Is Slow Practice Really Necessary?

Like everyone else in the world who has ever taken music lessons, I’ve been urged to practice slowly on many an occasion.

But did I heed my teachers’ advice?

Nope.

After all, what’s the point of slow practice? Everything is easier slower – of course you can play things more accurately at a slow tempo. What’s the big deal?

But…why do so many people swear by slow practice?

Slow practice in the martial arts

I began dabbling a bit in the martial arts when I went to college. My karate sensei would often make us practice our techniques in super slow motion to ensure we were using proper form and really developing an understanding of the nuances of each movement.

Of course, it took me a while to understand why we were doing this. At first, as in music, I thought it was a waste of time. But then I realized how much more difficult it was to punch or kick in slow motion. It required a much deeper understanding of what each movement actually required. Slowly (ha, ha), I came to understand where I had missed the boat all these years.

The point is not whether the punch or kick hits the target (or whether you nail the shift or get the note in tune), but whether you do everything correctly along the way. Meaning, are you keeping your key muscles loose? Are you moving all of your muscles in the most effective way? Are you maximizing accuracy and efficiency? Are you nailing every single tiny little detail?

Slow practice in music

I had forgotten all about this until very recently, when I had the pleasure of interviewing Philadelphia Orchestra concertmaster David Kim (incidentally, check out his personal jetlag remedy).

He revealed that one of the keys to his success (and building confidence as well) is super slow practice. A process of practicing in slow motion – while being fully mindful, highly engaged, and thinking deeply in real-time about what he is doing.

Incidentally, this is not a painful torturous process, but often an engrossing and gratifying one. A way in which to open up the door to many satisfying micro-discoveries that could ultimately be the key to getting a phrase to sound just so, and communicating exactly what it is that you intend.

This is much like what golfing great Ben Hogan apparently did to hone his golf swing – check out this video of Hogan demonstrating how he works on his stroke in slow motion.

Two misunderstandings

So why don’t we do more slow practice? It’s not because we’re lazy; I think it’s just a big misunderstanding.

1. We are too concerned with the outcome, not the process

Meaning, we forget that how we get there is just as important as whether or not we do.

The point of slow practice is not just to slow things down in order to play it perfectly. It’s about fine-tuning the execution, and looking for additional ways to play it even better while we are playing slowly enough to monitor and think about the little details.

Are you cultivating the right habits, so that when the tempo increases, you are still playing it the right way? Or are there lots of inefficiencies, or bad habits that will lead to breakdowns when you increase the tempo?

2. We don’t practice slowly enough.

Since the whole point is to be able to think, monitor, and analyze our technique as we are playing, practicing at a moderate tempo defeats the purpose. It’s too fast for us to observe, fully process, and tweak all the little details.

The idea is to utilize super slow practice so that we can pay attention to all the subtle nuances of our mechanics, increase our awareness of what is actually happening, and find ways to make things better.

So it might be more accurate to think of this as slow-motion practice or super-slow practice, rather than regular old slow practice, which tends to lead to mindless play-throughs of a passage at a moderately slow tempo.

Read this article written by martial arts expert Peter Freedman, which helps to clarify what we ought to be doing when we’re practicing slowly.

Take action

Try it out! And don’t forget to have your practice notebook handy, as you will undoubtedly discover new solutions and subtle technical details that you weren’t previously aware of.

Bonus reading: Download this great article about how the brain and muscles work together to develop our skills, specifically in music. It’s written by neurologist and author Dr. Frank Wilson, and is one of those classic must-reads that has often been passed around from musician to musician.

UPDATE: Need some help going from slow to fast? Here are some ideas from Gerald Klickstein.

UPDATE: Came across a study once which suggested that in some cases we learn faster when we emphasize speed over accuracy (What?! Sounds like heresy, I know). Here’s a nifty exercise that gets at this idea.

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice,
Why Are Performances Still so Hit or Miss?

It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.

Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills, and perhaps a few other tweaks in your approach to practicing too. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing – a home-study course where you’ll explore the 6 skills that are characteristic of top performers. And learn how you can develop these into strengths of your own. And begin to see tangible improvements in your playing that transfer to the stage.

Comments

110 Responses

  1. This is great advice of course but I feel there must be something said for intelligent practise at tempo. As a undergraduate string player I took my teachers advice on slow practise very seriously but I wish someone showed me where to draw the line with my slow technical work!
    Your movements change so drastically at different speeds that slowing down a passage which requires a fast or bounced stroke for example is a waste of time. If you slow down a video of somebody running, do they look like they’re walking really fast? No, and the same can be said for the bow.
    I still practise many things very slowly every day but it definitely doesn’t work for everything I realised eventually, one must know where to apply these tools and why they are doing it.

