Many students are reluctant to practice slowly, usually because it seems unnecessary and boring. In this post I’d like to share a typical scenario from my private teaching. Hopefully it will highlight the reason and benefits of slow practice.
When I teach a student a new song, I first work through any technical challenges in the song, and then move on to interpretative ideas, such as phrasing and dynamics. After working though the song with the student, and having explained all of the details and intricacies, I send them home for some slow practice, hoping for a brilliant rendition the following week. But a week later the student comes back and plays me the passage, at a fast tempo and with loads of mistakes.
So I ask them if they practiced the passage slowly and invariably they say that they didn’t. When I ask why, they reply that slow practice is boring, or that they just didn’t have the patience. But when done correctly, slow practice is neither boring nor will it make you feel impatient. If you feel bored, impatient or distracted, it’s because your mind isn’t fully engaged in the process of learning, and this makes for very ineffective practice.
So I ask my students to show me how they practiced the passage. They play the song at tempo, and fluff a few notes. I’ll single out a particular note, and go over that part a few times until it’s been corrected. Then I have them play the whole part again. At this point, without me asking, they will always play just a little slower than before – to make sure they play the newly corrected part properly.
Then I point out another part of the passage which needs work. I show them the correct technique, and the right mental approach, and work with them until they are able to play it without a mistake. Again, subconsciously their tempo always slows down just a little bit more. Every time I correct part of the passage, the student subconsciously slows down, without me even asking them too. This is because the passage is just too complicated, detailed and intricate for them to play any quicker.
Then I talk with them about phrasing, hammer-ons, pull-offs, quality of tone, relaxed motion, controlled picking, dynamics, articulation… Depending on how precise you want to be, the list can be virtually endless.
Once I’ve gone through every detail, and explained the approach to every aspect of the passage, I then ask them to play through it one last time. I tell them that I want them to concentrate on all of what we just discussed, and ask them to play it to me as accurately as they can, and at whatever tempo they choose.
Invariably they will play the passage at a much slower tempo, 50bpm or even slower. Usually they won’t make a mistake, but if they do I give them another chance and they usually manage the passage the second time around.
Then I say, ‘that is what I mean by practicing slowly’. To practice slowly and effectively you need to practice at a tempo where your mind has just enough time to process absolutely every detail necessary. Deliberate on every note and think carefully as you play. This will send a very clear message to your fingers, you will make fewer mistakes and learn the song quicker. Even easy songs often have intricate details which, if you’re aware of them, can make the whole song sound better and more polished.
Now I guarantee you that slow practice will be neither boring, nor require patience. In fact, usually three or four slow attempts at a two line passage will be so mentally exhausting that you’ll need a break!