Rethinking Slow Practice — A 2nd perspective

Chris made a lot of good points in his post on Rethinking Slow Practice.  After reading it, and reading the comment that followed, I thought I’d give some of my own insight on the topic.  I’m constantly speaking about the benefits of slow practice to my students.  Many of them don’t believe the results they get, thus don’t really practice that way at home.  Yet, without fail I’m able to produce massive results in the lesson with a student on a section they’ve been continually struggling with during the week (or weeks).

Why practice slow?  What do you get out of it?

Slow practice is very beneficial for a variety of reasons.  Obviously the results of slow practice are different with each individual.  However there are certain things a student/practicer is able to do while practicing slowly.

  1. Listening.  Not just hearing that you are playing music, but really listening to what is going on in the piece of music.  Listen to each individual note, how one goes to another.  What kind of tension is created by the moving line?  Listen to the harmonic structure under the melody.  Does it add or take away from the melodic tension?  Is your piece contrapuntal, or have parts where there is counterpoint?  Listen to how the voices move in relation to each other.  Playing slowly gives you time to listen to all of these aspects and allows you to solidify your musical interpretation.
  2. Resolving Technical Issues.  What does practicing slow give  you in terms of working on technical issues.  Well, it gives you time to create habits that you’ll use when you play faster.  I’m constantly telling my students about training their hands.  The time that we train them is when we are doing slow practice.  It gives us the time to actively make our hands do what we would like them to do.  We can catch movements or things that we don’t want to see, especially if we are rebuilding a technical issue.

These are just two points, but I feel are very important ones.  I also believe that these points apply to people just starting to learn how to play and people who have been playing for years.  This points are universal, and if applied while using the slow practice method can be very rewarding.

Incorporating Slow Practice into your routine.

Chris states that slow practice doesn’t get a piece to concert tempo.  With that point I have to disagree.  While it is true that just playing slowly will not get a piece or section up to concert tempo, using slow practice to clarify your physical movements is quite useful.  There should difference in how you play slow verse how you play fast.  It should feel the same.  As a matter a fact you want to strive to have your fast tempo technique feel the same as it does slowly.  Playing guitar (or any instrument for that matter) shouldn’t feel like it is work.  It shouldn’t be hard, or painful to do (if its painful…that’s BAD!).  Rather, playing should feel effortless, like the body understands and knows exactly what it needs to do.  This comes about not through playing fast, or playing slowly, but through clarifying what you need to do to make a certain passage work.  I use a system of 4-5x’s slow for every 1x fast.  The purpose of practicing slowly is to integrate certain movements into the body.  Things like “efficiency of motion” and limiting excess movement shouldn’t be worried about.  If you are looking for effortless playing, that will carry through into the faster tempi, as long as your goal is keeping the same feeling between the slow playing and fast.  The movements and motion of your technique will naturally become smaller due to the speed.  However, if you create the smaller motion because you want to play fast, that is creating tension.  The playing at the fast tempo is to confirm what you’ve been working on.  At this tempo you shouldn’t be trying to do anything, rather just observing.  How do the hands feel?  Are they working the same way fast as they did slow?  At what point are you forcing the speed rather then allowing it to happen?  These points, and more, are ones that I’m looking at while playing fast.

Recently I’ve started to use slow practice in a completely new way in my own practicing.  With pieces that I’ve been playing for a while, I’ll play them at a variety of tempi; 1/4 speed, 1/2 speed and 3/4th speed.  I’ll very rarely actually play at tempo, maybe once or twice in my practice session of a piece.  Rather I’ll work on sections of a piece (or even a full piece depending on the size and length) at these varied tempi with a few goals and objectives in mind.

  1. Refining and clarifying my interpretation.  I want to make sure that everything from phrasing, to my dynamic shape, rhythmical accuracy, color changes, to rubato is clearly defined and understood.
  2. Right and left hand balance.  Here is a pure technique thing.  If I feel that the left hand during a shift is out of balance, I’ll work on how to land with a balanced hand, or see where the imbalance occurs.  Things like buzzed notes, unclear chords or slurs and other technical aspects as well are also looked at.  With the right hand, things like chord balance and balance of voices as well as balancing a single melodic line (making sure that individual notes don’t spike out of the line) are looked at.  To me its hard to separate these things from my musical interpretation.  In my mind, its these technical aspects that allow me to create and communicate musically what I want to say to an audience.
  3. Memory work.  Playing slower then what you hands are used to doing forces you to rely on other aspects of your memory of the piece, not just the fingers.  Things like your knowledge of the piece, what it should sound like, and visual memory are all worked while your muscle memory is challenged because the movements feel foreign.  With slow practice you can really see how much of the piece is being forced through muscle memory, and how much of the piece you really do understand and know.

