Practicing very, very slowly
One of the main advantages to playing a passage vastly under performance tempo is that you give yourself ample time to think. It is easier to plan, calculate and control your playing at slower tempi. Exactly how slowly you should practice depends on the difficulty of the passage. In general, the more difficult the passage, the slower you should practice it.
Practicing slowly gives you a sense of having ample time, and you should maintain that sense later, when playing at faster tempi. Of course, you don’t want to speed any passage up until you can play it in tune, cleanly, with rhythmic precision and with physical ease.
In addition to practicing individual passages slowly, I am a strong advocate of practicing entire pieces under tempo. For years this was very nearly my only way of practicing (in combination with “progressively speeding up” see below) and I still utilize it regularly. I especially like it because it highlights every small inadequacy of my playing, both external and internal. As a result, it is terribly effective.
When I began my study of Bach’s First Cello Suite, many years ago, I did so by playing the entire Suite at . This was a strategy for approaching the Suites that I learned from Edgar Meyer, and which I executed innumerable times. The results were immensely beneficial, not only as related to my performance of the Suites, but for my playing in general.
Slow practice is an essential practice technique in any instrumentalist’s arsenal, especially when combined with “progressively speeding up.” It helps to ensure that you learn a passage, or piece, well and without mistakes. As they say, “slow practice is fast practice.”
Speeding up progressively, using a metronome
Speeding up progressively from a slow tempo to a fast one, using a metronome, is an simple and effective way to improve anything from a single passage to an entire piece.
Play your passage at a tempo, well under the performance tempo. Once you can play it in tune, cleanly, with rhythmic precision and with physical ease, then (and only then) increase the metronome to a slightly faster speed. Do this until you can play the passage several clicks faster than you plan to in performance. Depending on the difficulty of the passage, this process may take hours, days, weeks or months.
Start at a slow relaxed tempo and speed up in such small steps that you do not notice the change in tempo. Using our Bach Suite example, the metronome speeds might be:
60, 64, 68, 72, 78, 82, then
40, 44, 48, 52, 58, 62, then
30, 33, 36, etc.
Continue on until you reach a tempo just past the performance speed.
Another method is that of staggered increase. For example:
60, 70, 65, 75, 70, etc.
Or you may alternate slow and fast while progressively increasing the tempo:
60, 60, 65, 65, etc.
Variety in the specifics of your approach will keep things from getting stale. In general, however, you should continue to practice things under tempo, even after you are able to execute them at performance tempo.
Practicing at performance tempo
As mentioned before, slow practice is an excellent way to learn a passage because you have more than enough free mental space to pay attention to every miniscule detail of your playing. However, it is sometimes beneficial to practice a passage at performance tempo, even when you are first learning it.
Begin by playing the phrase at performance tempo, even if it is difficult to do so. Determine what you wish to improve on the next repetition and the play the passage again. Pick no more than one thing to improve on each repetition. Repeat this process many, many times.
This type of practice is most beneficial with smaller phrases and passages, and less so for entire pieces that are not yet “ready for prime time.” If the passage remains a complete disaster after several attempts, then you may wish to try the “add a note” method I talked about in an earlier column.