    1. Hi Rayle,

      Good point. Slow practice alone won’t help us reach our goals any more than fast practice alone will. The challenge, of course, is in finding the right balance and knowing when to do what.

  2. Great article, and a reminder that if the practise isn’t working, maybe it isn’t slow enough. But I am also intrigued by the way practising at varying tempos works. For instance, where a passage is to be performed very fast, as I increases the speed in practise I am aware of qualitative changes in my awareness and attention. I wonder what is happening neurologically, and whether this can be exploited to devise an optimal strategy for practising at different tempi.

      1. I think there are two processes going on, one is the obvious one that as one gets faster one has less time to think about the notes, and at a certain point one is no longer thinking about individual notes. The other aspect of it is something I sense but can’t describe very well – it feels like the way working working memory is representing the music changes qualitatively as the amount of music within a given time frame increases. Perhaps that is another way of describing the same thing.

        1. I wonder if the comparison might be drawn between acquiring a spoken language and learning to play music. When one is first practicing speaking, sometimes the phonemes are not pronounced well and the result is an odd sounding or unintelligible word. One has to go back and work the throat and mouth parts well to clearly and intelligibly sound the word. Later, when practicing conversation, one must sometimes stop and look at grammatical structure to comprehend how to more clearly say what is intended. Eventually, one forgets about phonemes entirely, thinks about structure as a tool, and instead focuses on conveying ideas and meaning dynamically through both body language and speech. We over learn things and gain mastery over what works for us until we find ourselves stuck and unable to convey what we want. That’s when we go back and learn what is necessary to meet our needs, awkward as that can be given it challenges our working memory. However, if we do not consciously practice using the new content with care, we will sound stilted and forced – the language will not flow.

  3. I had never had anyone explain “slow practice” to me as a kid learning piano. Ever. The holes in my knowledge of practice stagger me as an adult, which is why I suppose I got fairly good but never more than that. Practice to me, and this is all that I ever knew, was just mindlessly doing things over and over and over a million times and expecting them to get better by magic. Now, at 46, I’m playing better than I ever have just because I know what slow practice and mental practice are, and because of the advances we’ve obtained on dealing with stage fear.

    Slow practice is as much mental as anything else — we play our instruments with our MINDS. And going super-slowly allows our minds to know and file away every single atom of that music without relying on involuntary momentum to carry us forward and paper over the potholes. If you train your mind to remember all 187 little tricks and tips you need to play something well — “lift your wrist there, okay roll that chord a bit, now it’s those triplets, make sure to put more pressure on the top notes on this part, okay those parallel sixths are coming up so keep your wrist supple” — then when the times comes, your mind will recall them at speed while playing.

    And slow practice also puts the music into your conscious awareness, where you can get to it if you tense up and lose connection to your muscle memory, as happens when you choke. Very often, getting to the point where you can play something without thinking means that you can’t play it WITH thinking. Slow practice keeps you from zoning out on that zillionth run-through, so that the music stays at the forefront of your mind, and if you tense up or start to choke, you can still access it. Playing things at speed for the large number of times needed to learn them is a recipe for zoning out and blanking when you get on stage and the butterflies pop up in your stomach.

    I wish so badly that all this had been more common knowledge when I was little — but it wasn’t.

    1. Hi Janis,

      I’m reminded of the quote “The older I get, the smarter my parents were”. Funny how all this great knowledge was always there for us, but we just had to get there the slow way.

  4. I am a huge proponent of slow practice, I might even venture to say that it is the only way; start slow and build, I have been prescribing this to my student for years. Being engaged in the process will yield you tremendous outcomes.

  5. Great article! I would also say that the key is finding the balance between slow practice and fast movements. And also keeping your focus high while practicing.

  6. In my experience, if slow practice is done with conscious implementation of efficient technical / mechanical / aesthetic goals, then faster movements start to flow somewhat automatically. In the extreme, a player might actually have to hold back the impetus to go faster. That said, there is still “work” to be done to achieve very high levels of speed if suitable. One technique that comes to mind is the tremolo for classical guitar. Most prescriptions for mastering it are almost painfully minute & detailed, but must be learned for a truly clean, breathtaking result.

  7. Another excellent article, Noa – thanks for creating such fine content. I especially appreciate your emphasis on mindful attention and a process orientation.

