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Why you should take it slow

Luis Dias

“Dress me slowly, as I’m in a hurry.” This is what Napoleon Bonaparte is supposed to have said to his attendants. Did he really ever say this, or is it apocryphal? Whether or not he did is irrelevant; it is good advice.

From personal experience (and I’ve learnt this the hard way), I can say that slow practice is the best, indeed the only way to secure learning.

The impetuousness of youth rebels at this; I experienced this, and I see it in young students today. It is difficult, as it can seem like drudgery, and the temptation is strong to just “get over with it” and move on to something more interesting. But slow practice yields immense rewards.

Noa Kageyama is a violinist, performance psychologist, and teacher on the faculty of The Juilliard School of Music, New York. He has an interesting blog, ‘BulletProof Musician’, in which he candidly discusses issues related to practice and performance of music.

In his view, most of us don’t practice slowly enough. Again, I whole-heartedly agree, from my own experience and that of most students I know. Kageyama recommends ‘slow-motion’, or ‘super-slow’ practice, (as opposed to ‘regular old’ slow practice, which most of us often resort to, which doesn’t really accomplish much more than repetitive, mindless play-throughs without real benefit).

Kageyama makes interesting comparisons between the practice of a musical instrument, and practice of the martial arts. He quotes martial arts expert Peter Freedman: “If you train fast all the time, you are actually slowing down your ability to learn fast and that is counterproductive. Also by going fast you are promoting fear in yourself….. By going fast you lose the ability of understanding what you are doing. By rushing through your techniques you can’t see all that you can see when going slow. By going fast you concentrate too much on the end of the technique and miss the important things, like the beginning and the middle of what you are practicing.”

If you are from my generation, you will remember what a sensation the Bruce Lee films were. There is a scene quite soon after the beginning of his 1973 epic film ‘Enter the Dragon’. Lee is teaching a young student how to train. “It’s like a finger pointing to the moon,” he says. And when the student stares at his finger, Lee sharply rebukes him: “Don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory!” If we are obsessed only with speed, we will lose much of the beautiful nuances of the music being studied. The cranking up of tempo can come later, all in good time, after the segment can really be played well slowly.

Kageyama says something quite similar; that we often make the mistake of being “too concerned with the outcome, not the process.”

The whole idea behind slow practice is to really listen, analyse what our fingers, wrists and hands are doing, and ‘diagnose’, if you like, what the issue is, and where exactly it occurs in the passage being studied. In the case of a stringed instrument: Is it an awkward string-crossing? Is it a position shift? Are we using too little bow (more often than not), or in some cases, too much? Would a better bow distribution help to get a better phrasing or melodic line? Is the intonation really secure throughout?

It helps us to “fine-tune the execution” of the segment being studied, while making sure we cultivate the right habits, so that when we do increase the tempo, we are still playing it the right way.

In my youth, I didn’t possess a metronome. I wish I did. Over the last decade or so, I have found it extremely useful in disciplining the adherence to really slow practice, and measuring the progress as one gradually ups the tempo.

Today, of course, one doesn’t need an actual metronome to help us. If you have a smartphone, you can download a metronome app for free, and have it with you at all times. The value of the smartphone to the study and practice of music deserves a whole separate column.

American classical double bass virtuoso and teacher Gary Karr also advocates metronome practice, “to keep you slow”. In the July 2010 edition of The Strad magazine, he says: “As string players, we are always engaged in multitasking and if you leave out any of these tasks, the music and technique both suffer. Being able to think of as many tasks as possible is one of the main reasons why it’s important to practise slowly. It is a proven fact that the more tasks you are able to perform at the same time, the quicker you will benefit from the process of osmosis. Because we all have the tendency to play too fast, we need an outside influence to keep us slow.”

In his book ‘Practicing for Artistic Success: The Musician’s Guide to Self-Empowerment’, professor of violin and viola at the Manhattan School of Music Burton Kaplan talks of the necessity of finding the tempo of consistent control. He recommends that you: 1) Set the metronome at the tempo at which you think you can play the passage. 2) Begin playing. 3) Stop when you make a mistake – even a small one – and set the metronome 5-10bpm (beats per minute) slower. 4) Repeat this process until you can play through the passage with no mistakes. 5) After trying this a few times, you will begin to recognise what a tempo of consistent control feels like – it is a calm, centered feeling that is entirely devoid of anxiety. 6) Stay with your tempo of consistent control for at least four days, before moving on to the next comfortable place. 7) When you feel really secure, only then move up, gradually, in tempo.

For those interested, there is an interesting graphic chart (available on the Classic FM website) compiled by the principal bassoonist of the Metropolitan Opera orchestra, New York William Short. Drawing on his own experience from his teachers and career in music, Short brilliantly condenses the ‘hows and whys’ of slow practice, from the way he approaches tempo, to how he structures his practice
mindset.

He elucidates some of the topics on ‘the never-ending list’ of things to pay attention to during slow practice: rhythm, intonation, articulation, phrasing, posture…and those peculiar to wind instrument playing: airstream, resonance.

He ends the graphic with good advice for us all. We could either have the “I have to get this perfect” approach (wrong); or, “Let’s see what I can learn today”, what he calls ‘creative experimentation.”

And what if we get frustrated along the way (happens to the best of us)? “Stop. Take a break and come back later.” But do come back, people. Happy practicing!

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