I am very glad last week’s post on enjoying slow practice seemed to have interested quite a lot of readers. While practising a fast or fast-ish piece very slowly is wonderful for control and precision – the majority of the world’s finest pianists swear by this technique – it is only one piece of the puzzle and not the whole story. More about this in a moment.
Before I leave the subject of slow practice itself, I fully appreciate and respect that many people find great benefit in practising with the metronome. Here are two exercises I would suggest:
Exercise No. 1
Take a piece you are working on at the moment. Any piece, or a section of a piece will do (provided the intended tempo itself is not too slow).
- Play a few bars and find out what tempo you are playing at – not what you think the tempo should be, but what your actual tempo is.
- Let’s say you are playing at = 120. Now, with the metronome still beating, play at precisely half that speed, = 120. Stick to this strictly.
- Lastly, play it again, but now at a quarter speed. The first time you do this, it will probably be extremely difficult to stick to the slow speed. Persevere and you will feel enormous benefits.
You can of course do this exercise without the metronome, feeling the changes of speed using your inner conductor. I have recently experimented with alternating one bar at full speed with the following bar at half speed, then back to full speed, then half, and so on. Make sure to go back and do it the other way round afterwards. This way of practising certainly keeps you on your toes, but it’s not suitable for all music. Try it out and see how it could work for you.
Exercise No. 2
Take the fastest predominant note value in a piece or passage. Let’s say this is a semiquaver (or 16th note). Set the metronome to beat at 60 and play at = 60. This is extremely challenging and will take a lot of control, especially in the areas of the music that move in slower note values.
The Photographic Enlargement
The more we enlarge a photograph, the greater the detail we can perceive; the slower we play, the more we see and hear. For example, in this close-up photograph, you can see the fine detail in sharp focus, but it is not easy to get a sense of the whole:
In the original image, you get a sense of the whole but not the detail:
Variety of Tempos
Rather like a painter who will need to alternate close-up work on a small corner of his canvas with stepping back to see how this fits in with the overall picture and then make the necessary adjustments, we rely on many different tempos for practising. If slow work enables us to concentrate on every single detail, then its drawback is that we might not see the wood for the trees and thus we risk losing the overall sweep of the music. No amount of slow practice will equip us with the motor control to play fast, and yet too much playing of fast passages at speed will adversely affect our motor control so that we lose finesse.
It is of course the ultra-slow tempo that is so hard to commit to, because the musical meaning is effectively lost or distorted. For this to be effective, we already have to have a good idea of the musical content and to draw on our reserves of concentration (which need to be considerable).
Both slow and fast practice are necessary, it is a question of getting the two in balance
Slow practice by itself will not necessarily enable us to play a fast piece at speed, neither is it a panacea for all the problems we face at the piano. We need to build in the reflexes for up-to-speed playing. In last week’s post, I touched on a process I call Little Bits Fast; I would like to go into this now in more detail.
Little Bits Fast
Anyone listening to Little Bits Fast done properly will recall (if they are old enough) trying to find the exact spot in the middle of a piece on a vinyl record. You drop the needle down somewhere and see if you’re close. It might take a few notes for you to locate where you are in the piece, or you might need a bar or so before you realise you need to move the needle that bit closer to the spindle. What you are hearing is a tiny sound bite from a complete performance.
The benefit of Little Bits Fast is that we are practising a performance – albeit snippets of one – rather than going through the motions mechanically. In this process we include every aspect of performance (the proper dynamic/expressive range, feeling, energy, as well as tempo), but we play just a short burst. The segment can be just a few notes to start with, and then we add more notes until we have whole bars and then phrases. If we move the goalposts by changing the starting and stopping places each time, the stops will not have the chance to become ingrained. As we proceed with this approach, the segments will be longer until we can play whole sections at full speed and with all nuances.
Here is how the process might look:
- Start with just two or three notes, think of this as one unit and play in one impulse, as one gesture.
- Do a few repetitions at full speed (or close to full speed). Don’t be mechanical though; play with the intended dynamics and range of expression as though you were performing. Make sure to leave enough thinking and breathing space between repetitions so that you start each afresh.
- Then add another note or two and repeat. You now have a longer sound bite.
- Go on adding notes until you feel like you have a section that is within your grasp.
- Then establish a new starting point; this could be the second bar, or half way through the first bar.
- Now create another sound bite from the indent, and so on.
During this stage, when we are developing the reflexes for up-to-speed playing, we will want to revert to slow practising because it feels safe and secure and because it will feel somehow wrong not to correct mistakes. Resist! As we develop speed some minor errors and blemishes are almost inevitable as we practise, no matter how lofty our goal never to produce anything less than perfect. We do not allow these slips to become ingrained, however, because on the next few repetitions we summon the coordination and motor skills needed to iron out the wrinkles. As we resist slow practice during this process, we push through our comfort zone, coming back to the slow practice after a few days. Thereafter, we can do slow work with the up-to-speed playing in alternation when we sense the need.
I explore this subject in depth in Part One of my eBook series, Practising the Piano – The Practice Tools.