Practising at very slow speeds whilst employing total concentration can transform a pianist’s playing, says Melanie Spanswick.
As the New Year is upon us, we strive for more effective ways to practice the piano – and, perhaps, aim to find as many different practice options as possible in order to really make a difference to our practice sessions.
There are so many ways of practising the piano and whilst it’s relatively easy to identify those which may be ineffective, it’s much trickier to establish fail-safe methods which will work every time on every piece. Many believe slow practice is of little use and can be distracting or even damaging, but if worked at regularly, it promotes a much more thorough approach. In fact, practising at very slow speeds whilst employing total concentration can transform a pianist’s playing.
All pianists can gain by practising slowly irrespective of their level or standard
The first obstacle to successful slow practice is encouraging students and young pianists to view it as a valuable process. Many think it is a good idea in theory, but when it comes to practice time, it’s far easier (and more pleasant) to play as usual: up to speed but often with hesitations or errors. It takes vast amounts of discipline to play at a fraction of the speed, which is no easy feat, but once a student is able to see the value, they will generally work at it. All pianists can gain by practising slowly irrespective of their level or standard.
Slow practice can help with all the following; establishing correct fingering (particularly of rapid passagework), understanding chord structure, promoting suitable hand positions, wrist/arm movement, articulation, dynamic range and phrasing, as well as just good old note accuracy. It can help a pianist to grasp the complete picture or structure of a work, giving the brain more time to assimilate every corner or angle of a piece.
Whereas playing up to speed often exacerbates ‘hesitations’ or rhythmic/note errors, stumbles and rushing, slow playing promotes the feeling of space, time, serenity, clarity and precision. I’ve written many times about the value of practising separate hands, especially the left alone, and this can be taken one step further by practising separately and slowly. Slow practice and preparation are also beneficial for those who wish to memorise a piece.
One further aspect that may be alleviated with careful, slow work is tension. Many of us feel tense and stiff whilst playing fast, most notably if we haven’t prepared passagework or demanding sections sufficiently, but if we take time and learn slowly, our upper body should simultaneously relax, allowing for free movement and better sound quality.
Once accustomed to the motility of playing certain passagework slowly, playing up to speed won’t be an issue because your brain will have already assimilated all necessary movements so speed is literally just a matter of thinking slightly faster. This is crucial if you are working on a piece with leaps or large chordal passages where a loose, free wrist and arm is imperative to the success of the performance.
When learning a new piece, start by playing each hand separately and, of course, slowly. Next play hands together; small sections at a time can work well, and once you can play the whole piece up to speed (or almost), it’s time to work very slowly. Perhaps a quarter to half the speed of the suggested metronome marking.
The metronome can really help when practising slowly giving a base from which to work and increase speed
Make sure your mind is fully engaged when practising in this way. It is easy to rush, so, instead, give each beat its full value; it can be useful to sub divide beats here, accounting for every single note for total accuracy and control – I prefer to count in semi-quavers if the main beat is in crotchets for example.
Play through your work from beginning to end with the metronome; you may be surprised at just how much concentration this requires. The metronome can really help when practising slowly giving a base from which to work and increase speed. My students are accustomed to setting the metronome at three or four differing speeds for each piece they play; if these speeds are routinely implemented, playing much faster feels like an easy progression. Slow work also quells the urge to speed up which is a perpetual habit, especially if you are used to playing and ‘hearing’ a piece at its normal pace.
If you’re playing a slow piece, conversely, fast practice may be of some benefit. In slow pieces it’s all too easy to lose the pulse, allowing for rhythmic inaccuracies, so playing a piece slightly faster than the expected tempo can reveal a work’s true sense of direction or musical line. It will be simpler to hear and feel the shape of phrases and rhythmic structure when you eventually play the piece at the intended speed.
Once a piece has been learnt completely, slow practice comes into its own, providing a sense of security, confidence and calm. Try it – you may find it quietens your mind during practice sessions and helps you play with more confidence, and you’ll definitely notice an overall improvement in your playing.
Good luck, happy practising, and a very Happy 2021!
About the author
Melanie Spanswick is a pianist, writer, teacher, adjudicator and composer. She is the author of Play it again: PIANO (Schott) a three-book piano course for students who are returning to piano playing.