I’d bet my last dozen Krispy Kreme donuts that every music student in the history of practicing has at some point been encouraged to a) slow things down, and b) use a metronome.

I’d also bet a box of Timbits, that each of us have also dragged our feet and resisted doing both of these things.

And who could blame us, right? It’s way more fun to play things at tempo. But as the saying goes, perhaps we need to crawl before we can walk…

Or do we?

The problem with slow practice

While slow practice is an essential tool, and comes with many benefits, there are also some notable limitations. For instance, have you ever gotten stuck trying to work a passage up from a slow tempo to a fast tempo? Where you were able to play the passage accurately at half tempo, and then 60% of goal tempo, then 70%, then 80%, but then at some point you got stuck, and really struggled to make it that last 10% of the way to your goal tempo?

Ever wonder why that happens? Like, what is it exactly that gets in our way as we approach the goal tempo?

What would you say if I told you that slow practice itself might be part of the problem?

The benefits of fast practice

Over the last few years, I’ve come across several musicians1 who have admitted that sometimes, they find it more effective to skip over the whole slow-to-fast metronome process entirely, and learn a passage at-tempo from Day 1.

And then, a colleague shared a video with me (thanks, Ryan!), where trombonist Jason Sulliman uses his background in kinesiology and motor learning to provide a research-based rationale for this strategy.

This got me super excited, of course, so I reached out to Jason, and we had a fascinating chat about the nuts and bolts of at-tempo learning.

So if you’ve ever been frustrated with slow practice, and want to try a different strategy for getting past those plateaus just shy of your goal tempo, I have a feeling your next week of practice is going to be a pretty fun adventure, as you experiment with some of the strategies Jason describes in this episode.

Meet Jason Sulliman

Trombonist Jason Sulliman is on the faculty at Troy University, and has also performed with ensembles ranging from the Alabama and Indianapolis Symphonies to the Dallas Brass Quintet to the Broadway show “Blast!”. He earned his doctorate in brass pedagogy from Indiana University, and is also finishing a master’s degree in kinesiology and motor learning/control.

In this episode, we’ll explore:

  • What Jason learned in his neuro and cognitive science courses that made him begin to question the conventional wisdom about the effectiveness of slow practice. (5:09)
  • Jason clarifies that there is absolutely a time and place for slow practice. And gives an example of one of those times. (18:36)
  • So how exactly does one practice at-tempo, without everything becoming a big sloppy mess? Jason describes the concept of chaining. (19:15)
  • What type of chaining is best? Forward chaining or backwards chaining? (22:44)
  • Turns out there are all sorts of other variations of chaining too, which Jason describes in hilariously specific detail (26:55)
  • How does metronome practice fit into all of this? (30:26)
  • Why practicing with a metronome will NOT turn you into a robot, but also, why it’s important to use metronomes that subtract beats. (33:25)
  • So, normally, we start with the metronome slow, and work it up, right? Jason describes the rationale behind starting with the metronome at-tempo, and then slowing it down. WHAT??? (40:35)
  • How do you know if something is good enough/solid enough to move on? (46:47)
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Noa: I can’t say that I did a lot of slow practice or metronome practice growing up, but at least I knew that I was supposed to. And so I had some degree of guilt over not doing more of that sort of thing. Then eventually there did come a time where I finally did introduce some slow practice and a little bit of metronome into my routine, but.

Looking back at it. A, I don’t think I was doing slow practice correctly or very well to begin with. And even so it didn’t seem to help as much as I expected that it might, or that it should. And so. Relatively recently, maybe in the last handful of years, I started coming across some folks like percussionist Rob Knopper or horn player, Eric Ralske, or mandolin player, Andy Wood, who have described engaging in at tempo practice, even from the very beginning stages of learning a new piece.

So that was kind of intriguing to me. That’s not something that I’d ever heard. I mean, certainly like I did a lot of at tempo practice in a very disorganized, undisciplined sort of way, but these people were talking about it in a very systematic, organized, strategic kind of way. And the logic of it makes sense.

And then I came across your video where you really go into some of the motor learning aspects of it. And so that then made me even more intrigued. Cause now I want to know more about like, what’s the rationale behind it? Like how does it work and all those kinds of things. So. I’m not sure where the best place to start is, but maybe you could just kind of tell those who aren’t sure what I’m talking about, how you came to this notion of at-tempo practice and what some of the rationale behind it is.

Jason: Sure. Yeah. Yeah. I would love to . It’s definitely out of all the things that, of all the bags of snake oil that I have in my snake oil bag, and I try to sell out there in the world,  it’s the one that has garnered kind of the most intrigue, because some people love it. Some people hate it. Some people just don’t, you know, want to know more.

So in my studies of kinesiology, I came across a fair amount of research regarding speed-accuracy trade off. And that’s something that’s usually a good starting point, especially with musicians, because we all understand the concept that if, if you were to go faster, you’re probably going to be less accurate.

You’re going to make more errors. And, that is exactly what the research has kind of shown. Fitts & Posner, they put together this landmark study, it was like in the fifties where they basically had like two spaces. And then they had like an electric, like stylus, and test subjects would go back and forth between the two distances, essentially, just trying to go as fast as possible.

And when they went really fast, they started making more and more errors, less accuracy. And then they started doing math and figuring out okay, the size of the targets versus the distance apart that the targets are. That really is what matters. It doesn’t matter how small or big the targets are. It’s how small or big they are.

Combined with how far apart they are. But from that everybody seems to, to have hung their hat on the entire, general blanket idea of, you know, go slower to like learn things. Cause you’ll be more accurate and you won’t make as many errors and we don’t want to make errors in the learning process.

That’s another bone of contention. I have for different reasons, but I think that kind of became the scientific grounding behind like slow things down and. You’ll be more accurate and then you slowly pick up the tempo and you’ll be okay. But when I started digging into the research, I started realizing that there, there kind of were some massive holes behind the way those studies were set up and how specifically they were examining that paradigm.

And, and one of the things that I bring up consistently with musicians in particular is, you know, when those studies were being done, you were often given, like, go as fast as possible. Or go as accurately as possible. You were never told that you were going to have to do it at 144 beats a minute, because that’s what Wagner wrote that didn’t come into the equation.

