Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Slow Practicing

One of the single most effective practice techniques is that of slowing down what you are playing in order to develop greater awareness and solve a large number of problems. An initial caveat--while you're practicing at a slower tempo, I can't emphasize enough how important it is to 1) play with a solid sense of pulse, albeit slower, and 2) play with the same articulations (ie. slur, staccato, legato) and character that you would at full tempo.

One of the main reasons that slow practicing is so effective is that it allows us to fix problems much more easily than when we play at full tempo. Passages that are difficult to put together can often slide into place when slowed down. Our hearing of detail can be boosted considerably, and we can hear things that eluded us before.

Another element that I emphasize during slow practice is to suspend judgment regarding our personal opinions of our playing. Take yourself out of the picture. Give yourself permission to fail and proceed with a sense of gentleness and objectivity. It's okay if you can't play a certain passage yet--something isn't yet in place and the slow approach is a great way to find it.

Mildred Portney Chase in Just Being at the Piano (my all-time favorite book on piano playing) wrote a wonderful 4-page chapter on the journey of slow practicing. Here are two noteworthy quotes:

By practicing a small segment a few times, you may realize greater improvement than in many repetitions of the whole phrase. it is possible to jam the mind's programming by presenting it with more than one problem at a time. One inch on the page may require more difficult adjustments than twelve inches somewhere else. It is important to know how much you are really understanding. However much time your mind needs to absorb the material, that is how much time to allow yourself. Show yourself the same kind of patience that you would a good friend who could not move through the material as fast as you would wish...

...Slow practice allows your knowledge to be integrated with your playing, allowing thoughts to become feeling. It removes the interference that comes from trying to think movements into place. I like to think that all knowledge should float freely into place, finally settling as though it were a mantle of snowflakes, so light as to fit into the nooks and crannies of oneself. Slow practice is a setting in which this can take place.
One final thought--what keeps people coming back to the joys and tribulations of practice year after year is that "Aha!" moment, where our understanding of our instrument, our body, or the music suddenly springs into focus and we get that inner feedback that moves us onward to the next challenge. Slow practice is one of the tools that can get you there.

Next: 5 Reasons to Memorize Music


  1. I tell my students that slow practice gives their brain and fingers a chance to get in sync. It doesn't stop some of them though - they still want to race through things - and then wonder why I refuse to pass them on a song they played at five different tempi and tons of pauses.

    On another note, slow practice is something that is taught in martial arts as well. Some of the techniques we learn are quite complex, sometimes, it feels as complex as a fugue!

    So we are taught the techniques one piece at a time and told to practice them at Lento.

    Hmm...I wonder how that would work if we just gave our students one line of music a week? I mean that literally. It would prevent them from jumping ahead.

  2. "slow practice is something that is taught in martial arts as well"

    Black belt pianist!

  3. "Black belt pianist!"

    Not yet, but hopefully I'll have my first degree black belt in the spring in Iaido.

    One of my senior students has her purple belt in karate. We often talk about applying "zanshin" (relaxed awareness/preparedness) in music.

    I've learned that counting beats is something that can be applied outside of music as well. ;-)