    Regarding the issue of balance you raise in your comment, I’ve observed that aspiring musicians often have difficulty connecting their actions at slow tempos with those they’ll employ at faster tempos. I address that topic in my post “A Different Kind of Slow Practice.” I invite you to read and comment: http://musiciansway.com/blog/2011/02/a-different-kind-of-slow-practice/

  8. I think that the idea of slow practice is to also have the final tempo in mind of the piece you are working on and to not simply practice “note to note”, but to practice with the correct expressive and technical needs you will need for the tempo you are striving for. Also, you want to get the passage up to speed as quickly as possible and to not meander in slow speeds for an unnecessarily long time.

  9. Great article. I just posted a similar article, by Bill Plake, on my website (http://drumchattr.com/practice-slowly/) yesterday. I believe that in our fast paced society, it is difficult to teach young students to have the patience to practice slowly.

    I also think that one of the toughest things is to find the balance between practicing slowly and speeding up when you are preparing for a recital or concert. I find that some of my students get caught up in practicing slowly that sometimes they don’t get to a desired performance tempo.

    When I am learning a new piece, I practice at least half tempo (depending on the end tempo and the difficulty of the piece). Once I feel I have a section in my hands (at the slow tempo), I use my metronome app (Tempo Advanced) and loop sections while gradually speeding up one metronome click for each loop. I keep track on the progress and I make sure that I have goals set-up for learning a piece before the desired performance date.

    Thanks again for your post. I look forward to reading and sharing with my students the other articles you have linked to in the post.

    Cheers!

    1. Hi Dave,

      Thanks for the suggestions! And for the metronome app recommendation too. In fact, I wonder how many useful apps there are for musicians. Are you aware of any top 10 or top 50 lists?

      Noa

  10. Just remembered something interesting: My grad degree organ professor at a prominent university recommended reading a NEW piece the first time as close to final tempo as possible. That’s (probably) the only time you’ll experience & hear it the same way as a listener to whom the piece is new.
    – Then follow up with “normal” good practice techniques, including slow, methodical work. (She required that I mark fingerings for EVERY note in the score! Fun with Bach organ fugues, etc.! At the time I was not a beginner, but had played piano close to 20 years, organ about 8 or 9 years, including as a Bachelor’s degree major.)

  11. Practicing very slowly gives one the illusion of slowing down time. One is then able to concentrate on the space between the notes. For me, the primary benefit is in the development of bow distribution. By the time I am practicing slowly, I have decided on a musical plan. The slow practice is the “chiseling in” part of the process, where I make certain that the musical intent is backed up by intelligent technique. I would recommend to all the book, The Working Clarinetist, by Peter Hadcock. I learned a great deal about practicing from this book. Also, even though it is for the clarinetist, it is a fascinating study into just how deeply one can get into a few bars of important music.

    1. Thank you for the book recommendation, Joseph. I’ve always gotten a lot out of books written by musicians who play different instruments than my own, and will certainly check this one out as well.

      Indeed, some of the most profound lessons I’ve learned about music have come from coachings with pianists.

  12. Thank you Dr. Kageyama for this article. As a retired fighter from before the creation of the term “MMA,” my late violin professor had asked me to do my doctoral dissertation on the manner in which I had fused my martial arts with my violin playing as well as my violin teaching, but it only made it as far as an abstract as the additional professors that were supposed to offer input on the project all had one key problem: they could theorize, but none of them could actually put anything into practice, much less fight. There are myriad lessons to be learned from the martial arts by musicians, but this article was absolutely fantastic. I would like to offer that reading up on historical research into the martial arts has also provided as many if not more insights and new ideas to relate to the art of music in comparison to the practice of the martial arts themselves with one of the more valuable ones I’ve found so far to be Dr. Bruce Clayton’s contributions to the field, as well as “The Killing Art,” written about the history of Tae Kwan do. Like any treatise, there are areas for further research and clarification, but those books were a great start. Bravo on a great article. and thanks again!

    1. Hi Chia-Chien,

      What an interesting combination! I’d love to do more than dabble in the martial arts someday. It’s such a fascinating craft, both from a physical and mental standpoint. And thank you for the book recommendation, I’ll check it out asap!

    2. I studied Yang Style Tai Chi in Boston in the 1970’s. I found it very helpful with matters violinistic, without the violent aspects of a full contact martial art. Interestingly in this context, it is best done very slowly.

