When I was a teenager, I learned the Prelude and Fugue in C# from Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier. It’s a brisk, joyful work, though the fugue is incredibly tricky because of the key. As usual, I flew through it at breakneck speed heedless of my teacher’s pleas to take in all the details. Flash forward decades and the pandemic finds me sitting at the keyboard relearning a lot of these works from my youth. It has been fascinating rediscovering overlooked details, considering voicing in a more careful way, discarding old fingerings for new. But the most alarming part of it all, is that I orignally learned frankly wrong notes. For example in measure 52, in the left hand I learned that measure with B naturals. But, the key is C# major. Those are B sharps. The notes don’t sound dissonant or wrong per se, but it’s not what Bach wrote.
How could that have happened?
The answer is speed.
I have two stories that I hope will convince you that slowing practice down will solve 99% of technical problems.
Once famed violin pedagogue Ivan Galamian was asked what practice technique he would choose if I he could choose the only one. After all, he trained a generation of performers and wrote widely on technique.
His answer was simple and direct. It was, “Playing it through at half speed, because it gives you time to think.”
The earliest phase of learning a new piece is always slow, halting and imperfect. And it is nearly all a cognitive progress. We read and think our way through it. Later, it becomes more and more automatic. But a rush to that automatic phase, leaves us vulnerable to engraining mistakes or other imperfections in our playing. Playing it slowly means allowing time our thinking brain to catch all of the details that through repetition will become permanent. But we’re not supercomputers. Our algorithms learn slowly.
By playing very slowly, we have time to incorporate and integrate everything that will later become automatic. This is true whether you’re a beginner or a professional.
Rachmaninoff’s “unmusical” practice
One of my favourite stories about slow practice is about how famed pianist and composer Sergei Rachmaninoff practiced. His technique was legendary and he had the gift of large agile hands. So one might imagine his practice regimen would skip the slow slogging parts. But he didn’t.
The story is of a pianist who went to Rachmaninoff’s studio for a coaching session. Standing outside the door, the student thought he must be in the wrong place because he heard someone playing the Chopin Étude in 3rds so slowly that it was nearly unrecognizeable as even music at all!
It seems unlikely that Rachmaninoff’s practice at a snail’s tempo was arbitrary. Likely he had developed this technique to learn works deeply and build technique in stepwise way - first purely cognitively, then later automatically.
A potpourri of slow practice techniques
- Turn sixteenth notes into quarter notes - stop looking at fast passages in small note values. Turn the notes into long notes to free yourself from the pressure of flying through this kind of passage.
- Use the metronome - The metronome is definitely an aid to learning and establishing the rhythm, but it can also be an aid in compelling you to practice slowly. I often use the metronome even in situations where I know the notes and the rhythm well, but I simply need help nudging myself to take it slow so that I’m incorporating my preferred fingerings. It buys me time to think about phrasing and voicing, and pedalling.
- If you’re a pianist, hands-separate practice - practicing hands-separate automatically reduces your workload by at half.