Slow practice should be fun, but why is it met with resistance when teachers discuss this with their students?
Surely, anyone who has taken music lessons will have heard endlessly about the importance of this type of work and how it can take one's playing to that next step. Unfortunately, this type of practice has been casted aside by many because it is generally viewed as a tedious and mechanical activity. In this post, I would like to share and hopefully convince the skeptics out there that slow practice is not only beneficial to your pianistic development, but how it can also be fun and inspire the creativity within you.
First of all, what is slow practice, really? I define it as a speed in which you can comfortably process, listen, and evaluate all of the information consistently and consciously at all times. I want to stress that the state of consciousness is extremely paramount. Even if you are repeating numerous times at a slower speed than the performance tempo, but are unaware of what is going on physically, musically, aurally, or even when errors occur, it is still too fast! As a result, your practice will be inefficient. Remember: conscious practice makes perfect.
Let's proceed ahead.
Improves listening skills
One of the most common misunderstandings with slow practice is that many think it is only applicable to beginners or those that are in the initial learning stages of a piece. That is farthest from the truth! Sergei Rachmaninoff, for example, one of the greatest pianists of all time, was known to practice pieces so slowly to the point that the work was practically unrecognizable. If you have a moment, check out an excellent blog post by pianist, Graham Fitch, who talks about slow practice and shares a famous story of how Rachmaninov worked.
Several years ago, I stumbled across a rare audio file of Rachmaninov practicing. Similarly to the story that Fitch shares, Rachmaninov worked at an ultra-slow speed, but I noticed another thing that was very revealing: he played without a consistent, regular tempo. And to be clear, I do not think he was working this way primarily to develop his technique, or to a lesser extent, learn the notes, but rather to focus on listening intently to the various tones, harmonies, sonorities, timbres, etc. without being confined to the boundaries of a consistent and steady tempo. When discovering this recording, I found it to be such a humbling experience listening to one of the piano masters working in such a way. If Rachmaninov felt that he needed to do this, I think we all could borrow this approach as well.
(N.B: if you know where I can find this recording, please contact me here. I would be eternally grateful!)
For Rachmaninov, I believe that he felt that slow practice was a way for him to hear things that he may not have discovered had he played at a faster tempo. Next time when you practice, try incorporating some slow work without a regular tempo, and see what you hear or notice. Leave me a comment––I will be curious to know the results!
Develops a greater understanding of the music
With slow practice, it gives you the opportunity to discover new things that you might not have thought of before. Perhaps there was an interesting inner voice that was embedded within all of the textures. Or simply realizing that you need a little bit of wrist rotation to comfortably reach these wide ranging figurations. Or even, rediscovering a different way to shape a certain phrase. Whatever these new revelations that may be, slow practice strengthens one's understanding in a work because it heightens self awareness of technical, musical, and interpretative issues.
As I mentioned in my last post, slow practice is a great aid to reinforce memory before your next performance. Why? Next time, try playing through a polished piece in a slower tempo for memory, but with the same musical intentions as if you were to perform it normally. Theoretically, this exercise should be easier, but I suspect for many, it will be a struggle. Often times, we lean far too much on muscle memory, which is the least reliable during performance especially when nerves and adrenaline come into the fold. Incorporating slow practice before your next concert will add additional "insurance" against memory lapses.
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