    1. Hello Sue, your reply “slow practice with a deep focus on a goal”….please can you elaborate on this? I know your sentence sounds pretty self explanatory but if you could offer an example or paraphrase it differently please. Slow practice is something I have been coming across a lot recently especially through the Suzuki method and through Suzuki summer institute connections with some really amazing pedagogues who stressed slow practice but only briefly and yet it came across that this was vital. I’ve seen your posts on the Suzuki Parents site and would appreciate your input! 🙂

      1. I’m sorry I didn’t see this earlier. Briefly, the goal is for motivation. Without it, practice can feel pointless to a young beginner. The combination of working towards a goal at a speed which precludes mistakes is a winner.

  13. A former student of mine sent me your excellent post with the comment that she had learned from my cello pedagogy class at Temple University that there is a big difference between ‘slower’ and ‘slow enough.’ Practicing slowly means slow enough that you can hear, see, and feel everything that you are doing and can make sure that everything that you are doing is correct. That often means moving at a snail’s pace and putting pauses between each portion of a complex action.

    As several of your readers have observed, it is also important to know how to move one’s practice from slow to playing at tempo, which involves, among other things, carefully analyzing how your motions need to change as the tempo increases. Jerry Klickstein addresses this (among many other things) superbly.

    Here is a small portion of the general principals from my pedagogy class:
    ________________
    I. Goals of playing
    1. Make it sound good
    2. Don’t injure yourself

    II. Goals of Teaching
    1. What it should sound like (musicianship and tone)
    2. How to get it that way (technique)
    a) What to do (what it looks like)
    b) How to do it (what it feels like)
    c) Why it works (physics, physiology, logic)

    III. Teaching (and Practicing) Schools
    1. Result oriented (what it should sound like)
    2. Methodological/Instrumental (rules & technical exercises)
    3. Procedural/Experiential (what it feels like)

    IV. How to Practice
    1. Goal is to form habits
    2. Play slowly enough to make sure it’s right (hear, see, and feel everything)
    __________________
    A reader observed that there are many techniques, such as sautille, which cannot be practiced slowly. While the bowing itself cannot work at too slow a tempo, one can utilize other strategies to practice slowly such as increasing the number of bows-per-note so that the bow moves at tempo while the left hand notes are slow.

    1. Sounds like such a valuable class! I suspect we generally feel so pressed for time, that we don’t often stop and think about what we’re trying to do, how best to do it, and why. Reminds me of that quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”

  14. Mr. Solow’s quote from his teacher is great! I did a web search, which had numerous attributions to Stravinsky, however.
    – Many years ago I read that Itzhak Perlman said he spends time in very slow practice. When I read it, I thought “Why would anyone at that level of achievement have to practice slowly?!” Over the years, it started to make more & more sense, for the excellent reasons discussed here. As a mostly-retired studio teacher (classical guitar) of serious amateurs, I find it challenging to make the point and slow people down as part of what we do — especially when an adult comes in after a full work day “full steam ahead.”

  15. Another technique I find really useful is practicing at normal speed and isolating small groups of notes, starting with two notes and then adding notes one by one, always focusing on accuracy (even better with a metronome). At the first mistake you stop immediately and start all over again…. so you don’t have to speed anything up, just keep adding notes, you will be focusing on small details, but at the same time you will be building the strength and agility you need to play at normal speed. It requires a lot of discipline and you brain is somehow more engaged. yo can also pickup your notes at odd places and try to star perfectly on tempo (also better with a metronome) With slow practice there is always the risk of going into automatic pilot after a few bars.

    1. To work on perfecting a passage of fast notes, Steven Staryk taught me to *play 4 notes AT TEMPO, stop, play the next 4, stop, repeat from *. Then you start 1 note later, and same process. When all 4 ways are complete, you then take 8 notes, and treat similarly. It takes a while, but boy, does it help that passage at the final tempo! Another aspect of “slow practice”…

  16. My former Drumset teacher, Stanley Spector, required students to play his material at mm. 80 =an eighth note triplet, counting out loud, while visualizing the notation.
    he was doing this as far back as the early 1950’s! he passed away in the 1980’s, but his course is now available for all musicians to study at stanleyspector.com. his course had many parallels with your philosophy.

  17. I always teach that slow practice should be “Practice in Slow Motion”. Often we play things differently when we slow down so we need to be mindful of the style that we ‘intend’ when we slow things down so we are going Apples to Apples when we return to tempo.

  18. Like any exercise, muscle memory will take over whether you’re doing it right or wrong so you’d better slow it down so you can get it right.

