Very Slow Practice

When musicians need to learn some very difficult music, they turn to the technique of Slow Practice.  When playing slowly, you teach  your muscles to play the notes correctly.  Basically, your muscles learn a sequence that will eventually allow you to play through a section flawlessly.

Most musicians picture slow practice like this:

Set the metronome at about half the speed of the performance tempo and play through the difficult section (what I call the “Tough Stuff”) a few times.  Then, play it closer to performance speed and move on to something else.

Doing your slow practice in this way IS helpful.  But, it’s not going to have lasting effects.  Tomorrow, your muscles will most likely be unable to play the Tough Stuff correctly.

I’d like to offer a better solution: Very Slow Practice.

I want you to play the section so slowly that you CANNOT make mistakes, so slowly that you have time to consciously think about how you’ll get to the next note before you even get there.

You can hold every note indefinitely, out of time.  Don’t think about rhythm at all.

At this speed, you don’t even use a metronome to guide your slow practice.  Just make sure you can get from one note (or one chord for guitarists and pianists) to the next accurately.

I saw an incredible example of this technique during a master class recently.  A virtuoso percussionist  was demonstrating to us a very difficult marimba piece.  Really, this music seemed impossibly fast and complicated.

By playing the music at one-tenth of the performance speed, this guy showed us the control his muscles had over the music.  He could talk about the exact move he had to make to get to the next note.  Then, he summed up the power of slow practice:

He said, “I can do this playing percussion.  But, what about another instrument?  I don’t know the first thing about playing clarinet.  However, I can play any clarinet concerto perfectly if you let me go slowly enough–like maybe one note per year!”

That’s a wonderful reminder of the power of Very Slow Practice. 

For any music you’re working on, you actually CAN play it right now–if you go slowly enough.  Sure, this tempo is mind-numbingly slow.  But, it’s a start on the path to greatness!

3 Responses to “Very Slow Practice”  

  1. 1 Cary

    So true! Sometimes you just have to practice so slowly that rhythm loses meaning entirely. If you worry about playing fast, accuracy will never come no matter how much you work; if you practice for accuracy over and over again the speed will develop on its own.

  2. 2 Christine Louise Hohlbaum

    Indeed, the power of slow rules in many areas of our lives. Whether it is learning Tai Chi or a musical instrument, setting our personal metronome to the beat of our innermost rhythm works best. Thank you!

  1. 1 Mike's Home on the web | Practice Links 16th Nov 2009 - Trombones, house renovation, music practice and murmurings from Mike.

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