With this kind of work, I don’t worry about how far through a piece I get, but rather the quality of the work that I do.  I remember using this method for the first time with the Fugue from J.S. Bach’s 2nd Lute Suite, BWV 997.  On the first day that I did this (a 30 minute practice session) I barely got pasted the 1st page!  But the clarity that I got was astonishing.  Even better, the next day that I went to practice the Fugue in this same way, a majority of what I worked on from the previous practice session was still there.  This allowed me to move further through the Fugue the next day, and more importantly it becomes easier to work.

I do agree with Chris that slow practice is not dead.  However, I do think that as with anything else there needs to be a purpose to why you are working slowly.  It’s great to listen to your instructor when they tell you to slow down, but strive to understand why.  What do they want you to get out of playing slowly?  What’s the purpose?  Work towards those goals and objectives.  As with anything else, these things are constantly changing, and we have to be able to adapt.  One week you’ll have an issue, and the next a new one might come up, its our flexibility in dealing with new challenges that helps us produce results that we want to see.  The most important thing of all is to become the detective.  Try these things out for yourself, don’t wait for your instructor to tell you to do something, especially if it is something that you’ve been told to do in another piece before.  Start creating a bag of tricks for yourself to use in practicing.  The more you use them, the more you’ll be able to address certain issues in your own playing.  That leaves more time for the instructor to work on newer concepts or refine older ones.

Posted on in Guitar Practice Techniques


  • Bradford Werner

    These are good points and certainly practising slowly has it’s benefits. However, just to play the devils advocate:

    Let us purpose that when you practise you are building muscle memory, the more you practise the more muscle memory is secured and locked in. With this in mind, practising slowly might not be training you hands to practise in the way you wish to prepare your hands for performance. I’ve often found that once a piece is ready to perform some musical element is missing such as a half note feel rather than quarter note feel. Or the way a phrase feels at performance tempo has been lost by the practising of that phrase at different tempos nearly 4 times as much. The trio I play in finds this a regular concern that not enough time has been spent at the performance tempo and the performance feels rather hard to get into the groove we had during rehearsals. Maybe slow practise is for technique rather than repertoire.

    As I said, I’m playing the devil’s advocate and I pretty much agree with the post entirely.

    Happy blogging folks.

  • Kirk Keathley
    Kirk Keathley

    Two words: muscle memory! Slow practice is the way to develop it. I believe that you begin by playing no faster than you can play a particular piece almost perfectly THEN speed up. It is ok to play a piece fast to expose the difficult sections that will need extra work, or may require you to rethink a fingering that works slow, but not fast.

    Someone write an article on efficient practice. Far too often I see students just pounding away a sections they long ago mastered, and never getting the problem sections ironed out.

  • Sean

    I like what Nick has to say here. Muscle memory was never my friend when performing in front of folks; it’s too easy to rely on the ‘auto pilot’ in the practice room only to find I didn’t really know the piece. I myself am very guilty of not truly using slow practice to its full advantages.

  • Joseph Shields
    Joseph Shields

    After reading both articles on slow practice and their comments I think all we can say is sometimes slow practice is the answer and sometimes it is not (very helpful, right). There is truth and many good points raised by both authors, but each is presenting an incomplete picture of the issue.

    Without writing yet a third article it would suffice to simply clarify what slow practice REALLY offers a musician: Time. Slow practice simply allows one the time to properly assimilate information whether technical, musical or memory. As players we must use wisdom in disecerning when we are confused about our technical, musical, and memory objectives and how to apply slow practice and to what degree. In the original article Christopher points out that small fragment practice at perfromance tempo can be as effective and I agree that sometimes this is the more efficient choice. As teachers we must make these decisions for our students until they can discern for themselves. We must be careful to explain why we prescribe a certain manner of practice so they can develop there own diagnostic abilities.

    A final thought about muscle memory as was brought up in these responses: Muscle memory can be a true and neccessary friend to the performer in a supportive role. The problem is when muscle memory becomes the lead role it becomes very unreliable by itself. Muscles are stupid, they don’t make decisions and are not designed to do so. Left to itself, muscle memory can often go AWOL under pressure. If one has not sufficiently deveoped visual memory, aural memory and a confident musical vision for a piece, all muscle memory can deliver is a flat performance at best (trainwreck at worst). It is very important to be sure (in fact essential), but never by itself. It is NEVER the endgame.