  19. To accomplish something meaningful when practicing slowly, it’s important to be aware of the physical elements from an internal “mindful” standpoint. Hard to explain, but once experienced, it means the artist can turn it around mentally, and USE the physical element to initiate the playing mechanism. Examples (classical guitar): Find “release” points between prominent stretch or tension producing fingerings; direction of the fretting arm (right, left, across, diagonal); one hand position as the pathway to the next.
    The physical element required will differ according to individual instruments, but just playing slowly for the sake of slowly can be boring as all get-out, and a disincentive.
    – Cultivate awareness.

  20. Mindful practicing is indeed crucial. I often advise my students that when they are learning a piece, they should use everything they know about cello playing to help them play the piece better but also use practicing the piece to teach them more about cello playing. I concluded my 1989 American String Teacher article on practicing with this sentence: “One final thought: remember that the most important part of your body to use correctly when practicing is–your brain.”

  21. What do people think of the following idea from Kenny Werner?

    The Learning Diamond. In his book Effortless Mastery, Kenny Werner introduces this image of learning. It’s at the end and a lot of people have missed the fact that this is one of the greater points he makes in the book.

    In what follows, I replace the word “effortlessly” with “relaxed”, meaning without unnecessary stress in the body or mind. To me, the use of the word “effortless” implies that practicing is not work, and that is a poisonous idea. I look at the propper physical and mental state as “dynamic relaxation”, meaning being relaxed but awake and flexible, ready to act.

    In order to really master something you need to work at it using what Werner calls “the learning diamond”. It has four corners, or points. One is at the top and can’t be taken away and that’s play in a state of dynamic relaxation. The other three are “play the whole piece”, “play fast (or in tempo)” and “play perfectly”.

    when you learn something new and sit down to practice, you must always be relaxed, plus any two of the remaning three points. The available possibilities are:

    A. Play it effortlessly, in time and perfectly but not the whole thing. There may be a really small part of the piece you can play in time and perfectly and still do it without any effort. It may be as little as one or two notes.

    B. Play it effortlessly, perfectly and play the whole thing but not in time. Play it perfectly and without any effort as slowly as you need, not worrying about keeping time.

    C. Play it effortlessly, in time and the whole thing but not perfectly. This has a therapeutic effect. You will get a feel for how it is to play the piece in tempo by playing it in time and all the way through but not perfectly.

  22. I looked up this book on Amazon and found this review, which was quite in line with Chris Smart’s comment:

    “I bought this book because the promising title and its overwhelmingly positive reviews intrigued me. I even was aware of an ‘Effortless Mastery’ study group on a piano forum I occasionally follow. Unfortunately, it was not what I expected.

    I came away from reading ‘Effortless Mastery’ with one single substantive idea, and Mr. Werner withholds it until the end. If you want to spare yourself from wading through his insights on life and culture (and a whole lot of warm and fuzzy new age touchy-feely ‘wisdom’), I can distill the crux of Mr. Werner’s practical advice into a concise paragraph.

    In a nutshell, this is it. When learning a piece of music, there are three interdependent factors – speed, accuracy, and the length of the segment being practiced – and one can maintain two of those elements simultaneously but never all three. So if your concern is strict accuracy, for example, (1) you may practice at the target tempo just a brief fragment, or (2) you may practice a lengthy passage but only at a slow tempo. One factor must always be sacrificed for the other two until mastery is achieved (‘effortless’ or otherwise!).

    Unless you’re interested in esoteric musings and advice about meditation, there’s nothing else here. …”

    1. I think there is a lot more to Kenny Werner’s book than the Learning Diamond. I know that some people are put off by the spiritual stuff in it, but the acquisition of mastery in musical performance is in part a mysterious process and not just a matter of using a bunch of techniques, exercises and tricks. The states of mind that constitute “flow” are not straight-forward to describe or teach. For me meditation along the lines described by Werner as well as Mindfulness techniques are an essential part of achieving and maintaining a good mental state for performance. The book also has a lot of humour and a wealth of experience from this great musician.

      1. What puts a lot of musicians off about Werner is something most of them won’t admit to – his emphasis on self-care and avoiding stress and frustration. Many, if not most, musicians got where they are by tolerating a lot of bad karma from teachers, peers and themselves. They’ll be dammed if they want things to be any better for the next generations.

  23. This is great, thank you all for the ideas.

    As others have said, I think I practiced too much slowly (maybe not slowly enough) when I was young. Maybe I didn’t understand how to use tthe slow practice to prepare to play faster. Later I saw a teacher (of classical Indian tabla) encouraging his student to play faster. “Faster, faster, faster!”, he said, and I realized there is a place for that too.

