The next installment of “The Three S’s”, this week SLOWLY. I confess to having appeared in print many times on this subject. You can read the full text on my website – (then scroll down a bit).

For those who don’t want to read the article, here’s a summary:

We practise slowly so that the brain can move faster than the fingers. Each note is carefully pre-heard, then played and evaluated. It won’t help only doing this once or twice, it’ll need to be done daily for some time for it to have any lasting effect. It’s human nature to do this once or twice then to want to play it at the proper speed. Try not to, try to go the distance and do it for a week or so!

And yet… no amount of slow practice will equip us to play fast, so there has to be an interim process. You can speed up gradually (each time you repeat the passage it can inch towards the full speed) or  – I much prefer this –  you can build up sections by playing ever-longer soundbites at full speed. You start with two or three notes which you think of as one unit. 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. Then, add another note or two and repeat. You’ll now have a longer soundbite. Go on adding notes until you feel like you have a section that is still within your grasp, then establish a new starting point. That starting point could be the second bar, or half way through the first bar. Then create another soundbite from the indent. Changing starting places and dovetailing sections is good. For those old-timers who remember trying to find a place on a vinyl record, it sounds a bit like that. You drop the needle somewhere within a track, long enough to realise this isn’t quite the place you wanted, then move a centimeter closer to the spindle each time until you find the place you’re looking for. You’re hearing a tiny extract from a full performance.

During this interim stage when you are developing the reflexes for up-to-speed playing, you will want to revert to slow practising because it will feel safe and secure, and you will want to atone for your finger sins. Errors and blemishes are inevitable. Again, resist this for a while. Push through your comfort zone, and only then come back to the slow practice, which you can now do with the up-to-speed playing in alternation.

Actually, it is good to have a variety of practice speeds:

  • Ultra slow for amazing control of fingers, phrasing, sound, balance, pedal, etc. (This is better done in smaller sections.)
  • Still well under the tempo
  • Just under the tempo
  • Just over the tempo
  • Well over the tempo (it will be untidy, you may not last the course but it’s worth striving towards as it really strengthens reflexes and makes the eventual tempo feel easy). This, also, is better done in smaller sections.

One thing worth stressing here – there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all tempo for any piece of music, despite a composer’s metronome mark. The piano may be a machine but we’re not, and the speed we play will vary depending on our biological rhythms, our heartbeat, the resonance of the instrument and the acoustical properties of the performance space (not to mention whimsy and creative juices). (I once had to play rather a complicated piece of chamber music with one very short rehearsal so I made sure I could play it at a variety of different speeds, each one workable in itself. This gave me the flexibility I needed to adapt to the other players, and I learned a valuable lesson.)

One last thing: I recommend using slow practice for maintenance on a regular basis, right up to the day of a performance.






Performing Francois Couperin’s “Les Moissonneurs”