The secret behind slow practice

metronome:hands.jpg

Ok….if you’re a budding musician, you’ve probably got a teacher, and that teacher at one point or another has said, “Make sure you practice this passage slowly.”

Slow practice….sure, it’s an easy concept to grasp...  just play the passage or piece at a slower tempo than what the performance tempo indicates...right?

Well….kinda.

Playing a section of a piece slowly is definitely beneficial because it gives the brain time to think and react to tricky technical issues, dynamic shifts, phrasing concepts, etc., etc. But, let’s back up a bit and talk about what the brain really needs to be doing in order for you get the most out of slow practice.

The real benefit of slow practice, in my humble experience, is focusing on what is happening in between the notes, and that’s where the brain should go into overdrive. Playing at a painfully slow tempo gives the brain more time to think about the small details before and after you strike a note….grip pressure, muscle usage, stroke height, etc. I’ll give you a drumming example. One day, in a lesson I had with Joe Morello, he asked me to play four quarter notes at ff, followed by four quarter notes at pp, using alternating strokes and starting on the right hand. When I attempted this he noticed that my transition from one dynamic to another was a bit...suspect. He said, “How bout you try to be at your level sooner than what you just attempted.” I didn’t quite get this at the time, but I soon came to realize that what he meant was the rebound of the third ff stroke (which would be in the right hand) should end at the same level as the upcoming pp note, and the the last ff  stroke (which should be a left stroke) should end at the same level of the previous stroke that was in the right hand. That way you are sitting there waiting to play pp well before you actually play it! You just do the opposite of this when transitioning from pp to ff…..seems simple, but it’s surprising to me how many students or even professionals for that matter, have a bunch of noise or wasted movement, between their strokes. This wasted movement is what can cause a slew of problems in execution and technique, among other things. If you go really really slow, there is so much time or air between the notes that the brain has the luxury to take a little breather between strokes.

 fig. 1

fig. 1

Here’s another example: Let’s say you are doing a piece that contains a lot of running 16th notes (or eighths..whatever….as long as the notes are the same value, it doesn’t matter what they are). We can use the xylophone part to Porgy and Bess as an example (fig. 1).

 fig. 2

fig. 2

 

 

Try playing this extremely slow in whatever sticking you want, concentrating on playing perfectly even with every stroke at the same height. Ignore the accents. (fig. 2)

 

Then, try playing an accent on every main beat (fig. 3).

 fig. 3

fig. 3

 

Concentrate on preparing the level and motion of your hands before and after the accent. When you master this, shift the accent over one 16th note and repeat the last step. (fig.4)

 fig. 4

fig. 4

 

 

 

 

 

Then move the accent over again and so on and so on. (fig. 5 & 6)

 fig. 5

fig. 5

 fig. 6

fig. 6

Doing this type of..out of the box...slow practice is extremely effective in developing efficient motion and flow.

 

 

 fig. 7

fig. 7

 

You could even mix it up by playing accents on every three notes (fig. 7).

 fig. 8

fig. 8

 

 

 

 

Let your creativity run wild (fig. 8)…..do this, and you will open up doors that you never knew existed.

 

 

 

But, the one thing you need to make sure you do…..Play it Slow!!