    I am reminded of something from typing practice. When practicing for accuracy, one does not strive for speed at all. Likewise, when practicing for speed one doesn’t worry about accuracy. Later, try for both.

  24. Thank you for a wonderful inspiring article, which I put to practical use. I’m retired, and just play for myself now. Slow practice is wonderful for its own sake, as an exploration of the music, the instrument, and oneself. The article got me to thinking about the difference between practicing and rehearsing. Rehearsal is preparation, but practicing can be something else entirely, the exploration I described, with a sense of ply–playfulness in fact. To quote Willie Stargell, a favorite baseball player of mine: “It’s called play ball, not work ball.”

  25. Also in some styles of Chinese Boxing slow, slower, slowest. Practice one form (kata) slowly. For black belt take one hour to perform it. For masters grade take three hours to perform it. Probably 15 to 20 katas to do this way – with a clock in the background.
    Now you know why the praying mantis LOOKS static. Slowest I managed was 20 minutes but you don’t notice at the time. Time does not exist.
    Same with music – play one same scale for a week – slow to hit the note perfectly every time. Play long notes, short notes, swing style, straight even, bebop, funk. Relative modes and arpegios. This way it stops being boring.
    Just my two-pennorth. Thanks for reading.

  26. Many years ago the leader of a jazz orchestra I played in played with Loius Armstrong. He said “I never practiced – I just PLAYED”.
    He obviously enjoyed playing so much he just played anything and everything he could.
    As some of the other bloggers stated – practice is probably the incorrect word.

    1. Not to be a downer here – I actually believe what Pops said – but he had earned the right, thru his genius, not to have to be a meticulous servant of technique and the printed page. For the rest of us, practice done right is anything but play. We have to learn to enjoy even the boredom and frustration, because without them, we do not become musicians.

  27. Instead of slowing down the notes, my violin teacher’s suggestion for slow practice is to increase the space between the notes. If the original tempo is fast, you still use a short fast bow, then pause while preparing finger and bow for the next note. The goal is giving yourself time between the notes to think and prepare for accuracy in both hands. This is great for cleaning up passages where your hands don’t seem to be in synch with each other. Giving yourself time between the notes to consciously prepare finger and bow programs those neurons to fire in that order, so that even when you eliminate the pauses, maybe your finger and your bow will get to the note before the bow starts moving to play it.

    There are four steps in the process she gave me for working a passage up to tempo. It’s originally from John Kendall.

    1) One bow per note, staccato. In the pause between the staccato notes, consciously prepare for the next note. Notice whether you are really getting ready before playing the note, or simply pausing and then out of habit trying to get ready and go at the same time. This can be more challenging than you might think.

    2) Hiccups. This is playing two quick bowstrokes on each note, then a brief pause before playing the next note.

    3) Doubles (like hiccups, but without the pauses) Because the bow is moving twice as fast as the left hand, it gets accustomed to playing with the energy you want in the piece, while the left hand takes it easy.

    4) As written, but with hooked slurs. (i.e. Any slurred notes are played in the same bow direction, but with the bow stopping briefly on the string between notes instead of smoothly slurring them together.)

    This is useful for passage work, where you have a bunch of notes at a fast tempo, and the notes are all of the same value. For notes of different values, try breaking the longer notes into correspondingly more bowstrokes, so the bow is playing all 8ths, or all 16ths, or whatever is the fastest note value of the passage. Then, in step 4, join them back together with a hooked slur.

    1. Burton Kaplan’s (of Magic Mountain Music Farm Practice Seminars) “hooked” rhythms for fast passages really get the job done when you need to learn fast passages with lots of notes.

  28. Every instrument comes with its own set of challenges. As a flute player, I was taught to practice slowly, but with careful listening “between the notes.” It’s much more efficient (and satisfying) to depress a key than to raise a key. But raising the key is precisely the action that requires practice, because you are using a different group of muscles and tendons. Listening is the key here, and slowing down the motion gives you a chance to do just that – if you can train yourself to attend to the result.

  29. Thank you for the great article. I will recommend it to my students.

    To the list of reasons people may not be motivated to practice slowly, I would add:
    1. inexpressive playing. This is not only counterproductive, but also so unpleasant nobody would want to repeat it!
    2. Use of rigid or forceful movements that won’t work in speed. Learning to use fluid movements in slow practice requires attention and skill, but without them, slow practice is counterproductive, and rightly experienced as unhelpful.

    Thank you again for your valuable work!

