06 February 2023
By Graham Fitch
Ever wonder why slow practice is so crucial? Teacher and performer Graham Fitch lists the many reasons why you should practise slowly – with 3 top tips on HOW to do just that
Slow practice is both rudimentary and universal.
It’s an activity shared by beginners and professionals, and we never outgrow its usefulness. The vast majority of pianists and teachers across the world swear by slow practice, but it would seem that many have not learned to appreciate and enjoy doing it.
There are a number of benefits to slow practice. You can use it for training the ear as you actively listen to, feel and control each and every note. What note comes next, and with which finger? What sort of sound do you want to produce? Then, after you play each note, there is a tiny fraction of a second where you can evaluate your result as right or wrong, good or not quite there yet, easy or effortful, and then decide whether to go on or to go back.
Laying solid foundations like this is essential when you start learning a new piece. You use slow practice to form muscular habits and to keep on refining them until they are perfect and in the automatic stage (when you no longer have to think consciously about your fingers). And let’s not forget that you can use slow practice to correct errors that have crept in: wrong notes, sloppy fingering or smudgy pedalling. Even when you have learnt a piece, slow practice is something you should return to regularly to make sure you keep the piece in tip-top condition.
When learning a new piece, you will find that it takes discipline to practise slowly and to do the slow work for long enough (over the course of several days). You’ll need to resist the temptation to go over the playing at speed too soon – do it slowly one day, and then again the next, and again the day after that. Running through something at speed prematurely can wipe out the effects of careful practising. The satisfaction at this stage has to come from doing the work; you need to call upon your inner craftsman not only to trust the process but also to enjoy it.
Tip 1: How to find the right tempo for slow practice
So, how slow is 'slow'?
When students demonstrate their slow practice speeds to me, I generally find that the speeds are never slow enough. For a fast piece that needs a fair amount of dexterity and control, I recommend using half and even quarter speeds. Let’s take the Bourrée from Bach’s G major French Suite as our first example. Here are the first couple of bars:
If my ideal performance speed is minim= 88, then half speed will clock in at crotchet = 88 and quarter speed at quaver = 88. You can practise with or without a metronome, of course, but be extremely strict about keeping precisely in time. The first time you do this, you will probably find it difficult to stick to the slow speed, but persevere and I guarantee you will feel enormous benefits. Ensure that each finger articulates very clearly, and that there is no rhythmical weakness or any lumps and bumps. Stop immediately for errors of any kind and back up a bit. Remember to do this with each hand alone too, especially the left hand.
I wouldn’t want you to think that slow practice is purely mechanical – you can make it very musical with all the details of phrasing, pedalling and colour. In this example from the first movement of Ravel’s Sonatine, let’s take a fast note value and use that as our measure for the slow practice:
Aim to practise in sections at semiquaver = 60. This is extremely challenging and will take a lot of control. Listen attentively to how every note fits into the bigger picture, making sure of the correct tonal balance between the two outer lines and the lighter accompaniment figurations. Also listen carefully to how the pedal blends the lines. In this particular example you won’t want much rubato, but in other pieces that do require it you can also move forwards and backwards within the slow tempo.
Imagine a painter involved in close-up work on a small corner of the canvas. He will occasionally need to step back to see how what he has done fits in with the overall picture. If slow practice enables us to concentrate on every single detail, then its drawback is that we risk losing the overall sweep of the music. It’s a question of finding the right balance between slow and up-to-speed practice. Keep in mind that too much playing of fast passages at speed will adversely affect our motor control and we lose finesse – this is why we need to return to the slow work from time to time, to keep everything in top form.
Want to keep working on mastering your playing with Graham Fitch? He contributes some invaluable lessons inside our best-selling guide to improving your technique.
Tip 2: Maintain your fast physical motions while you practise slowly
It might seem strange or odd, but stay with us!
Slow practice prepares you for playing at speed. In the following example from the opening of Mendelssohn’s Rondo Capriccioso, you can practise slowly but use physical motions that are superfast:
The instant you let a key go, move like lightning to the next position (even if it close by) and stay there until you need to play. If you do this well, the motions will actually be faster than performance tempo! Success comes from concentrating the mind on these fast reflexes while playing at a slow tempo.
This process is especially useful in passages where the hands move quickly from one position to another, where you need to build in speed and precision in measuring these distances. It is only possible to control such matters when the tempo is slow; at a faster tempo, automatic pilot kicks in, allowing the fruits of your labour just to happen.
Tip 3: Try practising your slow pieces, FAST
Sometimes our playing of a slow piece seems to get slower and slower as the days go by, and we often do not realise we are doing this. The music loses its shape and meaning as we struggle to relate one note to the next note, or one phrase to the next phrase. The solution is to practise it deliberately faster.
Because slow music often expresses grand, noble emotions it might feel like sacrilege to trivialise it by skipping through it faster. I feel this is a big part of why we don’t play fast in our practice. As long as we keep in mind that fast music practised slowly is just as distorted as slow music practised fast, we will accept it because we appreciate its value. Practising slow music twice as fast as intended effectively shrinks the music, the benefits tangible after doing it just once. It is a bit like looking at the piece from a bird’s eye view – we are able to see the topography of the whole in a single snapshot. I urge you to try it!
When practising slow music fast, focus on the main beats of the bar and try not to get lost in all the surface detail (the shorter note values between the beats). Think of the main beats as pillars or columns that hold up a building, and the notes in between as drapery that adorns but made ofsofter material. You can even omit some or all of the faster notes as you practise like this, and just play the main events. Be selective, and above all be creative. It may help to count the main beats out aloud, subdividing where necessary (‘1-and-2-and’, etc).
When you return to the intended slow tempo after a bout of fast practice, you’ll sense the hierarchy between the main events and the surface decoration – everything will slot into place and feel just right.
In the video lesson below, I show how fast practice can shrink a phrase from the Adagio from Mozart’s Fantasy in D minor. I also show how it can help keep the opening of Beethoven’s ‘Pathétique’ Sonata rhythmical. If the dotted notes are not possible at this speed, make a skeleton such as this, hearing inwardly what you have left out.
Try my skeleton below, playing it fast of course!
Check out more of Graham's video lessons on topics such as scales, tension in the hands, left hand playing, trills and more here.
So, I end where I began, with slow practice. When you practise slowly, you need to be fully engaged not only in fine-tuning your physical movements but also listening to every nuance of phrasing and tonal balance. The quality and intensity of your practice determines the quality and reliability of your performance, and practice can be truly enjoyable and effective when you are engrossed in it.