“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.
© 2011 Gerald KlicksteinTweet
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