Jason Sulliman: On Why Fast, At-Tempo Practice Can Be More Efficient and Effective Than Slow Practice

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)

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:

Footnotes

  1. Like percussionist Rob Knopper, horn player Erik Ralske, and mandolin player Andy Wood, for instance.

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

For most of my life, I assumed that it was because I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, if I performed enough, the nerves would just go away and everything would take care of itself.

But in the same way that “practice, practice, practice” wasn’t the answer, “perform, perform, perform” wasn’t the answer either. In fact, simply performing more, without the tools to facilitate more positive performance experiences, just led to more negative performance experiences!

Eventually, I discovered that elite athletes are successful in shrinking this gap between practice and performance, because their training looks fundamentally different. In that it includes specialized mental and physical practice strategies that are oriented around the retrieval of skills under pressure.

It was a very different approach to practice, that not only made performing a more positive experience, but practicing a more enjoyable experience too (which I certainly didn’t expect!).

If you’ve been wanting to perform more consistently and get more out of your daily practice, I’d love to share these research-based skills and strategies that can help you beat nerves and play more like yourself when it counts.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing, and start enjoying more satisfying practice days that also transfer to the stage.

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