    1. 1. I know you are not advocating inexpressive slow practice and only noting that some avoid it because it can be inexpressive, it is important to recognize that it is possible to practice slowly expressively. In fact, one can (and should) slowly practice and refine all of the subtle techniques that create expressive playing. (Daren Burns mentioned this in a previous post).
      2. I had said in a previous post: “…it is also important to know how to move one’s practice from slow to playing at tempo, which involves, among other things, carefully analyzing how your motions need to change as the tempo increases.”

      1. Perhaps it is because I am a pianist and not a violinist, but I take issue with the notion that our motions need to change when moving from a slow to a fast tempo.

        Why would you program two sets of movements into the body? In doing so you are essentially learning two separate pieces.

        It is true, as one commentor noted, that running does not look like walking in slow motion. But walking and running are different activities. Playing a scale, or double thirds, or a cantabile melodic line remain the same skill regardless of how fast or slow they are played.

        1. I can tell you for sure that playing slow and playing fast are two separate techniques on the cello, although they share numerous aspects in common. I suspect that this is true of all instruments. For example, in slow playing on the cello one vibrates on every note and re-balances the left hand/arm on every note (pretty much–this is an oversimplification).

          You need to start practicing a fast passage at a slow tempo and then as you speed it up, analyze how your movements and coordinations have to change. Then after you have identified the various physical positions and coordinated motions that are appropriate for the fast tempo, you can practice those slowly. Playing it fast at the start will not allow you to dissect the passage clearly enough to identify all of the elements that you need to practice, so you have to start slowly and speed it up.

        2. Posted this morning on ScienceDaily:

          Practice really does make perfect
          (Posted: 08 Jan 2015 10:00 AM PST)
          New research into the way in which we learn new skills finds that a single skill can be learned faster if its follow-through motion is consistent, but multiple skills can be learned simultaneously if the follow-through motion is varied.

          http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/01/150108130057.htm?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+sciencedaily+%28Latest+Science+News+–+ScienceDaily%29

  30. There’s also something to be said for very slow memory practice. When practicing at tempo, there’s a tendency to rely too much on muscle memory. Practicing very slowly from memory is not only more difficult, it forces one to much more consciously understand what the hands are doing at any given moment. It can be a real confidence buster for people who are prone to get very nervous in performance.

  31. Stevens Hewitt, formerly associate Principal oboe in the Philadelphia orchestra, remarks in his book, ‘Method for Oboe’, “To know what you are going to do before you do it is to be a great musician.”

    My teacher, Jean-Louis LeRoux, then the principal oboe in San Francisco and a Paris Conservatory prize graduate, taught me to play a passage VERY slowly, increase the metronome just one click, repeat. As you approach the former limits of your technique you will have many correct repetitions behind you and will be able to play it faster than you could. When you inevitably hit your limit, back down five or six clicks and play it once correctly and put it away for the day. In this manner, you will always know where you are going and will not practice errors…

  32. Hope this helps: when faced with a long passage of fast notes, I have the following motto to switch from slow to fast practice – work from the end quickly; from the beginning slowly.
    From the end, chunk as many notes you can easily play together in tempo (it might be only 2 or 3). Work backwards, using the first note of your previous chunk as the last note of the new one. Don’t worry about having to connect the chunks yet, but if you feel comfortable, connect what you can.
    After you have worked through the passage this way, work from the beginning SLOWLY. Then in rhythms, then I move the metronome notches up then down as already mentioned.
    I have a handout pdf. that explains this much better and with musical examples:
    http://helenbledsoe.com/09_05_09eng.pdf
    or in German:
    http://helenbledsoe.com/09_05_09.pdf

  33. Someone above mentioned “muscle memory”. You also added a reference to more rapid learning at speed.
    Repetition causes your brain to develop neural connections to assist repeating in the future. Practising the piece teaches you the piece. Practising badly teaches you a rough, lazy version of the piece. Whatever you aren’t playing well, focus on one section; slow it down until you can play it well. Then play it well a few times, and the new neural pathways will form around playing that part well. Then speed it up again, and your newly-reinforced memory will co-operate in playing well at full tempo. This works well with a gradual increase in speed.
    I expect you’re right though that we should slow down more than we do.

