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.”

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