Common sense suggests that if we can play a fast piece faster than intended, it will be easier to manage at the proper tempo, since we will have gone the extra mile. We’ll have stretched our resources and sharpened up the reflexes, and this is indeed an excellent thing to do from time to time in our practice sessions. Short bursts rather than complete performances are fine, and it is often preferable to play lighter, like the singer who marks rather than sings out full voice. When we go back to the normal tempo, it all feels easier.
I like the idea of practising at a variety of different speeds but not mechanically – aim to make the music meaningful in each tempo. This is great if you are learning an accompaniment or an ensemble work, where the flexibility gained from this endeavour can only assist in maximising valuable rehearsal time when you get together with the other player(s).
I would like to put the cat among the pigeons here and state that I don’t believe there is any such thing as the ONE CORRECT TEMPO, even despite indications from the composer. If I am playing a work in a cathedral, for example, I will necessarily have to slow it down to accommodate the acoustical space. If I am playing on a small instrument in a heavily carpeted room, I will most likely go for a faster tempo. The tempo of a piece of music is chameleon-like, surely? If I have had one cup of coffee too many for breakfast, then my performance that evening will likely be faster, because my metabolism and heartbeat will be faster. Music is organic, and performance is inextricably linked with our pulses and moods, our ear accommodating the instrument we are confronted with, and the acoustical space we must cause to resonate.
I still have nightmares about an experience I had some time ago, when I walked past a practice room in a famous institution (which shall remain nameless), and heard a loud electronic voice (the most up-to-date of metronomes, you understand, with an American accent) chiming “ONE AND TWO AND THREE AND FOUR…” where the practiser was presumably forced not only to direct her best concentration to listening to this (rather than the sounds that came from the instrument) but also to cause her performance to conform to something so horribly artificial as a rock-steady robotic pulse. No performance of anything, save perhaps a toccata, will ever adhere religiously to a metronomic pulse. Try it out – go onto YouTube and select a work with numerous recorded examples, preferably something where the composer has specified a precise metronome marking. Despite any explicit instruction “MM=x”, you will find copious examples of disobedience even from the Greats, and even if the performer has managed to begin at the instructed speed, an actual metronome would not be in synch for more than a few beats. And yet this is how it should be!
A good performance is so full of these minute retardations and accelerations that hardly two measures will occupy exactly the same time. It is notorious that to play with the metronome is to play mechanically – the reason being, of course, that we are then playing by the measure, or rather by the beat, instead of by the phrase. A keen musical instinct revolts at playing even a single measure with the metronome: mathematical exactitude gives us a dead body in place of the living musical organism with its ebb and flow of rhythmical energy. It may therefore be suggested, in conclusion, that the use of the metronome, even to determine the average rate of speed, is dangerous. (Daniel Gregory Mason: The Tyranny of the Bar-Line).
Very occasionally I might imagine practising with a metronome, perhaps when tired and in need of some sort of crutch. We might play a passage at “MM=x” then crank it up with each repetition (so “MM=x+1”, then “MM=x+2”, etc.). It is such an obvious thing to do, and don’t get me wrong, it serves a purpose. I guess what troubles me is the recourse to these antics on a regular basis when the practiser has no real clue as to how to work effectively. It’s a bit like going onto autopilot, filling in the time and having the sense that, because you’ve sat there for a couple of hours, you MUST have done something productive. Without the full involvement of the mind, the ear and the critical faculties, any type of practising can prove fruitless. I am railing against mindless mechanical work, such as sitting with the metronome, doing everything in dotted rhythms, etc. There is nothing wrong with practising with a metronome if done for a good reason or practising a passage in dotted rhythms (for enhanced control), but we need to know when to do this, why, and how!
The other day I was practising the slow movement from Beethoven’s C minor concerto and I realised I needed to play it a few times at DOUBLE THE SPEED, so that one event could more easily relate to what came next. It was as though I were looking at the music from a bird’s eye view, able to see the topography in a single snapshot. I recommend this way of practising for slow music!