By Scott Flavin | From the January/February 2020 issue of Strings Magazine
We’ve all heard from our teachers slow down, practice slowly—but why is this important? String players need to give their brains time to compute the actions required for successful technique, as well as musicality. Like a slow drive through the country, you savor more completely the beauty and details than if you take the highway.
“One must always practice slowly. If you learn something slowly, you forget it slowly; if you learn something very quickly you forget it immediately.”—Itzhak Perlman
Dial Down the Tempo
First of all, how slowly do you need to go? The practice tempo should be slow enough that you:
- Can play the given passage perfectly, and be able to polish your execution.
- Are aware of your body and all your actions (with a feeling of calm, no tension, ease) at all times.
- Have enough time to process (think, hear, be aware) ahead of your playing.
In short, go as slowly as needed in order to be aware of all areas of difficulty (this may be a very slow speed), and set the metronome at that tempo. If you still make mistakes, lower the speed until you find the tempo where you are totally in control of all elements.
Dial Up the Focus
There should be no mindless practice. Your thought process should be intense: mindful and fully engaged. If you’re not used to practicing as slowly as you should, put a timer on and only work as long as you can maintain an optimal level of focus. If you lose that focus, stop. You may only be able to maintain a high level of attention for a few minutes—start from there and increase the amount of time. As a result of continually seeking these goals, slow practice will feel motivating and even exciting.
Break It Down
Don’t bite off more than you can chew! In order to be engaged, first break down the difficulties into small, workable units. Initially, you may find the need to work only in small groups of notes; as you build your slow-practice skills, combine them into larger units and phrases.
Go with the Flow!
Flow is defined as “the state of being fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of an activity.” In the context of slow practice, I would add that flow should include an understanding of and connection with the context (performance tempo, spirit, and character) of the given music. For example, while practicing virtuoso music slowly, avoid blocky or jerky movements, and play with an energized sound and flowing technique, just as you would at tempo. If you don’t move your hands and fingers in the same or similar way that you will at tempo, you’ll end up wasting time, as it’s almost like learning a different piece. This includes shifting and finger placement in the left hand, and bow changes and string crossings in the right.
Slow practice also gives you the opportunity to notice and work on many different areas at once. Some of these may include:
- Tone: Vibrato and bow tone should be optimal
- Pitch accuracy: Anticipate pitch and hear it in your head before finger placement
- Posture: Notice the balance in your body
- Ease, without tension: Constantly search for the easiest physical way to play
Build It Up
Once you have achieved mastery in a slow tempo, it’s time to build speed—gradually of course! However, your perception should lead the way; this should not be about numbers on the metronome, but about being able to maintain focus as you go faster. As you raise tempo, don’t let the actions of playing (doing) interfere with your awareness (supervising). Be a general leading your army, not a soldier in the trenches.