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7 minutes reading time (1314 words)

Summer 2021: How Slow is Slow? A Practical guide for Implementing Slow Practice

Many years ago, my undergraduate piano professor, Dr. Robin Hancock, told me a story regarding the pre-recital preparation of his teacher, the legendary pianist Anthony di Bonaventura. My teacher sneaked into the Tsai Performance Center at Boston University and hid behind the chairs, eager to find out what Mr. Di Bonaventura did before his recital. Di Bonaventura was playing the music extremely slowly—so slowly that the music was not recognizable. My teacher was astonished at this level of concentration and assured me that it would be an impossible task if a pianist did not know the music thoroughly.

"Practice slowly" is one of the most common assignments given when students encounter technical problems in their repertoire. Slow practice is often the "silver bullet" to solving these issues, and musical problems can also be addressed by this strategy. However, while its importance is emphasized, often there is little explanation regarding how to practice slowly. Students are often left wondering what they need to do specifically, leading to frustration and poor use of practice time. My own struggles with an effective slow practice method inspired me to investigate how concert pianists practice. The findings are beneficial to students of any level.

During my doctoral studies, my primary interest shifted from performance to pedagogy, specifically effective practice techniques. I strongly believed there must be aspects to concert pianists' preparation that set them apart. To test my theory, I interviewed four distinguished pianists concerning their practice strategies. These pianists were: Dr. Lydia Artymiw from the University of Minnesota, Dr. Sergey Schpekin from Carnegie Mellon University, Mr. Ory Shihor from Ory Shihor Institute, and Dr. Scott Holden from Brigham Young University. These pianists have won international awards, performed with prestigious  orchestras, and taught students who are regular prize winners. Six habits were found in the practice habits of all four pianists, and slow practice was one of  these. Below is a summary and analysis of their slow practice strategies.

WHAT IS SLOW PRACTICE?

Slow practice involves playing the music at a slower-than-performance tempo. But, how slow is slow? It is important to play at a tempo slow enough that you are consciously aware of every musical detail and are physically capable of executing everything perfectly.

WHY IS SLOW PRACTICE IMPORTANT ?

When learning a new piece, we must absorb much information. There are tone colors, articulations, dynamics, shaping, phrasing, pedaling, fingering, body movement, emotion, meaning, and many other musical elements we need to process within only a single passage. It is simply impossible to register all the information at a fast speed. Because the brain has a limited capacity, pianists need to slow down and allow the brain to process, learn, and remember these details. Trying to master all of the details at one time and at a fast tempo will likely cause overload. It is best to first work on one aspect of the music, letting the brain register the music thoroughly. This will free more capacity to master another musical element. This action needs to be done at a tempo at which the brain can register the information comfortably. If the information does not register, you are prone to forget what you practiced the previous day. Practicing slowly is the fastest way to reach your goal.

Problem solving is another reason for slow practice. Oftentimes, I see students practice a passage repeatedly, but the same mistake keeps happening. This happens because students do not know where the problem is. The difficulty may occur in the transition from one note to another, and slow practice allows careful examination to determine where, what, and why the problem is occurring.

Problem solving includes three basic steps: identifying the problem, determining why the problem exists, and experimenting with various solutions.

First, identify the problem. Is it a tactile error—not knowing what to do physically, or is it a cognitive error—not knowing the score? Tactile errors can be solved by experimenting with different positions of your playing mechanism. Studying the score and meticulously analyzing the harmonic structure can solve cognitive errors.

Second, why is this problem occurring? Is it because my playing mechanism is not coordinated? Is it because I do not know the passage's harmonic structure? Or is it both? After you discover the cause of the problem, try various solutions and find the one that suits you best. Huge improvements can be gained by a small change, such as adjusting by just one inch where your fingers land. These are things you might miss if you do not slow everything down and be mindful of what you are doing physically and musically.

The last step often involves experimenting with physical adjustments. When a tactile problem occurs, rearranging our playing mechanism—fingers, wrists, arms, shoulder, back, torso, etc.—can produce more comfort and stability. Discomfort is usually a sign our playing mechanism is not coordinated properly. Playing too fast will eliminate the chance to carefully evaluate our motions, therefore preventing our brains from determining a better solution. Once the incorrect motion is found, it will take you twice the effort to reprogram your brain and rectify the problem. Slow down and try various angles or positions to establish a motion that will provide a solid foundation that will assist in executing the passage musically and comfortably. Once you find the most comfortable motion, remember to test it at performance tempo to ensure it will work at that speed.

WHEN SHOULD SLOW PRACTICE BE USED?

When learning a new piece, practice can be categorized into three stages: preparation, automaticity, and polishing. Preparation involves studying your score, listening to recordings, analyzing the music, establishing fingering, and finding background information about the piece. Automaticity is where you isolate difficult passages and drill them. This drilling helps achieve the automaticity needed for secure performance. The goal during this stage is to move from needing to think about every detail to having everything absorbed so thoroughly that it can be executed without thinking. It is during this preparation that a concert pianist will focus on slow practice the most.

During the polishing stage you start to perform the piece to determine if there are more things you need to improve. Be patient with yourself, and do not rush things. Use slow practice as often as needed. If you feel insecure about a passage, it is usually a good sign you need to practice it slowly. At the same time, do not indulge in too much slow practice. Make sure you are also practicing to achieve the muscle memory needed for the performance tempo.

Learning the music correctly is crucial to a successful performance. Because it creates a strong technical and musical foundation, slow practice may be used during any stage. It is the best tool to form this important layer of understanding. Slow practice can save valuable time, eliminating the need to relearn physical or musical aspects.

HOW SHOULD SLOW PRACTICE BE EXECUTED?

Often students will practice slowly, but with incorrect motions. Their playing mechanisms might be completely uncoordinated—wrists too high, arms too tight, fingers too flat, etc.—yet, they can still produce the desired sound at a slow tempo. This creates an illusion they are building stability towards the performance tempo. They will find that, after many hours of practice, these incorrect motions do not work at the performance tempo. This not only wastes valuable time, but also causes frustration. It is incredibly important to test the targeted passage at the performance tempo to get a general feeling of how the playing mechanism needs to work. Then, reduce the tempo to slow-motion, maintaining the correct technique and building strength, speed, and stability from there.

When you are practicing slowly, you are essentially training your brain and body to do the correct things at the correct time. Practice slowly to achieve the mindfulness needed for every single note. Your brain should always be ahead of your fingers—meaning you already know what to do physically and musically before you attack the keys. Mistakes often happen when we rely on tactile memory and are not cognitively aware. Once you feel comfortable mentally and physically at a set tempo, gradually increase the speed until you reach the final tempo.

Slow practice allows your brain to register information, conduct problem solving, engineer the playing mechanism, and program your brain. The foundational work achieved during this process can lead to more physically comfortable and musically convincing performances.

SZE-YIN, WONG, a native of Hong Kong, holds degrees in Piano Performance from the University of Utah (D.M.A.), Boston University (M.M.), and Brigham Young University (B.M.). His research focuses on pedagogy and advocates for high-performing habits in piano practice.


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Comments 1

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Harry Montoya on Sunday, 19 September 2021 21:06

Muy interesante fuera conocer los otros aspectos del trabajo de practica de los 4 pianistas , que no contempla este del estudio lento...

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Muy interesante fuera conocer los otros aspectos del trabajo de practica de los 4 pianistas , que no contempla este del estudio lento...

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