• Brian James Gage

On Slow Piano Practice...


I'm a quick study.

Unless that study happens to be in basketball, bowling, or pool then just prepare for the suck no matter how much I try. Anything with balls really. I'm OK at squash or racquetball, but don't even put me near a golf ball. Lord, do I hate golf. Even Putt-Putt. Nope. Not for me.

Learning guitar was a slow process for me, but once I knew my way around the fretboard, the rest just fell into place. Piano has always been the opposite for me. I fortunately have the tendency to pick things up very quickly. So quickly that I think it is actually detrimental to my learning as I have a tendency to shoot too far too fast.

Slow practice? Haha. No.

And once again! Bad choice.

This goes back to my previous post about practicing fundamentals. I have this itch inside me that pushes me to get things finished as quickly as possible. I've always been a shoot-from-the-hip type, and it's likely hurt me more in life than anything. But when you hit a bullseye – it sure feels sweet. In my ten months of legit piano study this has been the element that has held me back the most.

My willful side finds slow practice counter-intuitive. My delusions of grandeur side make it even worse.

So far, I'd approach any piece I wanted to learn in a very pragmatic and systematic fashion. I'd break the entire sonata into small digestible bits that I'd practice for 3-5 minutes at a time, start the metronome at 60 BPM, and add 2 clicks each day. I figured at that rate, I'd have any piece I was learning at concert speed in roughly thirty days.

And in truth, it's not a bad system – for a real pianist.

The best example of this method working and not working was on the first movement of The Pathetique. I started this in mid-May of 2017. I had it fully memorized by July and pushed to concert speed by August.

And guess what? At concert speed it was total slop and a real crap shoot as to whether or not I'd pull off the octave crawls. It's now March 2018 and I still can't play it with out mistakes or it going off the rails when I least expect.

The reason why is simple.

At this stage of my learning, I do not have the proper foundation to even be attempting such a monstrosity of a movement, and I didn't let it marinate in my brain long enough by going slowly.

I pushed learning it much too quickly because I never listen to anything anyone tells me.

It's a blessing and a curse.

“It's been almost ten months! What can't I play this yet?”

I've been hearing over-and-over from my instructors to piano blogs that the best and only pathway to success on more difficult pieces is to practice as slowly as possible until there are no discernible mistakes.

But since I haven't experienced this my self, I just pressed on with my normal approach.


This is basically my theme song in life:

Anyway, after trying to play this movement every-which way I could, I finally took the advice of slow practice and clocked the metronome back to 50 BPM and started again. Apparently 120 is about concert speed, but that always sounds a bit rushed to me.

I read somewhere that Beethoven intended his more intense sonatas and concertos to be played extremely fast, so fast in fact that most modern musicians can't even approach the real concert speed at which he performed them.

Is that true? I don't know. I read it somewhere on the internets, so sure. Way true.

Either way - cool story, Hansel!

So I went back to very slow practice – extremely slow. So slow that there were times I couldn't even hear the piece in the music and it just sounded like drill work.

It became a bit boring... But then something happened. Just for kicks one day, I cranked up the metronome. Holy smokes! I can ALMOST play this! At least I could do it much cleaner and better than before.

At this point, it became clear to me the power of slow practice is at some point when I was pushing myself to play faster and faster, I was losing sight of the music. Meaning – my fingers were doing it from muscle memory, but I didn't really have control and I wasn't actually playing the music. It was merely a rote exercise in repetition. At times it felt like zombie fingers just taking over and I was witnessing myself play this in the third person.

Very odd sensation.

But when that happens, you just open yourself up to a multitude of mistakes or mental lapses as you really don't know the music. One misplaced finger and the whole shebang is toast. At least that's what happens from my experience.

I believe there is value in fast practice, it's good to push yourself and knock some rust off the pipes as it were, but only once you have mastered the piece slowly and can be thinking several notes or phrases ahead.

For me, slow practice builds not only a solid foundation, but a deep neural understanding of the music. This way when it comes to playing faster – the neural plasticity in the brain has a much stronger grasp on those notes just flying from your fingers.

Mind you, when using phrases like neural plasticity it sounds like I may actually know what I'm talking about or have a study to reference. I don't. I'm just spit-balling on the experience of going very slow and how it has changed how I play at faster speeds.

So there you have it. One cat's testimony of how slow playing works wonders.

My advice to any other adult learners out there struggling with a piece – bring it back. Way back. Start at half speed and add one tick to the metronome daily. I bet in two weeks if you'd compare the way you play it to how you were playing it – there will be a world of difference, and you'll have a much stronger grasp on actually mastering the piece you're working on.

Stay groovy,

-bg.

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