Feb 242013

Recently I’ve been reminded how valuable slow practicing is. For most people this is extremely important, for a few, not so much so. I don’t mean any absolute speed but rather one in which we can play the notes and rhythms successfully. Easier pieces won’t need as slow a pace as harder ones. As one’s music reading gets better, the pace can and should increase.

Some argue against slow practice, and for them it may not be necessary. There are some people who read music with great ease and this strategy is not appropriate. A DVD featuring Marc-Andre Hamelin, (LEGATO – THE WORLD OF THE PIANO Marc-André Hamelin – No Limits) offers a moment when he sits down and plays a Haydn Sonata he’s not seen before. The rhythms and notes are flawless. He says he’s not showing off but this is something he can do very easily. He’s a very lucky man. Clearly this is not our usual piano student. It’s not me either.

Some have played the piano so long they don’t need to do this anymore. My last teacher, Alexander Lipsky, with whom I studied for many of my adult years, had no time for slow practicing. His approach was to practice hands separately at tempo and then put them together at tempo. He obviously had no need of slow practicing so never thought his students would.

Well, I couldn’t do that. Unfortunately, I said nothing about it. (Typical student!) I just practiced my old rather ineffective ways and somehow managed to very slowly learn my pieces.

I wish I had either talked more about that with him or just realized I needed to find my own way; one that would work for me. When I quit taking lessons, I finally did.

For me, and students like me, practicing slowly does several important things. First is the accuracy I mentioned earlier.

Second is the extra time one has to feel each key and reinforce that crucial tactile sense to which we so seldom pay attention. This awareness, when well learned, becomes an automatic part of our processing as we play.

Third is the time to listen to each note as it progresses from one to the next. These combine when we play faster and then listen to the larger units that become the long phrases which makes such wonderful music.

We need to practice more slowly if we repeatedly make the same mistakes or at least the sections with the offending errors. If there are consistent pauses, large or small, the practicing is too fast and the pauses are being learned as part of the piece.

We need slower practice if we can’t hear every note. Either we’re practicing faster than our ears are hearing or we’re playing is not clean. As the player, we should be able to hear every note even though the listener may not be able to do so.

Don’t play too slowly though. Boredom is the result and it usually leads to more mistakes. This type of practicing is too slow and leads to nothing but useless inattentiveness. Find the right tempo. It should be interesting enough without being too challenging. It can be hard to find and may take some experimenting.

Recently, I’ve had students practice very slowly during their lessons for as much as 30 to 45 minutes. These are not my most exciting teaching experiences but I’m always amazed at how well the learning is retained until the next time; even if the student has no time to practice in between lessons.

It’s very hard to keep a slow tempo without a metronome. The tendency to pick up the speed is difficult to resist. The metronome is an important rhythmic manager in this case.

Finally, when I make students play slowly, even if they know the piece quite well, their playing always improves their playing in terms of depth of understanding and authority.

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