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Helping Youngsters Practise Slowly – Practising the Piano

I’ve written quite a bit about slow practice, probably because getting students to practise slowly enough and focus on the right things in the process is an ongoing challenge. To get the best value out of this type of practice, we must really live the slow tempo and make the music sound and feel good, whatever speed we choose. Understanding that slow practice ends up making our playing more secure gives us a reason to do it.

For suggestions on the benefits of slow practice, follow this link to my blog post Enjoying Ultra-Slow Practice

Celebrated violinist Itzhak Perlman encourages his younger fans to practise slowly in such a lovely and effective way, by adding the words “practise slowly!” after his autograph:

When kids ask me for an autograph, I always sign my name and then write, ‘Practise slowly!’ That’s my message to them. If you practise slowly, you forget slowly. If you practise very quickly, maybe it will work for a day or two and then it will go away, because it has not been absorbed by your brain. It’s like putting a sponge in the water. If you let it stay there it retains a lot of water.

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 (eighth notes) 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 indication, or a metronome marking, for example) while obeying others (notes, rhythms, fingerings, dynamics, and so on).

Mozart

I am working with a bright little girl who is beginning to learn Mozart’s Variations on Ah! Vous dirai-je, Maman, K265. In order to help her change mental gears so she could understand slow practice, I rewrote the first bar of Variation 1 at a quarter speed. None of us teachers has the time to do this for an entire piece, and actually it isn’t necessary – all it took was a couple of minutes reading the first little bit of the passage in crotchets and semibreves (quarter and whole notes) for her to grasp the concept. She was able to sing the line, and give it plenty of shape and character as she played at a tempo of approximately crotchet = 60, and then apply it to the rest of the Variation. Most importantly, I told her I was going to hear it at the slow tempo in her next lesson. Otherwise, what incentive is there for her to do it at home?

For more thoughts on incentivising, follow this link to my blog post Accountability in Practice

mozart 2

I recommend taking quarter and then half speeds for passages that require speed and agility. Whether you use the metronome or not is up to you; sometimes with it, other times without it.

Some principles I work by:

  • Before the slow practice, know how the music sounds at the correct speed, and what the character/meaning is
  • Stick to fingerings scrupulously
  • Make the slow practice musical (all details of phrasing, pedal, etc.)
  • Avoid playing through at speed after a bout of slow practice (in the initial learning stages), and stick to the slow practice for several days in a row
  • Return to slow practice regularly even after you are able to play the passage at speed – to keep it in control and to add finesse