This is, without doubt, the most quintessential meme in all of music education. If any teacher knows anything about what they are doing (and often when they don’t) they will give this advice to their youngest and oldest, their worst and their best. Practicing slowly is so obviously fundamental to learning proper playing that it could seem ludicrous that a teacher might have to remind his students of it. But, of course, if you teach you will say this many, many times.
Much of this is due to the impetuosity of youth. I certainly know it is not pleasant for a young child to practice slowly. Dull and tedious are the worst sorts of things to a child’s mind though, ironically, are often the best things for them. There is also the added difficulty that, even as adults, we want instant gratification. We see great playing that we’d like to emulate, and we want it now. We fantasize about our ideal and we want it now. We see that beautiful mass of black on a page, and we want it now. But, as with all things of quality, we can’t have it now. We must not underestimate the amount of slow practice needed to sound our best, opting instead for a lesser, if sometimes passible, version that is closer to tempo and more “fun” to play. The love for what is best over what is immediate must be cultivated.
But what happens when we pass this point of development? Certainly, there comes a time when a student will willingly sacrifice time and energy to sound his very best. He’s grown to where he values quality over expedience. The struggle now is not to get the student to practice slowly, but to understand how to do so properly. This aspect is too often ignored.
I certainly remember the frustration of thinking I was practicing correctly and slowly, and not benefiting sufficiently. I hit a wall not long after starting conservatory where practicing wasn’t working the way I thought it should. I’d put in the slow practice, but with negligible returns. I realize now that, without the necessary intent, my routine was little more than throwing notes up against the violin, hoping enough of them would stick.
What, then, would have been the proper way to practice slowly? What would have saved me the frustration? The problem that most teachers face when advising slow practice (besides just getting the student to do it) is that it’s often ill-defined. As an impetuous adolescent, practicing slowly merely meant “Under Tempo.” I would play through parts of a new piece at a tempo certainly slower than I had intended for a performance, but my aim was merely to get to the final tempo as soon as possible. If your students are going to make consistent progress, this must be addressed.
Under Tempo vs. Slow Practice
First, how would I go about defining “Under Tempo?” Under Tempo is any tempo that, while slower (even significantly) than the targeted performance tempo is still able to hold the “flow” of the music that would be present in a performance. We run into problems, especially when unexperienced, with trying to mimic what we’d like a performance to sound like when first starting to seriously practice a piece. It’s too easy to think we are just a bit of metronome manipulation away from performance-ready playing. This impatience ironically leads to us having a slower rate of learning.
But what is true “Slow Practice?” Slow practice, properly defined, is anything slow enough to be able to execute exactly whatever aspect of the music or technique you are trying to accomplish at that given time. Let’s be straight with ourselves. We can’t do it all. Everything that we do in our music, from the beginning to the end, is built in layers. The idea that one could catch everything to be caught in a certain passage if it is taken at the right tempo a bit silly. But I’ve often heard teachers say this! Of course, the student quickly discovers this truth while working things out at home, but the seed is already planted, causing him to not to pay as close attention to smaller details in the effort to get to tempo. It is either this or the student thinks, because they are playing under tempo, they are actually catching everything in the music, when they are not certainly not.
For slow practice, I’d recommend starting with just the technical aspects of the music. Unless unnaturally gifted, you won’t be able to do too much in terms of the music while working out the technique of a piece you have never played. In fact, trying too much to infuse your sense of musicality and expression in a landscape you haven’t fully mastered can blind you to mistakes and improper technical setup. I know this all too well from experience. You feel so much that you are making beautiful music, and it is all too enjoyable. Unfortunately, the facts of the matter don’t care about your feelings.
Start first with intonation, taking care that you are setting your hand up in a way that will translate into playing at full speed, and start at an almost non-tempo. You aren’t playing music, you are listening to the framework of notes you will hang your music on. As you get better at this, you will notice certain pitfalls of hand placement that you can take care of at earlier stages. Make sure that the frame of your hand is secure and consistent. (I’d like to quickly point out here that, though all my examples come directly from my experience as a violinist, the fundamentals can be translated over into any instrument)
After you’ve staked out the basics of the intonation, find a tempo at which you can play most of the notes in tune and with proper technique. I say most, not all, as often at this stage you find you can fix a few straggling notes by going over the section a few times without decreasing an already slogging tempo. I find that 40 beats per minute is a good start for most passages. Sometimes you can jump straight to 50 or 60, but also sometimes you have to start with a metronome click per eighth note. Whatever it takes, make sure you have a metronome going, and that you are playing with as much detail within the given paradigm that you are working on, which is intonation in this case.
This is how students, especially the younger students in need of discipline, should be taught to start. This is “Slow Practice.” Not only will this give them proper technical growth but will also help them in developing their priorities while practicing. It lifts the burden from their shoulders of needing to sound like a performance within the first week of learning the piece. The benefits they will gain from slowly and judiciously developing their technique, patience understanding by approaching practice in this way will pay dividends later in their development. It is your job, as a teacher, to instill this sense of duty as well as guide them through learning how to practice properly. There are those who merely throw technically accurate information at their students, not even caring if it sticks. I imagine they assuage their conscience by thinking they’ve cast the ball into the student’s court. It’s only the student’s issue now, they’re absolved of any further responsibility. These are no true pedagogues. Be a true pedagogue.