How Slow Is Slow?

Question: Hi Albert,

First of all, thank you so much for putting all this information up online, there’s so much here and it’s very helpful.

In numerous places you stress the importance of practicing slowly. I completely agree with this from the perspective of not playing so fast that you make mistakes all the time, or playing so fast that you feel rushed and cannot concentrate on what you’re doing. However, when I see phrases like “never attempt to play faster than you can play the passage with perfect accuracy and control” I’m not sure exactly what they mean.

I’ve been learning for a few years, but not all that long, so I’m not really talking about mastering a very advanced piece, here. To put it simply, I feel like I cannot “play… with perfect accuracy and control” right now, no matter how slowly I go. I don’t think it’s because I’m playing too fast – I think it’s just because I’m not yet good enough of a pianist to play things “perfectly” at any tempo. I’ve always viewed the idea that “practice doesn’t make perfect – only perfect practice makes perfect” with a little suspicion, because it seems to assume that everybody can already do everything perfectly if they’d just slow down enough, which I don’t think is true. It seems that if you could play perfectly already, you wouldn’t need to practice in the first place. I feel like the most obvious purpose of practice is to improve your ability to do something that you currently can’t do very well, not just to learn to do faster something you can already do perfectly at a slower speed.

For instance, I usually practice scales at 60 beats per minute (hands together), with four notes per click. This is a comfortable tempo for me, and everything feels under control, but it’s not “perfect.” I can play them up to about 100 BPM at the same rate before things actually start falling apart, but it does feel rushed and a bit out of control at those higher speeds, so I practice them slower. If I play at 60 BPM but drop it down to two notes per click instead of four, I feel I can play it slightly better, but it’s still not “perfect.”

I feel that, at my current skill level, if I keep trying to slow down to chase “perfection” then I’ll end up playing really, seriously, abnormally too slow, and still never get it “perfect.” For instance, maintaining rhythmic evenness seems to actually get harder when you slow down dramatically. Instinctively, it seems to me that playing so slowly can get counterproductive. For one thing, playing things really, really slowly means with a limited amount of practice time you end up playing fewer things, and I feel like I’d improve more playing more notes in the time I have and accepting a slightly lower degree of perfection, just concentrating what I’m doing and listening and actively trying to get it closer to perfect over time. For another thing, playing abnormally slowly, where you’re almost pausing between each note… I don’t think the piano is actually played like this normally, so it doesn’t seem a very realistic way of practicing.

So, could you please clarify? In general, for “slow practice,” how slow is “slow”? Does there come a point at which continuing to slow down becomes counterproductive? Is the idea to just not get so fast that you feel rushed and lose concentration and don’t have time to try to improve, or is it to actually deliberately play ultra-slow in search of “perfection” right now?

– Paul (USA)

Albert’s reply: Understanding the purpose of slow practice will resolve your uncertainty. Slow practice is about control. The purpose of slow practice is to allow the mind to learn music fully consciously. The result is control. Slow practice is thus not a piano teacher’s fetish, but the very means whereby we learn music most effectively. There may well be a limit to productivity when practicing slowly, which is why we should always bear its purpose – control – in mind as we work.

Control is not just hitting the right notes – it is also mental. Any time we rely merely on our fingers to move to the next key, we create insecurity at that point. We “hope” to remember the notes, which will never make for a confident performance. Proper practice means training our minds to know at each moment exactly which finger plays which key, where we are in the music both structurally and harmonically, all in advance of playing. We hear each note, each interval and harmony in our mind’s ear immediately before realizing them at the piano. Playing then triggers an immediate feedback loop that then influences the next sound. This is active listening, and all of the above is what is meant by getting the mind ahead of the fingers.

It’s best to think of slow practice as practicing in slow motion. Practice every movement in slow motion. If you’re playing a leap, don’t jump suddenly to the new hand position and then stop and wait before playing the note. Instead, slowly trace a subtle arc, as if you were watching your hand in a slow-motion instant replay.

So how slow should you practice? Practice slower than you think is “slow.” When I ask students to play slowly, they invariably start at about 90 percent of full tempo and then increase to full speed unawares. Needless to say, this is not slow practice. Aim for about half to three-quarters of performance tempo. Occasionally check with a metronome to ensure that you are not practicing too fast, although I caution against spending most of your practice time with a metronome switched on.

The earlier you are in the learning process, the more important is slow practice. The reason is that since playing music is a performative act, once we have learned something in one way it is exceedingly difficult to relearn it in another. This does not mean that once you have learned a piece you are free to practice it exclusively a tempo – quite the contrary. We must always reinforce our learning, which is done best at a slow tempo.

(Slow practice also does not mean that we should never practice fast. Elsewhere, I’ve shared other tips on how to play fast.)

If your slow playing is still not perfect, it might not be the case that you are not playing slowly enough, but that you are practicing too large a passage. There is always a way to simplify. For scales, not only can you practice hands separately, you can also practice only the two hand positions within the octave. (This much can safely be practiced fast after it has been mastered at a slow tempo.)

Slow practice is the secret to learning thoroughly. Because of the mental effort and time required, we are limited to learning only a small section of music in each practice session, as little as a couple of measures in the beginning. The good news is that slow practice is cumulative: As your understanding of music in both its theoretical and performative aspects grows, so does the capacity to learn.

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