A respected colleague teaching at the College level used to challenge his new students in their first lesson with him by getting them to play almost impossibly slowly with the metronome. He would find the fastest note value in their piece, which was to be equal to one click of the metronome set to 60. Let’s say the fastest note value was a semiquaver (sixteenth note), this means a crotchet (quarter note) would have to be held for four seconds, and a minim (half note) for eight seconds! I’m not sure if this ploy was to stress the value of extremely slow practice speeds or whether it was an act of deliberate cruelty, but I’m sure the experience was a challenging and none-too-pleasant one for the student.
Slow practice helps us to see every atom and molecule that make up the big picture. It is like looking at a painting close up – we zoom in on one area of the canvas and see every brush stroke, every little nuance. In doing so we inevitably lose sight of the bigger gestures and thus the sweep, direction and overall meaning of the music. But since we know we can simply increase our speed to our ideal tempo after a bout of slow practice we are happy to submit ourselves to this discipline, knowing it is good for brain and finger.
I have written much about the various different types of slow practice we can use and I think it is fairly safe to say that all of us use a certain amount of slow practice in our work at the piano, especially for fast pieces. This is hardly revolutionary. What is hardly discussed at all, as far as I can make out, are the enormous and various benefits of practising slow music fast. I would like to explore this subject in today’s post.
Since slow music often expresses grand, noble emotions it might feel like sacrilege to trivialise it by skipping through it faster. I feel this is a big part of why pianists don’t do it. As long as we keep in mind that fast music practised slow is just as distorted as slow music practised fast, we will accept it because we appreciate its value. For me, there are three main advantages of fast practice. Here they are:
Have you noticed that fast pieces have a tendency to get faster the longer you play them? I don’t mean they start off at one tempo and end at another, faster one (although this can happen too, of course), but rather that the tempo you find yourself choosing seems to increase with familiarity. It’s as though we retain a sense of the fastness of the music as being tied up with struggle to reach the tempo, and we need to feel when we have achieved the ideal. I have found the opposite tends to happen with slow music, that it gets ever slower over time until it sags and drags and becomes shapeless – an andante has now morphed into a molto adagio, and it is virtually comatose.
It can sometimes be hard to hold onto a pulse in slow music, to feel the main beats without subdividing them into smaller denominations. While subdividing is necessary to make sure we are counting things out correctly, the negative side effects of hanging on to this way of feeling the pulse are like looking down at each footstep on a journey, or looking at each letter in a word and then each word in a sentence. We need a sense of metrical hierarchy so we can feel the main beats no matter how far apart these are spaced in real time.
Here is where fast practising comes in. I hear very many performances of the Pathétique Sonata where the main beats don’t relate at the start, sometimes to the extent that there is no pulse whatever until bar 5 when the regular LH semiquavers come in. Yes it will temporarily destroy the drama and the grandeur of this music to practise it twice as fast (or even faster), but I guarantee even after doing this just a few times you will feel the rhythmic structure and phrase shape significantly more clearly when reverting to your chosen tempo. If the dotted notes are impossible to handle at this speed, simply make a skeleton such as this, hearing inwardly what you have left out :
Bird’s Eye View
Let’s take another grand piece in C minor, the opening of Bach’s Second Partita. It is easy to lose sight of the bigger picture as we make all sorts of decisions about how we play the chords (do we roll them, break them or play them together?) and the dotted rhythms (are we supposed to double dot them or do them ‘as written’?). Think of the chords as pillars from which we drape the other notes, and as a harmonic progression where one chord relates in intensity to the next. Playing fast a few times (with and without the dotted rhythms that come in between) will help us see the whole phrase as one. We see the topography of the whole rather than getting stuck in each isolated vertical event. It’s all to do with line:
Another very considerable benefit of practising slow music deliberately fast (and this goes for fast pieces too actually!) is the sharpening up of our reflexes. Try it – take a slow piece or a slow movement and play it noticeably faster than your intended speed. Do this a couple of times in a row and then go back to the original speed. Everything will feel looser and easier, as though arms and fingers have been lubricated.
For more on fast practice, see Chapter 1 in Volume 2 of my ebook series, Practising the Piano:
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