There was never a goal in mind that you were going to have to get to, and then your accuracy was going to be determined and at that constraint of time. And I think that that’s one of the ways that it’s kind of a game changer. If your goal needs to be accuracy at a faster tempo. Then I think that that changes the way that you need to kind of develop along the way.

So I kind of had these ideas, these doubts, if you will, from the concept of slowing it down, to be more accurate and having that be a good method for learning, I kind of had those doubts when I was studying motor learning, motor control, but fortunately, and I guess just as a brief aside, I was very fortunate that my advisor in the motor learning motor, control area, His wife was the chair of the modern dance department at Indiana University.

 So he, and he’d kind of been there and done that in terms of research. So he was really leaning more in his mind with interest in the arts, in terms of research, because what he found in the sports side, everything was all sports it was sports or military. And what he had found with decades of his research was the strongest person is going to do a better job. Like when you get down to it with a lot of the, you know, the physiology research, a lot of that stuff, you know, Usain Bolt is stronger in some ways than other sprinters. And so he beats them. But when you get over to like the arts side, where it’s less about strength per se, and there’s actually more nuance in terms of methodology, you start seeing all of these interesting and messy things to study.

And so he was very open-minded toward not only the arts, but, setting up a curriculum that exposed me to a lot of different areas. So I actually took a couple of like cognitive science and neuroscience courses. While doing that degree program. So when I started getting over to the neuroscience side, I started getting exposed to different neurological experiments and the way that they study with functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI.

And there, I started finding some studies on something called the neurodynamics of automated behavior. And that blew my mind because what that was examining was as neurological pathways are formed, when we learn how to do something. Over time and over repetition, eventually the brain biologically just starts streamlining those pathways to essentially make them shorter and shorter.

Now you could argue is it kind of a chicken or an egg, is it that we make decisions that make those path line path pathway streamline? Or is it that those pathways just get streamlined in the process and therefore things get better and better law of accommodation kind of a thing, but no matter how you slice it, People studying this kind of stuff.

We’re finding that in early stages, neurological pathways and synaptic connections could be seen through slower and more cumbersome regions brain, but as things got automated, that completely washed away. And then you had these really fast, really streamlined, neurological synaptic connections through very quick and very short pathways that went through completely different regions of the brain.

And most of them were not conscious regions of the brain and tying that into my own experience. I thought, well, that kind of makes sense. When you start learning something, everything’s very conscious. You’re thinking about every decision you’re experiencing everything, you’re perceiving everything. And then as you get more and more, you know, autonomous with it or mastered with it.

There are things you just kind of don’t think about. I mean like the violin player that knows a really tricky pattern and has completely forgotten what the notes are. It’s just turned into this thing that they do. And if you think about it, neurologically those conscious regions of the brain are just no longer part of the activation.

They’re just kind of pruned out. And so I thought, well, if everything needs to have this, you know, dramatic paradigm shift to consolidation at some point, wouldn’t it make sense to just start in a way. That put the pathways kind of in that zone to begin with. And so that really kind of led me to this concept of saying, well, how would you do that?

You would have to constrain time, you’d have to constraint the distance in between events and maybe you do a small number of events and then you add more and more events. but time becomes the great constraint. And so that totally changed the way that I practice. Because as a child, I learned slow the metronome down.

I mean, the number of pieces that I would play at half tempo. Just to make sure every note was right. And then I would slowly, you know, kick up the metronome and, and also I think psychologically there’s. Not to dive into too many tangents at once. But, from a psychological standpoint, there’s kind of this explore versus this exploit paradigm of how we make decisions and how we do things.

You could argue that people that stay so long in one track exploiting a certain resource or a certain methodology, those might be more of your OCD minded people. And then people that bop around from method to method, to method, they get bored quickly with this and that we could call maybe those more of an ADD mindset in terms of the way that they practice. I am very much over on the OCD side. I’m like way over there. So from a psychological standpoint, it would be very gratifying. I get little hits of dopamine and it would be great for me to just slow down the metronome, play it well, kick up the metronome one notch play at well.

I’m getting all these victories and I’m totally fine with the pedantic nature of that, that method. So for someone like me, I think it was even more profoundly important to kind of stumble onto this neurodynamic concept of practice. And there might be some other people that are on the other side of the  fence, that say.

Yeah, I guess that makes sense. But it’s not as big of a deal for them because they kind of, you know, bop around and maybe they play things at tempo more quickly anyway, but that’s just kind of a little bit of background behind how I kind of stumbled onto it, how I applied it to my own practicing and kind of how I use it in my teaching.

I think the most accurate scientific subject it encapsulates it is neurodynamics, which is kind of a little, I don’t know if it’s own industry, or if it’s its own field yet, but it’s in the cognitive science realm and I think motor learning motor control was kind of my gateway drug into that, that area.

But I do think that there are motor concerns when you think about it kinematically and you think about the ways that like the muscles in your body have to coordinate when you move and violin and trombone are both very physical instruments, there’s a fair amount of movement that’s involved. So when you think about how every one of those muscles works in concert with every other muscle, if you do it a half tempo and you do it, a full tempo, the recipe probably changes.

Between how much of this muscle is a part of the equation versus how much of that muscle is a part of the equation. So I do think that there are some kinematic concerns as well, you know, and as a wind player, there are breathing concerns. When you slow things down, there are embouchure concerns. Every time you take a breath, you’re going to shift things around to make it more accommodating for psychologically what you know is coming down the, you know, down the pipe. And so I think for wind players, it also makes a big difference. So, you know, all these different. Kinds of domains. I’ll just kind of led into this whole. Yeah. This really makes a lot of sense. Like neurologically makes sense. Kinematically it makes sense.

