The more I think about it, the more I realise that good practising is largely about good thinking – and if there is a common theme in my previous posts on practice, it is in my concern that students do not consider carefully enough what it is that they are actually trying to achieve, or how they are trying to achieve it. I often tell them that if I can teach them to think, then they should be able to take on the other stuff themselves, like playing the piano for instance! I can offer them some hints on that too, of course, but nothing beats a little curiosity when it comes to quality learning.
Slow practice is so helpful, vital really, because it helps us to order our thinking. How often do we hear our pupils wading through a passage [I’m thinking particularly of pianists but I’m sure it must apply elsewhere] with little else in mind other than getting to the other side? Not unlike someone hacking through the jungle with a machete, and with about as much finesse! The problem is, there is just far too much information to process, and with music, this issue is compounded by the fact that this processing has to be done in real time.
One of the ways in which I convey this to my pupils is to ask them to answer some easy sums: 2 x 4, 11 – 8, 13+9 etc. Initially I give them time to answer, but after a few, I suddenly up the pace and literally bombard them with sums as quickly as I can think of them – and I haven’t found anyone yet who can keep up! I then point back to the music and remind them how much more complex this stuff is in comparison to simple arithmetic; decyphering a strange language of dots and lines, co-ordinating our fingers with accuracy, constantly assessing the resulting sounds with our ears, and all of this in real time otherwise there is no pulse – and arguably therefore no music. It can also help at this stage to point out that playing music is one of, if not the most intellectually demanding things which they are likely to be engaged in. It isn’t easy, and so not being able to play a piece of music perfectly after just a few readings is not due to any inadequacy on their part. I also point out that I still practise in this way myself.
The other image which I like to use is from the film The Matrix, where the characters exist in a world outside the realms of time. They have so much time that they are able, with ease, to dodge a bullet or a punch fired from close range. This is where we want to be when we play, where we have as much time as we need to react to every minute detail of information coming our way! The Matrix is make-believe (at the moment!) but nevertheless we can replicate it – by practising very slowly!! By slowing down real time, what we are doing is extending the amount of time that we have to think, such that our thinking can be ordered and we can be in complete control. When we find this point – and it may be really very slow – we might observe that slow is indeed rather boring, but also perhaps strangely satisfying because we have complete control and nothing escapes us. Slow is easy. We can then begin the process of very gradually speeding up again, gradually compressing our newly ordered thinking time into a smaller and smaller space, until we can play right up to tempo.
Once we are back up to speed we may well find that, paradoxically, we don’t have to think at all! Those countless repetitions have hard-wired our ordered thoughts into our brain so effectively that ‘it just happens!’
A word of caution, lifted directly from a friend’s blog, and quoting the eminent pianist and teacher Philip Fowke directly:
Practising slowly, though essential at all stages, does need an antidote. There can be a danger of practising to play slowly.
As with everything, it is essential that the student learns to assess at all times what they are doing and why. Practising slowly because ‘we have been told to’ is dangerous ground; rather, an understanding of when slow practice is useful, and when it is simply a waste of time, is something which we need to guide our pupils in if they are to make the most valuable use of their practice time.