A different kind of slow practice

February 22, 2011, 9:03 AM ·

“Slow practice can establish habits that are completely unrelated to the coordination demanded for speed.” 
–Abby Whiteside, pianist

All of us acknowledge the value of slow practice: by working at deliberate tempos, we cultivate the ease that allows for speed.

Why is it, then, that some rising musicians who practice slowly struggle to bring their material up to tempo?

Simply put, some forms of slow practice support rapid execution, and others don’t.

Here are five strategies that help ensure that our slow practice instills the habits we need for high-velocity performance.

1. Sense movement groups
To execute quickly, we have to move our fingers and arms in series of movements that I term ‘movement groups.’

Problem is, at slow tempos, we run the risk of feeling from note to note instead of moving in the integrated gestures required by up-tempo music.

So it’s crucial that, when we work slowly and as we increase speed, we sense the same movement groups we’ll rely on at our final tempos.

As an illustration, if we slur the first four notes of an A-major scale on the 2nd string, we'd typically want to feel the left-hand fingers fall in a single movement sequence rather than conceiving of unrelated finger actions.

2. Express emotional details
Those movement groups we feel must also convey the emotional fabric of our music.

Yet I’ve observed that many students will become inexpressive when they execute slowly, even though they know that emotionless practice embeds unmusical habits.

Therefore, it’s vital that, during slow practice, we expressively shape the passages we’re refining.

If we zero in on a tricky left-hand shift, let’s say, we should adjust a metronome to a slow tempo and then play with all of the dynamics, accents, articulations, and tone colors called for by the larger phrase.

3. Chunk it
In tandem with feeling movement groups and expressive shapes, we also need to mentally conceive of musical gestures as whole entities – chunks.

In this way, even when we execute rapidly, our mind moves at an unhurried pace.

But, again, with slow practice, we can unwittingly start thinking in bits, which won’t allow us to perform easily up to speed.

For instance, if we play a 1-octave A-major scale in open position, with each pitch as an 8th note in a 4/4 measure, then we'd want to perceive of the entire measure as one unit as opposed to thinking in four disconnected beats.

4. Feel ahead
With our chunks in place, to establish fluency, we must now sense upcoming chunks as we execute.

Such ‘feeling ahead’ is one of the hidden skills that expert musicians employ that commonly goes unnoticed by non-experts.

In fact, I’ve found that students need frequent reminders to feel impending chunks as they play; for some reason, their ‘feel ahead’ switches can be in the ‘off’ position, and they won’t notice.

So let’s be vigilant during slow and fast practice that, as we mold transcendent phrases, we also direct ourselves with an inner conductor – seeing, hearing, feeling, thinking, and imagining ahead as we navigate the musical landscape.

5. Modify the rate of change
One of the most useful techniques I know for bringing intricate material up to tempo involves slowing the rate of change instead of the tempo (a detailed example of this technique is shown on pages 62-65 of my book The Musician’s Way).

Suppose we're working on a single 4/4 measure in which we rapidly arpeggiate chords in 16th notes, and the harmonies change on every beat:

*  *  *

All told, by applying during slow practice the same mental and physical processes that we'll employ when playing rapidly, we cultivate the habits that allow us to perform artistically and securely at any tempo.

A version of this post first appeared on The Musician's Way Blog, where you'll find numerous related articles under the Music Practice category. 

© 2011 Gerald Klickstein


February 22, 2011 at 09:08 PM ·

Gerald, this is excellent.  Thank you.

February 22, 2011 at 10:52 PM ·

This is terrific.  Very helpful in addressing one of my lingering problems!  Thank you!

February 23, 2011 at 04:55 PM · I am a great believer in slow practice. But don't forget the bow. The stroke, at slow speed, should also match that used at faster tempos.

February 23, 2011 at 10:50 PM ·


February 24, 2011 at 01:07 AM ·

Thanks for your comments and kind words - very gratifying to hear. Gerald

February 24, 2011 at 03:34 AM ·

 That's a really nicely organised and educational piece, thanks Gerald.

February 24, 2011 at 11:18 AM ·

Thoughtful and valuable: much appreciated. I'll be checking out your book!

February 24, 2011 at 02:31 PM ·

 Thank you for this advice. It confirms and makes explicit what I think I am already doing, but getting confirmation is great for a disconnected amateur like myself.

February 24, 2011 at 06:03 PM ·

Michael, how exactly do you think it should match? Same bow speed or same bow length?

February 25, 2011 at 01:01 AM ·

Ordered the book from B&N today. Hope it's a good as itseems here.

February 25, 2011 at 09:03 PM · Sarah, your bow articulation should match that of the faster tempo. ie. a fast passage played staccato would be practiced slowly with a staccato bow stroke. It's about bow hand movement at different speeds and articulations.

February 27, 2011 at 01:51 PM ·

Yes, some very useful pointers that I certainly agree with.

On the point about making sure all the dynamics and emotions are involved as well, I would myself suggest that sometimes its useful to play a passage very quiety, maybe using a mute, or practise mute, and without any emotions involved, just to get the mechanics right. It's also useful when practising late at night, or early in the morning!

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