Physiologically. It makes sense. Psychologically it makes sense. And so, you know, the older I get and the longer I go down this path, the more I wished I stumbled onto that stuff earlier in my training and development, you know, I was in my thirties, you know, when I found all that stuff out. And I remember thinking, man, if I knew this in middle school, I would have, I would have been a really awesome middle-school trombonist, but I probably would have, you know, climb the ranks or, you know, gotten better and better, more quickly in my practicing and probably would have stumbled onto some of those, those great equalizing roadblocks, that, you know, If there’s something in your playing, that’s like a limit for you in some way, like a technical or a mechanical limit, brass player, sometimes it can be embouchure whatever, the way that your face is making sound, you kind of want to stumble on that. I think it’s easier to stumble on that when you’re like 16, 17 years old. And then you can say, okay, let’s fix this now. Cause if you stumble on that later, it can, it can be a harder habit to kind of change or replace.

So I guess that’s kind of a good data dump on that. 

Noa: So, I mean, essentially we’re talking about the fact that when we play something slow, we might be utilizing motor movements that aren’t actually viable at tempo. So we are in essence, creating bad habits that are functional at a certain tempo, but are no longer functional or effective at a different tempo that is actually our goal or target tempo, which then requires extra time to kind of unlearn and then adopt new motor behaviors that are actually more effective at that tempo. I did hear a violin teacher once say that when you do slow things down, make sure that you’re still playing it the way you would a tempo, but sometimes it’s hard to know if we’ve never played at a tempo.

And so you talked about constraints and making sure we don’t sacrifice accuracy, but also don’t sacrifice speed. So, maybe this would be a good time to get into the nuts and bolts of like, well, how do you do this? Like, how do you play at-tempo without making a mess of everything like I did when I was a kid and just completely undisciplined sloppiness all around, but at-tempo?

Jason: Right.

Well, and there are absolutely aspects that are going to be really hard to do in this way. And I think you’re absolutely right. It is a matter of scaling, like when you play it slow and then you try to just scale that up to tempo. It’s not a perfect scale. Like it, doesn’t just, it’s not like you have like a miniature model of a building that you made out of like popsicle sticks and Legos.

And then it looks just like, the big building that, you know, like the real building, there’s not a little tiny bathroom in there with running water. Like it doesn’t work the same way. It may look like, like a shell of an example, but it doesn’t… like that isn’t exactly what scales up. It just kind of looks like it.

And I think you’re right. Constraint is the big deal. You know, we’re talking about constraining time, not just accuracy. So a lot of the ways that I tend to approach learning a new piece of music, and it’s very important to kind of throw this caveat in there. I’m not talking about everything we practice.

There are absolutely things that you have to slow down to sort out, anytime that you’re trying to replace a physical habit, you have to slow it down. It has to be very slow and very methodical. And it is supposed to be very conscious. Like you have to be very aware of every decision you’re making, because if you start cutting, phoning it in to autopilot, you are going to default to those old habits that you’re trying to replace.

So in the process of learning repertoire or learning fast passages or learning things that are very technically demanding, the best thing that I have done or have found is, something called chaining. And that’s where you take a very small bit of information, a very small bit of physical, you know, stuff that you have to do and you master it.

And then you take another very small bit. And then when you have these two done, you can then put them together. So you now have a bigger bit that is scaled up. But it’s just, it’s very, very, you know, it’s at the tempo that it needs to be. So if it’s, I often use examples of like 16th note passages. So let’s say you have, just a slew of 16th notes.

Well, take the first two 16th notes and just play them boo-dee, boo-dee, boo-dee, you know, and just over and over until it becomes a very comfortable, very meaningful thing. And then add the next one, add the next one, add the next one. Until, and you know, once you have three, then you go to four, then you go to five.

And there’s different ways that you can chain. You can start at the end of a passage, or you know, adding notes before it, you can start in the middle, adding notes, either side, you know, you can learn the first beat and then put in a beat of rest and then learn the second beat and put in a beat of rest and then learn the third beat and put in a beat of rest or you’re going.

okay. One e and a two, two e and a three, three e and a four, four e and a one. So you’re doing it at tempo, but you’re giving you’re accommodating, the need for time in between to kind of reset and regroup before you kind of attack the next one. But eventually you can start removing that extra time.

What you’re doing is you’re keeping the context of time in place with the part that you’re playing. You’re just allowing yourself a chance to kind of reset, you know, The physical example of that, I think would be interval training. Like if you want to run a four minute mile, you have to do four laps around the track, basically at 60 seconds each, right?

One minute each. So if you wanna run a four minute mile, you’ve got to get good at getting that 60 second pace down. So you might do an interval workout where you do eight laps each in their own individual time. And you put like a minute in between, you might run a 60 second lap and then put a minute of rest and then run a 60 second lap and put in a minute of rest.

You might do six or seven or eight of those to develop a physical feel, you know, as well as physical conditioning. For what it feels like to run at that speed. And then you you try, you try to put them together and there are fatigue issues. I know. So it’s not a perfect example, but, but I think in some ways it’s the same concept of kind of giving yourself that little extra space. So I find that that’s, that’s kind of a more effective way to do it. And one of the things that I love about teaching is that some of my students, I mean, I, I think that the generation younger than us, whether it’s a micro-generation of like the students we’re teaching or, you know, people five, six, eight years younger than us, or it’s actually a legitimate, like full generation younger than us, I think they are and are going to be far more creative than us.

They’re hopefully going to take what we’ve learned and kind of build off of it. So I’m actually excited over that the next 15, 20, 30 years of my teaching to see what the kids come up with in terms of ways that they can apply this information to be even more efficient and more effective. You know, I, I fully, volunteer that, that they’re going to come up with better ways than we have.

I’m going to be inspired by that. So I think the chaining is the short answer, but the long answer is. We’ll see, you know, I think it’s all still rather emerging for, especially for performing artists to adopt these kinds of ideas in a very mainstream way. So I’m interested to see kind of where it goes.

Noa: So I’m curious about the chaining, because I know some people are fans of forward chaining. Others are fans of backward chaining. And in my head I can kind of come up with maybe arguments for either one. And then the one that I was intrigued by, I hadn’t heard before. I think you called it problem…

Jason: Goal is a softer word.