  34. I was taught to start practicing a difficult passage very slowly with the metronome and to advance the tempo by only one click at a time until it is too fast to play correctly. Then play it once more slower and correctly and put it away for the day. repeating this in the same session can help but there is a point of diminishing returns…

  35. There is yet another hidden treasure in this marvelous post, and that is Dr. Noa’s mention of, with link to, Gerald Klickstein (right at the end of the post). Klickstein has written a glorious book titled “The Musician’s Way” that is filled, from cover to cover, of zillions of well-thought out ideas and concepts that I found to be extremely insightful and helpful. It’s available as a Kindle ebook, and I recommend it highly. Not to be read in one sitting, however…

  36. Just the other day, my mom and I were trying to have an ordinary conversation, while my sister was practicing her violin in the other room. After five minutes of rocket speed, sloppy scales, our nerves were about shot. The speed and the inaccuracy of some of the notes were unbearable to the point where my mom, also a violinist, told my sister to either play slower, or to stop practicing altogether. Later on in the day, I turned on my computer, randomly browsing the web, when I came across this article about our exact dilemma. Being a musician myself, the concept of practicing slowly has always been flippant words of wisdom when personally considering them in my own practice. But now that I have read this article, they appear to be a more sensible, more successful form of progress that I have simply taken for granted all of these years. I shared this post with my sister and she laughed at the timing and the consistency of the critical advice given to her that day.

    The truth is, that practicing slowly is really a separate art in itself. When I practice my viola slowly, it forces me to focus on the tone, the musicality, and the precision of every note that I play. This is not the most enjoyable form of practicing granted, as failures in execution are more prominent than if speedily rehearsed. But, when one masters or becomes more adept with slower performances, the quality of sound, appearance, and style of the music blossoms into a totally new mosaic of united skills. What good is it if you can play a song fast, if you can’t play it slowly? Since I have acquainted myself with this post, I have become more aware of the progress made by both my sister and I in our musical endeavors. My mom no longer is pleading with my sister to play silently, and I am no longer dreading my wide range of scales needed for my districts audition.

  37. As a jazz musician, I need to be able to spontaneously and fluidly improvise at certain tempos. What I have found is that slow practice alone will not build that speed. Instead it seems that slow practice is needed to solidify the mechanics, but then the tempo has to be pushed for speed tho developed. So for example, I can spend 100s of hours practicing improvising eighth note lines over a specific chord progression at say a tempo of 60. The result will be fluidity, great sound, and an abundance of ideas coming out of my horn at that tempo. But I could go on like this forever and still find that cleanly improving at 200 eludes me. However, pushing the metronome up to say 180, and hammering out lines now gives results. In short, both are needed. Slow practice to solidify the mechanics, but then pushing the tempo to translate the learned mechanics into faster passing. There is another critical dimension to this, but I’ll save that for another post…

  38. Of course. So once your lick is solid at a slow tempo, bump the metronome up one notch and repeat until it is too fast and you fail. Then play once more correctly at a slower, playable tempo and put it away. Tomorrow, start at a faster, but still slow tempo and repeat the exercise. It is amazing how fast progress happens this way.

    Obviously some variation of this is necessary for improvisation, but you need to know how it feels playing it correctly and slowly before you can draw on that memory to play it correctly faster. “The memory of how it feels is your only method,” as Stevens Hewitt (associate principal oboe, Philadelphia Orchestra) says in his “Method for Obob”…

  39. My experience as a competition dancer was different. Many times I felt stressed out for not being able to keep up with the fast dances. Then one day I tried to play the song in a faster BPM and I kept practicing the fast dance on that BPM until I have danced it perfectly. It turned out I felt comfortable later on when I danced to the normal BPM; it kinda felt slower to me now, no wonder – I was used to the faster BPM.
    Appreciate it if you could explain this, Doc.

    1. Indeed – there is actually some research which suggests that it can be helpful to prioritize speed over accuracy as well. In that in addition to slow practice, we also have to make sure we understand the gestures/movements at high speed also, lest we spend too much time working on developing motor movements that work at slower speeds, but do not at high speeds.

  40. I am disappointed in this post.
    First, it is not research based; it is anecdotal. I look to Bulletproof musician for practices that have been tested. There are a million people on the internet saying what works for them, but research tells us they are often incorrect about the effectiveness of a given practice.
    Second, “super slow” is subjective. If you are practicing slow enough to accurately observe and assess your technique, why go slower? The history of martial arts is full of discarded kata that has proven ineffective in developing combat skills. Also, what is the opportunity cost. If I can play something moderately slow twice or super slow once, which will produce the best results?

    1. Hi Jon,

      Good points. For what it’s worth, this was written 5-6 years ago, back when the articles I wrote were not as consistently research-based, but sometimes anecdotal or based on the experience of folks in other disciplines.

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