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Rethinking Slow Practice

Common advice for beginners is always, “slow down, concentrate on what you’re doing.” Playing guitar is not a race, after all. For the beginner, there is a lot of value in slow practice. I encourage it, in addition to other practice techniques, with my students.

For intermediate and more advanced guitarists, I think the value of slow practice shifts. That is, the traditional advice of, “play it slow a lot and you’ll be able to play it fast,” may not be as applicable as it is to beginners.

How Well Do You Know Your Technique?

By technique, I mean how we physically move. Most times we do slow practice on pieces that are meant to be very quick. We do this in the hopes of “programming in” movements so they can be executed at tempo.

There’s a thing about this sort of logic: most of us (including myself) don’t know our technique well enough for slow practice to work well in this sense. In other words, how we move at tempo can differ significantly from how we move at half tempo or less. Playing quickly involves technique going in overdrive — our movements have to be ultra efficient and direct. Slower tempos do not necessitate this type of efficiency in movement.

That’s a strike against slow practice as a way to get to concert tempo. Unless you are absolutely sure how you will move at tempo, and can practice those movements with slow practice from the start, it’s possible that slow practice will not produce the desired results.

That doesn’t mean slow practice is useless, however.

Think Small

As I explained in a previous newsletter thinking small is a powerful tool. Anyone can play quickly for a short period of time. What if we practiced a piece at tempo, first doing only one measure (or a few beats), then working the second measure, then putting the two together. In short, chaining little units together by practicing them at tempo as soon as possible.

This method for learning a piece and programming movements and interpretative decisions is, I’ve found, much more effective and efficient than slow practice from the start.

For the past few months, I’ve been avoiding slow practice — I had found a new, better way. I was wrong.

Slow Practice Last

Slow practice, for intermediate and advanced guitarists, is still useful after the piece has been learned and programmed at tempo. You’ll know the movements that work at tempo and will be able to practice them slow. This can create a more secure feeling with the piece, and offers the opportunity to work on smaller units of note grouping.

For pieces that have been in your concert, memorized repertoire for a long time, slow practice offers another advantage: it challenges the memory. Muscle memory will often not work at less than concert tempo, which shifts your reliance to other forms of memory. You’ll find out very quick whether a piece is really memorized or just “in the fingers.”

Slow Practice is not Dead

But perhaps we should rethink how we use it. Perhaps by reversing traditional wisdom for a bit, we can better understand our own, unique technique and use slow practice more effectively.

One Response leave one →
  1. 2009 December 29

    Hi Christopher,

    Very interesting post! I have found that it is very important to practice in different ways. Changing things around from time to time is similar to a trainer’s recommendation in a health club. When you do your workout in a different order, your muscles are “surprised” and you end up with a better workout (more challenging, more effective).

    I have a post on my blog about slow practice, as well as several other posts concerning various aspects of practicing and getting programs ready to perform. Here’s a link to the slow practice post: http://gretchenspianos.wordpress.com/2009/07/19/practicing-in-slo-mo/

    Take care,
    Gretchen

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