So if you say goal chain, but really you’re talking about like where the issue is and kind of 

Noa: yeah. Which in my head seemed more like, kind of like an inside out chain, you start from somewhere in the middle and then you kind of break away to either direction

Jason: Start with the meat, add the bread, you know…

Noa: Are there different…

I guess we would call them problem areas where. Forward chaining works better or other places where backwards chaining works better. I mean, one thing that occurred to me as a, maybe an argument for forward chaining is, and I don’t know, cause I don’t play a wind instrument or never really sang or anything. But when I’ve talked about this with some people they’ve, they’ve wind players in particular, they’ve talked about how they have to figure out where they’re going to be in the breath.

If they’re backward chaining which can sometimes be tricky because they don’t want to start the last note of a passage as if they have a full tank of air. And so, I don’t know, you’ve probably thought about this much more in terms of which works better where, and for whom, but yeah, I’m kind of curious what you’ve found with the backward and forward chaining, and maybe we should kind of explain what that is, 

Jason: Right.

Cause backwards chaining is not playing it backwards. Not, not what we’re talking about. Yeah, absolutely. That’s a fun parlor trick. And if you’re into that have at it, I am not. so backwards chaining would be like, let’s say we’re talking about a measure of… a  4/4 measure. Of four beats of 16th notes.

So there are 16 notes backwards chaining would be start with notes 15 and 16. And then when that’s going well, start at 14 and play 14, 15 and 16. And then when that’s going well, play 13, 14, 15, 16. So you’re starting at the end and you’re adding notes kind of in a backwards fashion, forwards chaining  would be starting with note number one, note number one notes, one and two.

And then when that goes, well, add note number three, when that goes, well, add no number four. And so that’s how I use the term forward chaining backward chaining, but you can start anywhere. I mean, you could start at note number seven and, you know, particularly if that seems to be, it’d be this area that’s just really tricky to pass on, but you’re right.

I think for wind players and I think for string players who are trying to make maybe gauge where they want to be on the bow, it could relate as well. And so I do think that it requires a bit of diversity. So maybe you get enough information through forward chaining and some other ways to kind of tell where you’re going to, where you’re going to be on the breath,

I think that if you are at a certain level where you’re playing pieces that are that complex, you probably are good enough to be able to figure that out and then you figure out what you want to do on a breath or what you think is doable on a breath or a bow. And then you just make  that your like little biosphere and you just clean up the environment within that little biosphere and then this other breath over here, that’s its own thing.

And frankly, when I’m learning a piece of music, I don’t learn it. Like bar lines are not the thing that to me delineate this event to that event for me, it’s breaths. So if I have to take a breath in between beats two and three in a bar, that means that everything before that breath is, is its own thing and everything after that breath.

Well, that’s the next thing. Even if it’s a quick, sneaky phantom breath from a motor standpoint, that’s, that’s a different pond. And if I need to clean up this pond first, I’ll clean up this pond first. So I think you’re right. The breathing is important to consider or bowing is important to consider. and I think from a musical standpoint, you know, if we’re talking about cadence or phrase, you know, those are concepts that we want to make sure we’re baking into our cuisine.

You know, relatively early, we don’t want a thousand reps of mediocre phrasing. Because then we have a habit of playing it with mediocre phrasing, and then that’s gonna, we’re gonna have to untrain that that could be a whole other, you know, podcast. I’m sure. But yeah, I think that because of that, it’s important to not get stuck with just one way of doing it.

Spend a couple of minutes forward chaining something. If you’re making progress. Great. Spend a couple minutes backwards chaining something. If you’re making progress, great. Start in the middle somewhere, get, make some progress. And actually it’s funny. I think it’s a funny story. When I was writing my thesis.

I remember thinking like, there are so many ways that you could like do this, but there aren’t words to describe this. And so my partner, Jane, she was like, you’re going to be a doctor. You decide the words and then you put them in there and then, and they become the words because you published it and I’m like, Oh, all right.

Yeah, I’m a doctor. I can make words. So I started coming up with like forward proportional, macro chaining and like backwards, problematic, isometric. Like I came up with all these like fancy terms to describe what are actually reasonably simple concepts when you’re doing it or when you’re looking at it.

But on paper you’re like, What like this is absurdly specific. So I have like a chart of all the words that I just, I just made a decision and said, okay, I’m going to call this forward macro chaining. I’m gonna call this like proportional, micro chaining. I’m going to call this whatever. But I do think it goes back to that idea of like, get creative with it.

Like there’s so many ways that you could do it. And so if you don’t get stuck in one way, You’re probably going to be fine when it comes to time to saying, okay, where am I going to breathe? And have I kind of done things that are kind of working against that, but you’re right. That’s it, you know, it is a big concern, like wind instruments, like wind is a big concern, you know, string instruments, like the bow is a big concern.

So. 

Noa: Can you give us an example of one of your fancy varieties of chaining? 

Jason: Geez. Off the top of my head. Let’s see. Okay. So, so micro chaining, let’s go back to that example of there’s a measure of 16th notes and there’s 16 16th notes in the, in the 4/4 measure forward micro chaining would be take notes one and two.

And then one, two, three one two, three four one two three four five one, two three, four. That that’d be forward micro chaining but forward macro chaining might be where you take like full 16th note groupings. So you do one, two, three, four, five… five, six, seven, eight, nine… nine, 10, 11, 12, 13… 13, 14, 15, 16, 17 on to beat one of the next measure.

And so that would be like a macro grouping of notes. And so what you’re doing is you’re moving forward, that’d be forward macro chaining . Backward macro chaining would be 13, 14, 15, 16, one. Or 17, you know, it would be like the first group you work on and then you work on nine, 10, 11, 12, 13, you know, and then you work on five, six, seven, eight, nine, and then you work on one, two, three, four, five.

So goal macro chaining might be taking the third beat and then adding the second beat and then adding the fourth beat and then adding the first beat. So if you want to quiz me, that would be, nine, 10, 11, 12, 13, and then five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10, 11, 12, 13. And then five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17.

And then one through 17 proportional chaining. As another example might be where we’re just going to play the first 16th note of each of the beats. So we’re going to play one five, nine, nine, 13 one. And then we’re going to play one to five, six, 13, 14. Wait, I screwed up the map. Wait where… 

Noa: I was impressed so far that all the numbers lined up.

