I am convinced it is not possible to say too much about slow practising or to overemphasise its importance. Here are one or two random thoughts on the subject, which supplement what I have previously written.
Slow practising basically expands the time distance between one note and the next, allowing us plenty of time to prepare ahead (the hand position, the precise sound we want, etc.) as well as evaluate our results immediately after. As I am always saying, we need to aim to evaluate these results in as precise terms as possible, so that we can have a definite goal if we need to repeat.
SLOW YET FAST
So often in slow practice it is the tempo that is slow but everything else is fast – the key speed, the recovery at the bottom of the key (the lightning-fast physical response to the key bed when effort instantly ceases, and is released), movements across the keyboard, preparation of hand positions and large leaps, and so on. We can often only think about these things and make sure they have really happened when the tempo is slow. In a scale passage where the thumb needs to pass under the hand, we can prepare the movement fast, and immediately the thumb releases its first note. We might think of the next finger as operating the starting pistol, and the thumb the athlete on the block raring to go. (Of course if the interval is a large one, we wouldn’t want to cause tension in the hand by attempting to stretch too far, and there are many occasions in piano playing where thumb preparation is not a good thing.)
HELPING YOUNGSTERS TO PRACTISE SLOWLY
It may seem obvious to adults that a passage can be slowed down to a snail’s pace when the composer has used note values usually associated with speed (quavers, semiquavers, etc.). Given that quavers are often taught to the beginner as “running notes”, is it surprising that it is not always easy to get the concept of slow practice across? In order to practise slowly, we need to deliberately disobey some of the instructions on the page (an allegro marking, a metronome marking, perhaps change a piano dynamic to a forte one, or vice versa) while obeying others. I have often thought we might help this process along by rewriting passages in slower note values. The opening of Prokoviev’s delightful little Tarantella, written thus:
might be rewritten, for the purposes of slow practising, thus:
Now, I fully recognise that this is not ideal. 3/4 and 6/8 are two quite different time signatures, and not every piece would gain from this approach – subdivisions of beats via note beams show groupings of notes much more clearly than a string of unrelated crotchets, after all – but I do think this is an idea worth exploring.
LITTLE BITS FAST
The intelligent pianist will recognise the need for this type of practice, to string notes together so that one impulse takes in a group of notes. If slow practice is deliberately looking at letters and syllables, then ‘little bits fast” enables us to think in words, sentences and paragraphs. Take a few notes and play them up to speed (or faster!) but in one impulse, one gesture. After a few repetitions (nobody ever formed a habit by doing something just once) we can add a few more notes, and then practise starting from a different place.
I will leave you with the words of yet another violinist talking about practising, the great Itzhak Perlman. If you learn something slowly, you forget it slowly!