that week, the pieces being revised for concerts one to three months ahead, and the new pieces being learned for the first time.
It is this latter category to which the question of length of learning is surely referring. Well, I try to allow one year for a new concerto. This not only allows time to learn the notes (I may only be able to spend at best a couple of hours a fortnight on that particular new work) but it also enables a real digestion of the score. Like a great play, it is not just a question of being able to remember the words and speak them; one has to be able to enter into the very soul of the character. Thorough learning also means that a piece can be revised more easily later – think cramming for exams versus real absorption.
But when is a piece actually ‘learned’? I’ve often pointed out to incredulous students that the amount of time and effort from first fingering to having a piece memorized is about the same as from having a piece memorized to having it properly prepared. Apparently Josef Lhevinne worked for years on the Chopin Etude in 3rds before he would play it in public, and then he continued to polish it carefully after that to the end of his life. A tennis player’s serve is always a work in progress, how ever many aces he or she might have propelled past an opponent in a championship match.
There are many who can learn quickly … a day for this etude, a week for that concerto; but there are few who, after years of performing a work, feel that they have just begun to explore its depths. It takes a dogged patience, an almost fanatical obsession, an inner energy and purpose to return over and over again with greater and greater passion to an oft-played piece, at each performance standing in the wings like a greyhound in the slips, straining upon the start.
How long? As long as it takes … and that’s only the start.” Read more here.
In an impatient, efficiency-obsessed society, I like that answer a lot. How long? As long as it takes. (That line about the greyhound, by the way, is from Shakespeare’s Henry V.)