Jason: 9, 10 13, 14 one, and then I’m going to do the first three beats.

-sings- and then I’m going -sings- that might be an example of forward proportional, micro chaining. Forward proportional macro chaining would be if you’re talking about larger groups of notes. So, I mean, you get the idea.

You’re just, you’re adding words to kind of describe what that stuff is. 

Noa: This might be a good place to ask about how the metronome fits into this, because I mentioned without a metronome rhythm could go out the window completely, potentially 

Jason: well, and I think that there are like… for me. And this is because most of my issues in my playing have to deal with like mechanisms and motor stuff, but also as a wind player.

And maybe it’s also a little bit about how my brain works, but like everything’s with a metronome. Everything. And I’ll take it a step further to say that I use what I call “smart metronomes” where there are beats that are randomly missing. And I think that that’s important. But before I get to that chapter, I just want to talk about the whole metronome thing.

Even just using a traditional metronome, I think is better than not using anything, because I think we are kidding ourselves when we think we’re keeping good time. Like  time has such the fallacy in so many ways. Like even the concept of like, what is a second. It is this arbitrary amount of time that has been created much like the fancy words I used in my dissertation.

It’s just like we basically said, okay, the sun goes, you know, we go around the sun, it’s this number of days. And the earth spins, or, you know, one day is one revolution or, you know, and so we’ve come up with these like arbitrary measures that we have created and we’ve kind of created a way for them to scale, although none of them are perfect.

Right. And so we’ve come up with like what an hour is, what a minute is, what a second is beats per second. Okay, fine. So let’s say we’re all using like this atomically calibrated. Measurement of time and we’ll call it like a beat at 60 beats a minute, one second, whatever. Our human understanding of that from a mental, psychological standpoint or a physiological standpoint is so biased given the moment, like when you’re stressed, the amount of time that you think is a second is entirely different than when you’re relaxed, when you’re tired versus awake, when you’re performing versus practicing, you know, everything that we think about in terms of time.

Is, some people actually think that time is completely related toward parameterization of a physical movement. Like it takes you a certain amount of time to move. And so the only way that you can keep time as if you’re actually moving your body, but even then those movements are biased and are variable, how fatigued you are, how stressed you are, tired you are, how hydrated you are, you know, did you stretch today?

Is your arm tired from holding your horn up? If so, like you do a tapping exercise. You’re going to move at a different rate and you might think it’s the same time. So all of that tangent is just to say like, we, humans are actually horrible at keeping time and just like maintaining a good, steady tempo.

And every time anybody’s ever been studied, there’s always varies the best, highly trained percussionist, A-list studio, jazz set, drum set player. Like there’s variation in their time. And it’s entirely, it’s just, it’s such a wash. Therefore, I use a metronome just to keep me honest. And I think that, it, and some people say, well, it kind of strangles my musicality.

And I say, well, that’s only if you’re trying to train how to be musical when you’re learning that piece of music. But if you’re just trying to learn that piece of music, like as a mechanical technical thing, knowing that you can do whatever you want with it, once you have ownership and control of it.

Like I shut a metronome off and all of a sudden I can phrase, I can, I can speed up. I can slow down. That’s a very easy thing to add once I have total control over that piece of music. So I am a huge believer that the more that we do with the metronome, the better we’re setting ourselves up to be musicians.

You’re not going to turn into a robot. You’re not going to train out that humanized variants of tempo like that is in us. And it’s all around us. It’s going to be a part of who we are. So if you train 40 hours a week with a metronome, you’re still not, not going to affect that at all. All you’re going to do is give yourself the tools to play the things that you want to play and play them the way that you want to play them. So that’s my take on that. My soap box on the metronome. And I wish I had known that when I was younger, but to take it a step further, if it’s okay. I do talk a lot about how I think it’s important that in some ways metronomes can be a crutch.

And I like to use metronomes that have beats that are randomly missing. And the reason I do that, because when we have this… when we offload this source of stimulus for time. Like when you basically have a little box that’s put in front of you, that now tells you where the beep beep beep where the beat is.

You have offloaded it on your, from your own body. Like you are no longer having to come up with your own time. You are now just making your movements line up with that time over there. And so that completely changes neurologically like what’s happening. Like you can look at the brain activation patterns and it’s a completely different thing.

And so if we’re practicing with a metronome, that’s giving us all the beats and giving us all of that external, you know, source of information. In some ways we’re not developing the ability to make good habits in the absence of that. And when we go into an audition, every trombone, like so many trombonists, I know we have to play William Tell.

We have to play Hungarian March, you know, and those are more of like the note-y articulative kinds of things. You know, Ein Heldenleben, or Till, there are these passages that are, you know, somewhat quick, right? If you shut that metronome off and then you’re, you know, a little heightened arousal, cause you’re in a performance or audition situation.

You’re going to rush through it. You’re going to going to condense things down. It’s a very natural process. some of that’s physiological. So I think that if you are training in a way that kind of forces your brain to be more engaged in that practicing process. You’ll be able to take that into the room where you’ll be able to take that onto the stage and it will be a greater part of your playing.

I don’t think there’s a perfect answer for timing. I like the fact that timing is dirty and messy, no matter how you study it or how you do it, the greatest performances we’ve ever listened to. If you went back and tried to put a click track through it, you would find that there are moments where the tempo is not perfect.

And I think that’s what makes it human. So I think that’s great. But I think the methods behind our training just need to be a little bit more update based on that fact. And so I think on the one hand, yeah, you need to be using some kind of, honest keeping device, right. Something that keeps us honest in terms of time, but then to take it a step further.

It’s great if that device isn’t giving us all of the information just enough to keep us honest, and then we are required to fill in the blanks, you know, from like a neurological well standpoint. So that’s kind of how I look at metronome use. And I think I saw on your blog that there was like the top five metronome apps.

