How to use the Overlapping Method
to practice challenging pieces

This method will take your practicing to the next level! By following the principles below, you will organize and systematize your practicing, resulting in a far more solid, confident and satisfying performance.


Using the Overlapping Method


by John J. Giangrande




If you are anything like me, you want to learn how to play a piece of music correctly in the shortest amount of time. The method that we used when we first started learning — playing from beginning to end, repeatedly — was very successful when the pieces were easy. But, now that you've played for a bit, that method isn't working as well anymore. The pieces are longer and playing from beginning to end repeatedly doesn't fix the errors very well. The mistakes or hesitations reoccur in the same spots, and by repeating the mistakes, they are being reinforced by these repeated plays. Your practice method needs to change to adapt to these new challenges.

Our new approach will use four steps:

  1. Unit division: divide the piece into manageable overlapping units.
  2. Speed: find a tempo that will allow for successful practice.
  3. Repetition: after learning to play successfully, repeat the performance.
  4. Mastery: Use the 3-times-in-a-row rule and an overlapping approach.


Unit division

Divide the piece into manageable overlapping units.


Think of a piece of music as a sandwich; it’s best to manage it one-bite-at-a-time. We must divide the music up into small units that are easy to practice. The phrase is usually the best choice when it’s manageable, however sometimes the phrase is too big of a bite, making it unmanageable as a practice unit.

HINT: Be flexible when dividing up practicing units; the difficultly of the passage determines the unit size: the more difficult it is, the units needs to be smaller.


For the sake of simplicity, let’s use the measure as our unit of practice, but with one important alteration: let our "one-measure-practice-unit" to go from the first beat of one measure to the first beat of the next measure.

LET'S CLARIFY: From here on, "measure 1" means "the measure 1 practice unit," which will include the first beat of measure 2; "measure 2" means "the measure 2 practice unit," which will include the first of beat of measure 3, etc... So, in 4/4 time (4 beats in each measure) your practice unit would encompass five beats. By overlapping our practicing units we won't have to come back and practice putting them together.



Find a tempo that will allow for a successful practice.


A couple of things about beat: Firstly, your beats must be evenly spaced, like the ticks of a clock. Secondly, the speed of your beat (tempo) will determine how hard it is to play the practice unit. Choose a faster tempo and it will be harder to perform. Choose a slower tempo it will be easier to perform.

Our goal for this step is to find a tempo that allows you to successfully play the first practice unit (a metronome is recommended to for this task).

To do this you must repeatedly attempt to play the first practice unit accurately, choosing a slower and slower speed each time you make a mistake; do this until you are able to play the practice unit perfectly. So, if you make a mistake or hesitate, choose a slower beat the next time you try.

HINT: Once you find a successful tempo, use the tap feature on your metronome to determine the number of beats-per-minute (bpm). Now, write it down lightly in pencil on your music. When you return to practicing tomorrow you can, with the help of your metronome, recall this tempo immediately without having to retrace your steps (this saves practice time!).

If mistakes crop up in your future practice, choose an even slower beat.

HINT: Cross out or erase the previous written record of your successful tempo and replace it with this new one. Always maintain an accurate written record. It will save you lots of practice time in the future.

We must come to accept that there is a speed we’d like to eventually perform the piece (our target speed) and there is a speed that we must use to teach ourselves (our practice speed).  We cannot run until we learn to walk. We cannot walk before we learn to crawl. Be patient. We'll get there.



After learning to play it successfully, repeat the performance.


In the words of the great football coach Vince Lombardi: “Practice does not make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.” So, it’s not enough to take the journey to learn to do something correctly; we must repeat doing it correctly many times to solidify what we were able to do just once.

For this step, we must learn to play the first unit perfectly and then repeat it until it is mastered (see Mastery below).

CAUTION: The mistake that some students make is, after many incorrect attempts and eventually beginning to play a passage correctly, they then move on, incorrectly assuming they have learned to play it. When asked to recall this passage in the future the brain is as likely to remember the many incorrect attempts as the one correct performance.

Learn to do it right as soon as possible by going slowly. Then, repeat doing it right over and over at the same successful tempo.



Use the 3-Times-in-a-row Rule.


How do we know when we’ve properly learned something? Mastery Learning means that you don’t go forward to learn new things until you have mastered the older things.

I suggest the 3-times-in-a-row rule to determine mastery of performance: If you can play something perfectly 3-times-in-a-row, that’s a pretty good rule-of-thumb that you’ve mastered it.

HINT: Along with being able to play something 3-times-in-a-row comes a feeling of inner confidence. Ask yourself if you truly feel confident after each 3-times-in-a-row success. Any 'lack of confidence' feeling is a red flag that you need to continue repeating and build confidence before moving on. I have found that some students need more repetitions than just 3 times to feel confident.


The "Overlapping Method"

Use an overlapping approach.


Finally, you need to practice using a procedure than ensures that you can put all these units together into a cohesive performance.

There are ten steps to ensure the successful mastery of four measures of music. Allow me to repeat that: There are TEN steps to learn FOUR measures!

