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Sunday, October 21, 2012

Slow Practice Ain’t Chicken Soup

As a guitar teacher, I could save myself a lot of breath by having “slow down” tattooed on my forehead. It’s possibly the most common thing music teachers say to their students. And rightfully so. Humans are wired to run when threatened, and nothing is so reliably threatening as a difficult passage that students try to bulldoze their way through. So “slow down” has a venerable place in music instruction.

By itself, however, “slow down” doesn’t tell us much. When we’re doing something wrong, slowing down is only part of the solution. What then do we do when we slow down? If we don’t know, we might keep doing the wrong thing we did when playing faster. We’ll just do it slower. So now we can more calmly and methodically ingrain the thing we’re doing—the wrong thing, that is.

Throughout this project, I’ve dutifully genuflected at the altar of slow practice. But absent the right idea of what I should be doing, it got me precisely nowhere. And that goes for every other strategy related to slowing down. Breaking down passages into smaller bits? Been there, done that. Adding one note at a time to a scale passage? Done it. Practice dotted rhythms? Check. Increase tempos one click at a time with the metronome? Snap notes with a sharp staccato? Kick my fingers like miniature Rockettes? Check, check, and check.

It’s all worthless without the correct aim. For learning right hand speed, this aim must be a carefully calibrated understanding and increasing control of internal tension. If I’m not learning to recognize and control internal tension, then slow practice goes nowhere slowly.

Mind you, slow practice will still be an essential part of my teaching and my own practice. Knowing what I’m trying to achieve, slow practice is still the best approach in the early stages of learning something new. But now I’m less apt to dwell in the land of slow. And I’m less apt to tell students to slow down. Rather, it’s better to tell them specifically what they’re doing wrong, and how they could do it better. Then they can practice in a new and more productive way.

Slowly, of course.

——[My next update will be October 29, 2012]——

1 comment:

Alphonsus Jr. said...

I remember something my faboulous teacher told me: "Never use the metronome to speed up. Use it only to slow down."

He would echo your words about tension as even more fundamental.