That, that was an article that came out at some point. And two of the five apps I was familiar with one was Time Guru, and then one was Metronomics. And I know that Time Guru and, and Metronomics, I think because you could do so much with the functionality and the settings, both of those give you the opportunity to have beats missing, whether it’s random or it’s quasi random, but it’s random enough for you to not really notice both of those kind of have that.

So I think that we’re starting to see that it’s getting out there more and more. 

Noa: Yeah. It’s probably time to update that article. It’s been awhile. Is there a particular metronome app that you gravitate towards generally? 

Jason: Well, so I… there is a trumpet player named Eddie Ludema. And I don’t know if you ever, you probably did not overlap with him at IU because I think he started a little after me, but then we graduated at the same time. Cause I was a little slow. I like to say I was a little wide cause I did more while I was there, but it took me, I did four years, of course, where most doctoral students do three and most of them are sprinting for the door.

Like they’re trying to do as little as possible to get through it as quickly as possible. And I took the exact opposite approach. I was like, how long can I stretch this to like learn stuff. But anyway, Eddie and I were there at the same time. And then he taught at Indiana State. On trumpet and played in the Terre Haute symphony.

I played in Terre Haute on bass trombone. And so we’ve just been good friends for a long time. But, he in between like rehearsals and concerts, would just be doing like web design and computer programming and all that. So that was like his thing. And I was like, hey, we should work together and make an app.

And so we did, we made an app and it’s called Dr. Drone. And one of the functional, like one of the functionalities in it is, you can hit like a randomizer button and it’ll randomly silence like what you’re given. So it’s more of a, you can set up little bass lines and little drum patterns, so you can work on your intonation in the context of, you know, timing and practicing with a metronome.

And then you can remove some of that information. And so not to turn this into any kind of snake oil plug, but, but I do like the, the things that you can do with that program, like if I’m working on Ride of the Valkyries, I can make a little bass line of the chord progression Ride of the Valkyries. I can save that file.

I can send that file to someone else. And then I can hit a little, like a little crown icon, little king crown icon. And I can, I can toggle that to a certain level of difficulty where some of the beats are just silent and then I have to keep going and kind of line up with it, but in my own practice. So I use that.

I use Dr. Drone I’m also a client, so to speak. The other thing I do is I have Max MSP and that’s actually how I started doing some, I started designing some timing experiments by using max MSP for those people that aren’t familiar. It’s I think it’s objective C programming, but it’s basically like a, an object program where you can take all these objects and then kind of tie them together and make things happen.

Yeah. There’s some really cool, like, go look up Max MSP music and there’s people doing mind blowing stuff with it. But I created kind of like a metronome program that randomly removes beats and also plays drones and it’s on my computer. And so since I use my phone for either like a video to like, look at my emboucher, look at what’s going on in my face, or I use it as like a stopwatch.

If I’m doing, if I’m going to do this for like three and a half minutes and put the clock on. So my phone is usually indisposed in some of my practice. So I just use a Max MSP patch on my computer. I don’t recommend it because if you’ve never used Max MSP it’s a very steep learning curve program.

It costs like five, 600 bucks or it’s probably even more now. So it’s not an advisable, you know, answer, but, but basically to give you the quick, I guess none of my answers are quick, but to give you the long answer, the app that I use most frequently is that Dr. Drone app. And then, I do that, that patch on my computer and that kind of gets me by for a while.

Noa: One of the things I’m probably going to do is recommend that everybody watch that video that you put up on YouTube about the fast, at tempo practice, just so they have kind of a baseline grasp of some of the things that we’re getting at. But one of the things that kind of blew my mind, because I’d never thought about it was this idea of slowing the tempo down as opposed to speeding it up like that just never would have occurred to me.

I wonder if you can tell us a little bit more about that and, cause yeah, that’s just such a novel concept to me that that seemed again, like it made perfect sense in hindsight, and I think I’d be much more inclined to use a metronome from that perspective. 

Jason: Yeah, absolutely. So to kind of go into that, that video a little bit, what is it called?

It’s fast practice technique? Yeah. It’s fast practice technique. And in that video, I talk about the whole, like why you should keep things at tempo and the brain and all that stuff. But then I talk about the process of saying, well, what if you start learning at something at tempo? And you basically get a structure of that piece kind of in place.

Like it’s not perfect, but yeah, you can survive your way through it. Survival is the word that I would use now to describe your level of proficiency on that piece. And let’s say it’s 120 beats a minute, right? Just random. 120 beats a minute and you’re surviving it and it’s pretty good.

So maybe now that the motor patterns are reasonably coordinated and reasonably learned. Now, if we kick it down to 119, 118, 116, whatever. Now all of a sudden you may start to be able to pick up some more nuance of this moment here, that moment there, and you might be able to buff out some of those little nooks and crannies in terms of just really polishing it up to be extra clean.

And I think it’s, it’s totally reasonable and it’s totally, you know, a valid way to do it. Right. But what you aren’t doing is starting when you don’t have any basic structure of the piece in place, starting at a slow tempo. And then in your first learning stage, putting it in the bank in a way that’s completely out of context.

I think instead having that basic skeletal framework of how you’re going to play it and how it goes and having some technical control over it. And then to just slow it down a little bit and all you’re, all you’re really doing is you’re, you know, when you slow down events, I don’t know if this is going to be in just an audio or a video, but like if you have two events and they are spaced out, when you slow down the metronome, you’re essentially putting those two events further apart from one another.

So you’re all you’re doing is you’re giving yourself more time to, to sort out what needs to happen next. And in some ways we feel really good about that because when we can consciously control and have control over knowing what’s going on, that’s a very comforting place for us to be in our highly evolved brains these days.

Like we’re all control freaks from a neurological standpoint. Like we want to control everything, but a lot of it, you know, the spoiler is we don’t get to control everything. In fact, we don’t get to control a lot of it. And I think the interesting question, when you start talking about memory is let’s say you learn something.

How much of it is just coordinated motor patterns. And how much of it is your memory of the coordinated motor patterns? Because theoretically, if you were to learn something at goal tempo and it never actually registered in your memory storage and it never actually got encoded into memory storage, is that still sight reading?

