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Roberto Capocchi, guitarist: Blog

The "Five Step Process" for learning new music

Posted on June 30, 2010 with 8 comments

This is a wonderful framework that works for me, and that I've learned to teach - and then coach - my students.  In a nutshell, here's what I do, in small "bites:"

1) Study the score

2) Read it on the guitar

3) Run through it in my head

4) Drill it a little, playing from memory

5) Incorporate the new bit

Then, I move on to the next bit.

Try it!

This is not a comprehensive practice method.  It just gets new music into your head, so you can do all sorts of other practice methods more freely. 

The steps can be fluid - often, I'll alternate studying the score and reading on the guitar to make fingering decisions.  Or alternate reading on the guitar with visualizing to create a stronger, clearer mental picture.  Alternating visualization and playing from memory allows me to study my fingers in detail, and compare what I see with the "ideal" technique in my head.  At this point, I avoid drilling too much.

Make the process you own:

1) How big are the bites?  Smaller bites are good for detail, larger ones give you more context. 

2) What does studying the score mean to you? Count the rhythm? Tap it? Jot down fingerings and technical markings such as guide fingers and pivots? You can recognize chords and clarify voicings. 

3) When reading on the guitar, take your time.  Use "no tempo" - slow and relaxed, then gradually add the rhythm.  LISTEN.  Often fingerings that looked good on paper don't work, or better ideas come up.  Don't drill too much at this point, so that your auto-pilot isn't confused if you change anything. Read to give yourself a model you can imagine in the next step.

4) What does visualization mean to you?  Can you picture the left hand movements? What about the right hand movements?  Can you imagine the sensation of a guide finger sliding on the string?  Can you hear things clearly in your head?  Do you like picturing the score?  Start with one of these and gradually develop your imagining apparatus.

5) When drilling, you can focus on "doing the right thing," then on "doing the right thing well," then bringing it up to speed or adding musical details - what notes over-ring? What notes do you bring out? When do you damp basses?  You can focus on just getting the right notes with the right fingers, then make sure you use the techniques you decided to, then make sure everything is clean, work on getting a beautiful sound.  This takes rote and boredom out of repetition, keeps you focused, and allows you to conquer small steps at as time.

6) Music needs context.  Add the bit you just leaned to the parts you already worked on and LISTEN again.  If you were playing each little bit from memory, don't expect to play bigger sections without reading right away.  Don't drill too much - move on to the next little bit.  You'll review what you just learned in a few minutes, when you're incorporating another section.

If you ever think you're progressing too slowly, do the math.  If you learn one measure at a time, and cover a line a day, you'll learn more music in a year than most people do.  And you'll learn it well.

Roberto Capocchi

October 4, 2010

If you are working on a long piece of music, you might find that incorporating new "bites" with the whole thing may start to become less practical. One solution is to pick a starting point for the day, go through your practice as if it were the start of the piece and then, at the end of the practice session, incorporate that whole new section with the rest of the piece.

Also, the 5-step process works very well tackling the piece BACKWARDS! Try learning the last phrase, then the next-to-last, and so on. You might find it works better for you, even if it feels like it shouldn't. Remember, what actually works best for you is better than what feels right, and if you chose what works, it will become comfortable through familiarity.

Marc Eaton

September 29, 2010

So Ive been doing this for a year or so now... Its unbelievable in a few ways. First its hard to actually do and do well.. Most of us are used to feeling like we know a line of music before we actually do, we usually half know it and the five-step method forces us to wholey know it. It can also be hard to, and take a while to, get used to, for me it was quite tedious and slow at first. The five step method (at first) took me 3 or 4 times more time per measure to learn something, as compared to my previous lack of method, well enough to visualize it well from memory and then play it for memory as well. However Im now (after a year) learning most likely the hardest piece I've ever played and learning it twice as fast as other pieces that were comparable in length but not difficulty. On top of that I can relate to Philip in that I can literally practice, through visualization without a guitar, a whole 6 min piece . It is important to note though that this "Visualization practice" is not a substitute for practicing with you guitar. Also the method is incredible customizable.. For me its actually the 7-step method because I repeat certain steps at different times.

It's nice to say that Im also transferring this to learning my jazz charts! I Love It! You need to try it!

Josh Stevens

September 23, 2010

Firstly, a majority of this is far over my head (I'm still learning to read a note on the staff and play it to the guitar), but it doesn't hurt to look ahead.

It seems as though there are two different types of mental imaging. 1) used for memorization and 2) used while sight reading or in the moment. I liken 1 to the "no tempo" sort of practice. When working on it, you are not only adding a piece to your repertoire, but you are also building your ability to imagine music at a faster rate.

I see this building as a way to read sheet music from only a few notes ahead to entire phrases. While playing one phrase, imagine the next, and cycle through. A noticeable perk to an already beneficial practice.

Philip Schembri

September 22, 2010

I think this has the potential to be a very powerful tool. It can be applied as lightly or heavily as needed. Very tricky bits of music might benefit from many iterations, each one resulting in a more detailed and focused visualization, hopefully with the intention in the playing mirroring the detail in visualization.

It is probably just as valuable for trying to improve trouble spots in existing repertoire as it is for learning new pieces. Even when the trouble-passage is not written down, I have noticed that I might not be able to visualize it fully, even though I can "play" it (poorly). It is good for forcing me to confront areas that need work that I didn't know needed work.

It does suffer from the same potential limitation that many of the Principles techniques are vulnerable to - it relies on the student's own powers of observation and attention to detail...and chances are, the student needs to improve these things (it's so much easier when there's someone to help you notice the details). Still, hopefully with every application the ability to improve improves.

I like the way I can now "practice" while I walk to work in the morning!

Ben Sailors

September 22, 2010

I dig this a lot. I can especially relate to # 4, where he talks about visualizing what goes on because this is a huge part of how i learn and memorize pieces for the guitar.

Robby Fox

September 21, 2010

Though this method can start out seeming like overkill, the effect it has on memorization is worth it. It also works the fastest.

Austin Alexander

September 17, 2010

I don't think that I've ever imagined myself playing a piece. This could benefit me though if I worked at it.

Roberto Capocchi

July 6, 2010

Visualization, or mental imaging, is a key component of good practice.

But if it's unfamiliar, it sounds like a superpower - learning music during a flight between concerts??
Like any skill, visualization should be developed gradually. Try playing ONE NOTE, looking at your hand, then close your eyes and recreate in your mind the picture you saw. Now play again, from that mental image. Easy? Try two or three notes. In no time you'll be covering more music. If you never are able to do this with a whole page of music, WHO CARES?! You will still learn new music very securely and be able to perform with confidence.

The visualization I'm talking about in the "Five Steps" is briefly described in an article by Gerald Klickstein, in the section "Mental Imaging in Practice - when memorizing." He points out many more uses of visualization, so check out his article at