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Slow Practice by Rachel Li

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Every musician has been told to take the time to practice a piece or a passage slowly.  Slow practice is something that we all know about but need extra self-discipline to follow through with it. While it’s beneficial in many ways, it is essential to make sure you are doing the slow practice properly. I feel that, like all practice, your brain should be constantly focused and active, always having a set goal in mind. It is easy for slow practice to become mundane to the mind to the point where the slow practice becomes aimless and, therefore, useless.

I have accumulated very insightful comments regarding slow practice from the viola teachers and students here at Rice:

From James Dunham:

I think slow practice is important at all stages of learning, but the most important thing is that it be very mindful practice! This is not a rote learning exercise that takes a while as you look out the window and make shopping lists in your mind! When done well, this pays off in a big way.

One of my favorites is to take running passages and play them, slurred, with exaggerated dotted rhythms.

First: long–short–long–short, so that every quick motion is identical, nimble, and precise. In my experience, there will be some that “limp,” for who knows what reason? But it will make the passage uneven at the most refined level, thus throwing off the bow coordination. We often “blame” our poor 4th finger, but sometimes my “limp” might be 1st to open string! Go figure . . .

THEN, I do the opposite: short–long–short–long. After doing both of these opposite rhythms 6 to 8 times each (or more!), I’ll then run the passage straight the way it is written. Usually, the coordination is hugely improved, and the passage can be quite brilliant.

The “bad” news? You just saved up ONE good run . . . and you spent it! I consider this like a savings account: so you save up another one, and over time you’ll likely have 2 or 3 “good” ones in the bank, and you only need one for the performance! (Nice to have a spare or two . . .) Then before the performance, I’ll sometimes save up one more backstage and NOT spend it. It adds confidence for the performance and allows one to play this passage with freedom and expression!

From Ivo van der Werff:

Slow practice is essential; normally to be able to hear and correct intonation, but . . . it is not good to practice TOO slowly. I feel there must always be some sort of relation to the tempo that it will eventually go. The reason for this is that when something is played really slowly, the approach of the left hand might actually be detrimental to playing the passage fast. When at tempo, the movement of the left hand might be a lot less than when played slowly. If you only play slowly for a long time, you can get into bad habits very easily and quickly, and these will stop you from being able to play up to tempo. I feel it is better to practice very small parts of a passage, even 3 or 4 notes at a time, at a reasonable tempo and build up to playing the whole passage by gradually adding these parts together. If there is a big shift involved, then practice the passage on either side of that shift so that you learn exactly where the left hand is going from and where it is going to. Isolate the shift, again not too slowly because a shift needs a certain momentum to actually make it viable, then add it into the passage.

Another reason not to practice too slowly too much is that often the bowing just won’t work. In this case I would practice a passage with a different bowing style (often slurred) till a reasonable tempo is reached where the written bowing can kick in. I would save really slow practice for basic technical work where you might be playing a scale, for example, and want to control the pitch and sound and learn the relationships between individual notes.

Slow practice before a concert can be beneficial in order to make you feel at one with the instrument, with its sound quality, with the weight of the bow in the string, etc. It might also have a calming effect!

From Jarita Ng:

Once I know the piece well enough and know that I can play up to tempo, I almost only do slow practice (to different degrees), with the exception of when I decide to do a run through. When I play slowly I am more able to pick up on the little things—intonation of faster notes, the resonance of the note with the instrument, the beginning and end of notes, bow changes, feeling the shift, etc. Slow practice allows me to feel more grounded both in the practice room and when I play up to tempo. So when I run through the piece or perform it, the “in tempo” would only feel like a faster version of the slow work. Maybe it’s just me, but if I practice everything fast, I have the feeling of flying through things without having a solid foundation (hence a lack of grounded-ness).

I always practice half tempo, if not slower, the day before and the day of a performance/audition.

From Yvonne Smith:

For me, slow practice always facilitates major improvement if I do it correctly—that is, if I am listening carefully to my sound and I have a vision of the sound I want. I like doing slow practice throughout the period of time in which I am preparing a piece for performance, but it has really been beneficial to me to use slow practice the week of a big audition, so that way I’m not just repeating everything fast and practicing in what I don’t ultimately want in my performance.


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