Like, are you still just playing what you see on the page, but you have control over those patterns. And it goes into that concept of like, if you’re. If you’re a studio reading musician, and you’re reading a piece of music that you’ve never read before, but you’ve read notes and you’ve read pieces so much that you’re just looking at it and it just has this abstract representation.

That’s on the page that you just play and you don’t even know what notes that was, but you nailed it because you, you just know what the symbols look like, and you just know what that means. And so you just do it. There’s no point where you’re encoding the language or decoding the language. And there’s no point where you’re storing it into memory.

And so I think it kind of creates all these what I would consider it to be really interesting concepts. So, sorry, just to kind of tie into the specific question that you asked to start learning a piece and to get it basically in place and then to slow it down. I think you start allowing your brain and body to have opportunities to maybe commit a little bit of it to memory, to maybe commit a little bit of it to consciously knowing that it’s, that Ab that goes to that E#.

And that’s a hard thing. So I have to know that you give yourself moments of these little conscious kind of anchors. Like almost like a rock climber with like little holes, like places to hold on to, you know, and those can make the difference between scaling the mountain or not. You know, so I do think that those can be quite helpful.

I just don’t think we should build up a mountain of those. That’s not a sturdy… like that’s not, I don’t think that’s the way. So that’s kind of the difference that I would throw in there. I don’t know. Does that help answer it or kind of describe it a little bit? 

Noa: Yeah, totally. Cause I mean, I don’t know if this is how it works, but in my head it seemed to me that when you’re, when you’ve learned something, like you said, basically it’s playable at tempo, but it’s not perfect.

And there are lots of things that need to be refined and so forth. When you then slow it down, like you said, it gives you more space to think a little, a bit more and to make some adjustments and so forth, but you do so from an understanding of what the demands are going to be at tempo, as opposed to making adjustments without a really deep understanding of what the constraints are going to be when you play it at tempo.

So that again, just sort of blew my mind. And that is a really cool way to, to give yourself this opportunity to make adjustments, but without sacrificing. What’s going to be demanded of you eventually, 

Jason: Man, I should just have you translate like everything that I think, because I feel like when I hear you describe it, I’m like, man, that’s exactly what I should have said.

Like it takes me six minutes and then you’re like 20 seconds later. Boom. Here’s like the perfectly parsimonious way to explain that. That’s great. Yeah. No, I think you’re yeah, that’s good. 

Noa: Well, you know, 10 years of trying to condense everything into thousand word chunks of content 

Jason: Abstracts. Yeah. 

Noa: Well, so the one last question I had about this, I mean, there’s a ton of stuff I might have to have you back on again, because there’s a bunch of stuff that I wanted to pick your brain about, but related to the fast practice.

So this concept of overlearning right? We don’t want to stop when we finally get the phrase to sound the way that we want, just that one time, you know, whether it’s doing it another time or another two times, another five times or 50% of the times that it took us to get to that point of competence, like, how does that fit into…knowing when to add the next note into the chunk. 

Jason: That’s a great question, actually. And again, here, here, I’m just going to data, dump a lot of thoughts on it, and then you’ll give us the answer that we need right after. So who was it? I don’t know if it was Beethoven, but somebody said, you know, don’t practice something to get it right. Practice something until you can’t get it wrong. And that’s something that a lot of us have heard. Right. I think success needs to be redefined in a 21st century way. And I think that there are many levels of success and I often use four levels to describe like success. The most basic level of success is sheer survival.

Like you survived your way through something. I think that that’s a victory, right ? That now you’ve reached a point that, that matters. Everything before then you’re just trying to get to that point. Right. So there’s survival. And then when you get a little bit better at it, you’re then competent at it.

And then when you get a little bit better at it, you’re proficient at it. And then when you get a little bit better at it, your mastery is up there somewhere. So I kind of, for me, I kind of think about it in these four levels. You could put 20 levels together if you want, but for me, I try to boil it down to four.

So in these four levels, I think each one of these levels, it’s going to have a different answer to that question. So if you’re trying to get to survival, if you’re. Whatever is getting to survival. You’re going to reach that point and then you’re going to say, okay. Yeah, let’s move on. Let’s add another note.

Let’s go to the next chapter. Let’s do the next thing. If you’re trying to get to a level of competency. You’re, you’re probably gonna find that it’s a different standard that you’re holding yourself to before you add the next note, before you do the next thing. And obviously when we get to mastery, you know, it’s a different standard.

So in practicing, I spend most of my days now trying to get better at operating like my trombone, like my piece of metal and some of that’s based upon the things I picked up along the way, the strengths and weaknesses that I have as a player and as a practicer. And that’s just what my needs are now. And I tend to move on sooner than a lot of other people.

And I think this goes back to that whole psychological OCD/ADD, explore versus exploit, you know, heuristics paradigm thing, where if left up to my own psychological devices. I will stay and beat a dead horse until it is like, like I, like I could work at a glue factory. I would just keep going until it’s pulverized.

Until it’s done. Right. And yeah, I constantly need to find mechanisms and ways in my practice methods to kind of knock myself out of that track and kind of like smack my, the side of my head to say, okay, let’s move on. So for me, I’ve over the past five, 10 years, I’ve really developed kind of this habit of just moving on sooner, moving on sooner.

Okay. Yep. I got it. I’m surviving. It let’s move on. Okay. I’m basically getting it. Let’s move on, but you may find that for somebody else. Who’s on the other side of the fence where they’re just spending their whole time constantly moving on and they’re not used to mastering things at all. They might have, you know, they might have to develop the ability to stay on something longer and longer.

And so I think, I think there should be richness and diversity in one’s practicing. I think sometimes you should work to mastery. Sometimes you should work to survival. Sometimes you should work toward proficiency. And so it’s going to have a different answer in all those situations. I think we should plan that out.

I think we should say, okay, for today’s practice or for this week’s practice or this month. I know I’m going to try to get this to mastery. I’m going to try to get this to proficiency. I’m going to try to get this, you know, to competency. I’m going to try to just get this to survival so that we are experiencing kind of a rich and diverse and robust variety of ways of answering that question.

