Perhaps the most common piece of advice for musicians is S...L...O...W......P...R...A...C...T...I...C...E
What do I mean by slow practice? Well, the conventional understanding is to practice a difficult passage at a slower and more comfortable tempo - during which you make a conscious effort to maintain accuracy and control. Then, as the passage begins to feel more familiar, increase the tempo in small increments.
Simple right? Well, not quite.
The trouble often arises when we begin to increase the tempo. We often hit a plateau - a speed threshold above which our accuracy begins to crumble. No matter how slowly we continue to practice, we see minimal improvement up to speed. It’s a frustrating experience that most of us are familiar with.
Recently, however, I’ve come to understand a key distinction that would help me drastically improve the effectiveness of my slow practice, and that is: to practice slowly with the anticipation of playing faster later.
One of the major pieces of advice violinist Ray Chen shared in The Practice Journal is the importance of practicing transitions. It’s the technical transitions between notes that determine how fast you can play a passage. Therefore, even when we’re practicing slowly, it’s important to consider the speed and efficiency of the transitions.
Let’s take an example from the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto:
Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, Allegro Moderato, bar 66. This passage is traditionally played very quickly before transitioning to the beautiful 2nd subject of the first movement. Have a look at the first four 32nd (demisemiquaver) notes. Assuming that your left hand is already in the position to play the first 4 notes, there shouldn’t be much of a problem in playing it fast.
Likewise the second group of 4 demisemiquaver notes shouldn’t poise much of a problem.
The difficulty for a violinist here is connecting those two groups of demisemiquaver notes.
For a violinist, to connect these two groups of 4 notes requires a larger movement of the whole hand (shifting downwards) in comparison to just moving your fingers.
The problem: If you’re like me, I practiced the shift slowly at the slow tempo without realising that the shift itself requires more movement than just lifting up my fingers to play the 2 groups of 4 notes individually. When I tried playing it up to tempo, it sounded like I was rushing the 4 notes (which may be true), but really it was the shift that was slower, requiring me to subconsciously move my fingers faster to compensate for the lost time from that slow shift!
The solution: While practicing slowly, I needed to anticipate the shift, knowing that there is a bigger distance to travel with my whole hand. So I practiced moving that shift faster while practicing at the slower tempo (fast enough to get my hand down to the lower position, READY to play the next 4 notes).
When I practiced the larger movement faster while at a slower tempo, the unevenness of the whole passage fixed itself!
This translates to many other techniques in all instruments such as string crossings, large shifts, moving fingers to different notes, chords, breathing techniques and much more.
It’s the extra care we take during slow practice that makes all the difference.