“Practice slowly.” It’s something we have all heard from our teachers, but all too often this advice comes without demonstration of different types of slow practice or how our practice goals should differ from fast practice. Despite the countless hours we spend practicing slowly over the course of our lives, do we truly understand how to get the most out of our slow practice?
Only after several years of playing cello was I introduced to two different types of practice: slow practice and slow motion practice. Today we will focus on how we practice, specifically how we practice slowly.
Slow practice helps us to learn music accurately no matter whether our current playing level is beginner or professional. As we will define it today, slow practice is not only under tempo but also commonly narrows our focus by removing certain aspects of the music including bowings or dynamics. With these factors removed, we are free to narrow our focus to other aspects of the music. For example, we can simply focus on finding the notes. Especially in the early stages of learning a piece, we need to devote slow practice time to just making sure we can hear the piece in our heads and have ideal fingerings for finding the notes. This is often easiest at a slow tempo with free rhythm.
As a subset of notes, intonation can be another focus of slow practice. Slowly practicing with a tuner without vibrato develops our sense of equal temperament, giving us opportunity to go back and forth in between notes that we miss. We can also check fingered notes against harmonics and as double stops with open strings to test the intonation.
In addition slow practice aids our ears in developing good tone. Practicing slowly magnifies our idiosyncrasies, so any weaknesses in technique or phrasing becomes much easier to hear. For this reason, many students do not like to practice slowly, thinking that they make more mistakes when they practice under tempo. In reality playing slowly only exposes what was there all along. When we practice slowly, we actually make fewer mistakes in general, although our ears pick up more of them.
Slow practice also gives an opportunity to work out tricky rhythms using the metronome. This can happen while sitting at the instrument, but just as often, try clapping and counting away from the cello. When unencumbered with thoughts about all the technical details described above, our full focus is free to tackle the rhythmical challenges we face.
Slow Motion Practice
Learning the difference between slow practice and slow motion practice was a game-changer for me. Practicing in slow motion differs from slow practice in several ways.
In contrast with slow practice, slow motion practice observes all the markings in the music as in a performance. In essence slow motion practice would appear as if you were playing back a recorded performance of the piece at a fraction of the performance tempo. All musical elements would remain the same, and even more importantly all your motions would be identical. When playing slowly, we have a (healthy) tendency to use larger motions. In slow motion practice, we want to be attentive to and imitate the motionsused when playing quickly. If you use one inch of bow per note at tempo, you will still use that same amount of bow when playing slow motion. If you prepare your left arm for a shift two notes before the shift, you will do the same in slow motion practice. Below is a written example of a passage as it would be practice both slowly and in slow motion.
This first picture shows the passage (an excerpt from the Valentini Sonata) as written along with the notes that we will emphasize in slow practice. I can attest that these measures require some practice! Next let us look at how the first measure might look when practiced slowly.
Notice a few things – first, the slurs and articulations are gone. As we focus on the notes, we don’t need to think about everything at once. Second, notice that we are playing very slowly, approximately four times as slow, because the first measure is stretched into four measures. The notes don’t line up exactly, and that is one of the joys of slow practice. They don’t need to! The first two notes line up with the previous example. However the first bracketed note is longer. This D# is a bit of a stretch on cello, so it is good to check it for intonation. That note is repeated again for good measure before the notes go back to straight quarters. As we reach the D# again in the third measure, we again repeat it searching for perfect intonation. After that the notes again line up with the above example until the final bracket. Note that the bracketed notes are repeated. As we feel confident, we can speed through the notes, assuming they are accurate. Finally let’s see how slow motion practice might look.
|Slow Motion Practice|
Both bowing (slurs) and articulation (staccato) have returned. In addition, the notes correlate exactly to the original excerpt one for one. This version of slow motion practice happens to be in half notes instead of quarter notes, but this does not necessarily need to be so. What we would also keep consistent beyond the notes is identical motions. Because the passage will be played near the balance point when up to tempo, when played in half notes, we will also play it in the same part of the bow. Whether we choose to play the passage on or off the string at tempo, the same style will apply when practiced slow motion.
As you play slow motion, as yourself questions about the music and the movements you make. How high am I lifting my fingers above the fingerboard? Am I pacing the crescendo the way I would like? Does my bow hand tense at the thought of fast passages? The answers will illuminate what needs further attention and will help you play faster and more accurately than trying to blaze through the piece at full tempo. Practicing this way brings to light not only what sounds we produce but also how we physically generate the sound.
I hope these insights are helpful to you in practice. I know the transformation they made was astounding for me. Consider recording yourself in slow motion practice. You will gain even further insight into the habits you never even knew you had.
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