Cause I do think you’re right. Sometimes it’s better. Okay. Basically. Got it. Let’s move on. If you got hired by the New York Phil to go play a July 4th pops concert and you’ve got a folder and that folder has like 60 pages of violin music. And you haven’t played 48 of those pieces and you don’t know 30 of those pieces.

You’re, you’re probably gonna have to start with just getting through all of it. So you get a basic idea and then you’re going to go back and you’re going to try to, you know, fill in that nuance wherever you can, but chances are, if you got called by the New York Phil you can probably play it all.

So it’s not a big deal. But to me, that kind of analogy kind of, I think, describes how I approach it and maybe how I suggest that my students approach it, but I definitely, you know, I do have students that like, they haven’t mastered anything. And so maybe this next month, we’re just going to go after this and we’re going to, we’re going to just be exposed to a really high level.

And through that, and maybe they’re working up an audition, maybe it’s for first chair in our school’s top band, or maybe it’s for a summer festival or whatever, but, okay, Hey, let’s take these next six weeks and let’s work on that, that mastery version of this. And that means we’re going to do this, these three notes for a lot longer before we add that fourth note.

And then maybe times in between those events, you know, maybe we, we kind of gravitate more toward, just yeah, we’re surviving and move on to the next thing for me, I’m at a point in my life where most of my practicing sounds horrible. Because once I get to survival, I’m moving on to the… I’m layering more challenge on top of it.

And I find that then when I go play my gigs, the gigs are way easier than the practice room stuff. So it all works out for me right now. Okay. What’s the better, quicker, more efficient way to say that. 

Noa: I don’t know. That seemed like a good place to end for now because I think if we start to explore that further.

We’d, we’d get into a whole another hour if like your practice logs, planning things, and all that. So I think that would be great for another time. 

Jason: Yeah, those practice logs, man. Sometimes I, I shudder sometimes when I share those, because I know that for every student that’s like, man, okay, this person knows how to practice for somebody else it’s like, Oh, I don’t want to practice. I don’t want to be a musician. And I don’t ever want to give everybody, anybody that impression, you know, anyway…

Noa: Well, that kind of took me to the thing you, you wrote or said in a video about, you know, beginners or at a certain level, they just need to play, right.

You don’t want to like drag them down with the, the grunt work that practicing entails to really get good at things. And I think that’s totally true. I think a lot of times students get discouraged because they start off and it’s too. It’s like, it’s kids just want to play tennis. Right? You just want to go out there and whack the ball and yeah, you’re hitting it over the fence every other time and into the net and making a mess, but it’s fun.

And at some point when you want to have even more fun and get better at it, that’s where like you’re motivated to really figure out what do I need to do with my backswing and my follow through and all that stuff. And that’s more motivating at that point. So yeah, it all balances out.

Jason: You know, if you’re kind of going to that survival, or maybe, maybe for beginners, we can have a fifth category of like near survival, like quasi survival.

But like when you get up to that point, you’re like, okay, let’s go to the next one in the book or let’s play this, let’s move that you can very easily kind of package that in a way to where. Yeah. They were successful. And if they get all these little victories and successes might develop an enhanced sence self efficacy, and then I think, Oh, okay.

I can do this. I must, you know, I’m pretty good at this. All right, cool. It’s fun. and then usually for me, in my teaching, when they come to me and they say that they want to get to the next level, that’s when I give them the red pill. Like, that’s when I’m like, okay, now we gotta look at it this way. With my college students, I show them the pharmacy and I’m like, here are all the pills and here’s all the things that we are going to have to get to at some point. But like with young kids, like they don’t need, like, it just needs to be a big candy store, like, okay. We’re just going to play. Yeah.

Notes

  • I mention mandolin player Andy Wood (5:40), and how he has described using at-tempo learning. Here’s a video by guitarist Troy Grady, on the at-tempo learning strategy, where Andy Wood describes how this fits into his practice: Don't Work Up To Picking Speed — Start With It!
  • Jason references the speed-accuracy tradeoff (7:06). Here’s a deeper dive into Fitts’ Law if you want to geek out some more about motor learning/control: Fitts’ Law & the Speed-Accuracy Tradeoff
  • Jason mentions the Top 5 Metronome App survey I did a number of years ago (37:04). It’s probably a bit outdated, but that page is here: Five Best Metronome Apps
  • Here’s a video showing off the features of Time Guru: Time Guru metronome features
  • And a video showing off the features of Metronomics: Metronomics quick tour
  • I ask Jason what metronome app he personally uses, and he mentions Dr. Drone (iOS only, I believe), an app he helped to create with a friend from grad school. You can check out a tutorial showing off its features here: Dr. Drone - The Basics! (37:32)
  • Ever wonder who actually said that quote about practicing until you can’t get it wrong? (47:25) Here’s a bit of background on where that might have come from: Amateurs Practice Until They Get It Right; Professionals Practice Until They Can’t Get It Wrong

More resources from Jason

If you haven’t already watched that video that I kept referencing throughout today’s episode, that would be the place to start. Jason not only describes the gist of the theory/rationale behind this, but also provides a demonstrates of how to do it: Jason Sulliman - Fast Practice Technique

And for more, check out Jason’s website at jasonsulliman.com. He’s got a ton of resources there for students and teachers alike – videos, printable worksheets, and exercises, on topics ranging from general practice efficiency tips to articulation to breathing to sound production. Here are a couple places to start:

* * *

…and a quick reminder for educators

Registration ends TODAY for Performance Psychology Essentials for Educators

Whether you teach beginners or advanced students, young children or adults, nerves are a pretty universal experience for most.

So if you’ve been searching for some new tools to help your students overcome nerves and be a tad more excited about practicing, TODAY is the last day to register for the 5-week Performance Psych Essentials for Educators course which begins later this week. Check out the details, to see if this might be the right class at just the right time:

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About Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.

Performance psychologist and Juilliard alumnus & faculty member Noa Kageyama teaches musicians how to beat performance anxiety and play their best under pressure through live classes, coachings, and an online home-study course. Based in NYC, he is married to a terrific pianist, has two hilarious kids, and is a wee bit obsessed with technology and all things Apple.

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

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