The first step is to master measure 1*.
The second step is to master measure 2.
The third step is to master playing measure 1 and 2 together, and so on.

* Remember, our "measure" includes the first beat of the next measure!

I suggest an overlapping approach that is best explained by the table below:

Using the Overlapping Method

Steps Measure 1   Measure 2   Measure 3   Measure 4
1 m.1            
2     m.2        
3 m.1 & m.2        
4         m.3    
5     m.2 & m.3    
6 m.1 & m.2 & m.3    
7             m.4
8         m.3 & m.4
9     m.2   m.3 & m.4
10 m.1 & m.2 & m.3 & m.4

Therefore, it takes ten steps to practice four measures using this system.

The step that seems to defy logic for most students is step number 3. Rather than moving on to practicing measure 3, we practice playing measure 1 and measure 2 on this step.

Why bother? Why not just practice measure 3 now? Because it is better to reinforce what you have mastered and "sew up the seams" as you go along rather than wait until each individual practice unit is mastered, and then attempt to put them all together in the end.

HINT: At this stage, you've mastered the first practice unit (m.1) and then the second practice unit (m.2). individually. You haven't yet put m.1 and m.2 together. Adding a practice unit (m.1) before the one you just mastered (m.2), creates a new level of challenge. If you wait until you've mastered each unit individually to put them all together at the end, you'll find that much of what you've originally mastered has been lost. It is far better to reinforce and as you go along, by using the system above.


Make it as easy as possible


Piano students: if you are practicing a piece with your hands together and your are having trouble, practice it hands separately first. After you feel ready, put your hands together at a slower speed and try it again. It will go easier.

Guitar students: if your piece has a combination of bass lines (played with the thumb) and an upper part (played with the i,m,a fingers) practice it separately first. After you feel ready, put both parts together at a slower speed and try it again. It will go easier.


Cutting corners


Some students, after learning this method will attempt to cut corners and use a shortcut approach by omitting steps (5, 8 & 9); These omissions would allow starting from the beginning each time a new measure is learned. But, be cautioned. Do this only if the piece is easy for you. With pieces that challenge you, there will be frustration.

Remember, by adding a single measure before newly mastered measure is a step up in difficulty (let's call it a gradient). By omitting steps a "skipped gradient" occurs. The difficulty level has gone up a few notches instead of just one.

It all comes down to time and patience. You will learn by experience as to whether these omissions will work in the piece you are working on.


Adjusting your tempo for different levels of difficulty


After beginning to use this approach you will need to deal with how to handle practice units of varying degrees of difficulty. For example, let's imagine that you play from measure 1 to measure 3 at a metronome marking of 72 beats-per-minute (bpm), but, after an attempt or two, you find that tempo too fast for measure 4 to be practiced successfully. Let's say you find that you must adjust your metronome to 60 bpm to successfully play measure 4.

After you master measure 4, you have two options regarding putting the earlier measures together with measure 4:

  1. Practice measure 4, repeatedly, gradually increasing the speed of the metronome from 60 to 72 bpm, making sure each attempt is perfect.
  2. Play the earlier measures at the slower metronome marking, 60 bpm, so that the challenging measure can be played successfully when it is reached.

My suggestion is to opt for the latter: play the piece at the slower tempo from the beginning. You will find this an easier adjustment than having to align each measure's tempo to the original tempo chosen for the initial measures.




The final step to making a piece of music your own is to commit it to memory so that you can play it without having the music in front of you. The above method is an excellent approach to learning how to play a piece from memory. Play the first practice unit until you think it is memorized. Close your music and try to play it from memory, 3-times-in-a-row. Continue with this approach until the entire piece is memorized. Although, this step is not required to achieve proficiency, memorizing is highly recommended if your reading skills are holding you back from playing as well as you'd like to play.


Take some time to enjoy: "All work and no play..."


All students who've tried it agree that this method is very efficient for learning, but after trying it some have shared that it takes some of the joy out of their practicing. If you begin to feel that way, satisfy your need to enjoy the music you are practicing by playing through the piece from the beginning, as far as you can go. Do this at the beginning and at the end of each practice session, at the very least. Try to remember how much pleasure there will be in the accomplishment of eventually playing the piece correctly and fluently.




Unless you have a photographic memory, a piece of music must be divided into units that can be easily practiced, mastered and then seamed together to produce a satisfactory finished product.

Just as a blanket is made up of individual knitted squares, a piece of music can be divided up into units of practice. Two squares must be finished before attempting to seam them together; two practice units must be mastered before seaming them together. But, unlike blanket squares, if you don't seam your practice units together and replay them daily they will just fade away in your memory.

You cannot rush the process. A sculptor begins with an unpolished block of stone and, with a hammer and chisel, takes small chips away from the stone until the art work beneath reveals itself. Musicians must do the same with a piece of music to truly master it. If, after a month of shaping the stone, our sculptor tried to rush the process by cleaving off a major chunk of stone, a month's work could be lost. We must take baby steps to achieve a well practiced finished product. With patience, each mastered practice unit is carefully seamed together into a beautifully played piece of music.

I hope you find this a successful method of practicing for you. I wish you the best of luck.

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