My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Balancing the tortoise with the hare while practicing

I often talk about practicing slowly because I believe it's an important part of efficient and deliberate practice and because I think it's something many of us have a difficult time doing.  Much of the time, when I ask someone to play something slowly for me in order to fix a problem the music is played at either the same tempo it was taken before or it is played one or two notches slower on the metronome.  Rarely, if ever, is the tempo one that I consider effective, that allows for the mind to feed the right information to the rest of the body.  It frequently takes several attempts to get the music as slow as I want it in order for any fixes to take hold and usually getting there takes a lot of not-so-gentle prodding.

In addition to using slow practice to help fix problem spots I also use it in the early stages of learning a new piece of music since my goal is to rarely, if ever, play wrong notes.  While I am learning the correct notes, choosing good fingerings, looking for patterns in the music, and doing basic analysis to enable me to start making musical decisions, I keep the tempo at a tortoise's pace, being very sensitive to where my brain is in the whole process.  The minute my brain begins to disengage, leaving my hands to rely on muscle memory alone, I stop and pull the tempo back again until my mind can constantly be in sync with the rest of my body.  Having approached learning like this consistently for years, music learning goes much more quickly for me now with the added benefit of the end result being more secure.  The time I have to spend at tortoise speed is reduced, allowing me to make like the hare and play up to tempo sooner than I had in the past when I mainly relied on mindless repetition.

There are some things I keep in mind when engaging in slow practice that I think are important:

  • Before doing a passage slowly I play it first close to my desired final tempo to get a sense of the gestures and muscles that will be involved.   When I do this I minimize the chances that I'll have to relearn the passage as I increase the tempo.
  • I try not to linger in slow land for too long.  The time it takes for the tempo to naturally and comfortably get faster just by slowly repeating something over and over again is simply too long.  As a busy woman, I can't afford to wait for that to happen.
  • I rarely build up speed using the metronome for the same reason.  Instead, I take an interval training approach in which I play a small clip slowly several times in a row first.  After playing it correctly repeatedly I then bump up the tempo significantly to see where I am.  If I make a mistake I check to see if there's a problem that needs to be solved.  If there is I try to address it and repeat the interval training sequence.  If there isn't a problem, I simply repeat the slow-fast exercise.  
  • I make sure that I don't shut off musical thinking.  Slow practice is an ideal time to really listen to the music and to try out lots of different musical options.

I guess you could say that in my practicing, I am a bit of a tortoise and a hare.  In my world those two actually get along marvelously. 

To help demonstrate some of what I'm talking about, I recorded myself working on a small snippet of the last movement of Gerald Finzi's "Five Bagatelles" for clarinet and piano, a really great piece in case you don't know it.  I went through the movement a few days ago to learn notes, mark in fingerings, and to indicate which passages I thought would need extra practice - this is one of them.  This is my first go at really working on it and I approached it in my tortoise-hare manner, going back and forth in small snippets until I was able to link everything up comfortably, almost up to tempo.  

So in my race who wins?  The tortoise or the hare?

You guessed it.


PS - Yes, I do realize that's technically a bunny, not a hare in the photo above.  I had a difficult time finding an image of a hare that was in a good position to sit atop that particular scale.  


  1. I remember doing the Finzi - I would have been well-advised to tackle it the way you are. I recall being somewhat frantic with this one...
    Great post!

    1. LaDona,
      Thank you for reading! I have completely fallen in love with Finzi's music but am shocked that he didn't really write for solo piano. Have you heard his Ecologue for piano and strings? Oh my goodness, extraordinarily beautiful, I think. I'm trying to find a string orchestra that would be willing to play it with me.

      All the best,

  2. I think your idea of aiming never to play a wrong note is a good one: that way you'll have no mistakes to unlearn.

    1. That's the idea! I'm currently reading a book called, "The Perfect Wrong Note" though and it's challenging me to rephrase and rethink how what I think about it all. I would say that mistakes can be what we need to learn, I think I just try to ensure that the same mistakes don't get repeated over and over again. That's when mistakes become ingrained and very difficult to reverse.

      Thanks for reading! And happy practicing to you :-)