We’ve all been there. You get excited to learn a new song and dive right in. As time goes by – maybe a lot of time – you get frustrated and give up before the tune is really presentable. Getting a song “just right” takes work. A lot of work.
Learning songs perfectly requires time and patience. I’ve realized that when I get to the point where I’m really sick of the song and never want to hear it again, I’m about halfway there. (Well, it’s not always that bad. 😉 )
There are, however, steps inherent to the song learning process and I believe that being aware of these steps let’s you know where you are in the big picture. These steps apply whether you’re learning an entire song or just a short piece (a solo perhaps.)
Step 1 – Listening
For this step, just listen to the song without your instrument in hand. Actively listen to how the melody rises and falls, how the sections change, when parts repeat, and how dynamics are used. Try to gauge what parts will be challenging and what will be easy.
Step 2 – Tackle the song in chunks
If you have sheet music or tab, start with the first couple bars or so. Practice them so you can play them reasonably well, and then move on to the next couple of bars. If you are learning by ear or perhaps a video, work on a digestible fragment of the tune and become comfortable with it before you move onto the next fragment. It may take a while before you have learned all the chunks that make up the song.
Step 3 – Glue it together
Take the first couple chunks that you’ve learned and practice playing them in one continuous flow. Then take the next couple chunks and play them in one flow. Then merge together chunks one and two with chunks three and four. Repeat the process for the whole song,
Step 4 – Think ahead while playing
In theory, at this point you know the whole song. But you’ll probably find when you play through it that you still fumble at certain sections. Your mind is too focused on what you’re playing at the moment and doesn’t have time to anticipate and prepare for what’s coming. So for this stage, train your mind to think ahead as you play through the song, to be aware of what’s coming. This is an exercise for the brain not the hands.
Stage 5 – Automate Your Playing
When you’ve completed the last step, you can play through the song and anticipate sections before they arrive. But you’re still thinking while playing. Keep repeating the song and eventually it will become automatic, it will be programed into what some call muscle memory. With practice your conscious thoughts will “get out of your way” and your subconscious can take over. You may even find yourself listening in a detached fashion, like an audience member, while you play the song. (That’s when it gets trippy.)
See also “How to learn a lot of songs fast.”