In Praise of Slow Practice

There are so many different ways of practising the piano and whilst it’s relatively easy to identify those that are ineffective or plain incorrect, it’s much harder 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 and accurately, it promotes a much more thorough approach. In fact, practising at very slow speeds employing total concentration can transform a pianist’s playing.

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 too) to play as usual; up to speed with the usual 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 whatever level or standard, including professionals.

Slow practice can help with so many different aspects; establishing correct fingering (particularly of rapid passagework), understanding chord structure, promoting suitable hand positions, wrist/arm movement, articulation, dynamic range, phrasing, and just good old note accuracy too! It can help a pianist to grasp the complete picture or structure of a work and gives 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 gives the feeling of space, time, serenity, clarity and precision. I have 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 also really helps a pianist when they want 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 tricky, demanding sections very well, but if we take time and learn slowly, our upper body will 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), 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 mark. Make sure your mind is fully engaged when practising in this way. It is easy to rush, but 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; it 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 are 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 easier to hear and feel the shape of phrases and rhythmic structure when you eventually play the piece at the real speed.

Once a piece has been learnt completely, slow practice comes into its own, providing a sense of security, confidence and calm which are almost certainly not found when playing works at their marked tempo. Routinely playing through pieces at very slow speeds can be an effective way of preparing for important performances or exams.  Try it – you may find it quietens your mind during practice sessions, helps you play with more confidence and you’ll definitely notice an overall improvement in your playing.

You can purchase my book, So You Want To Play The Piano?, which is packed with practice tips and important piano information, here.

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19 thoughts on “In Praise of Slow Practice

  1. A great article, as always:) playing slowly is one of the things that helps me the most when learning a new piece.
    Have you heard about Adi Neuhaus? He is my piano teacher’s son and an extremely gifted pianist, he has few videos on youtube. By the way, he is only 17 years old and already giving concerts in Israel and abroad.

  2. I am great believer of slow practise.Right up to a recital or concerto performance I will work on many sections in slow tempo.When learning a new piece,I will pick on most difficult sections and starting those in a slow speed I will gradually increase tempo using metronome to observe the technical progress.I find like you do ,Melanie, that this kind of work gives me more confidence ,and makes performance less stressful.

  3. I am an older player, and my question is, how well should you no a piece before going to the next song? I am in a instruction book, I no I can’t stay on the same song until I play it perfectly, I’d be there forever. Love your advice

    • Hello! It is a good idea to stay on a piece until you have at least grasped it technically…..but why not introduce other pieces at the same time? And if you’re having difficulty, then perhaps leave the piece in question and go back to it a few weeks/months later, when you will find you can manage it fairly easily. I always suggest revisiting pieces to my students. Hope this is of some help, Mel 🙂

  4. Excellent Advise. Nothing more could have emphasized the importance of slow practice.
    As a Piano Student, I would say that even the most difficult bars, even those that are beyond one’s playing abilities can be mastered with slow practice. I saw so many music teachers doing it so naturally and easily.
    However in my experience this is a technique that has to be learnt and practiced a lot. To me music is very strongly tied with rhythm and tempo. As soon as I slow down tempo to half and beyond, I loose feel of music and that is followed by all sorts of mistakes.
    One thing that helped me out of this problem initially was practice again and again of all learnt pieces at slow and ultra slow tempo and then singing the same while driving, walking, jogging etc. I would suggest as expert of the subject, plz write some howtos on the subject

  5. Dear Mel,

    Another wonderful article with so many positives for slow practice, if only we can contain the urge for regular speed grandeur during practice. The great Shura Cherkassky was an advocate for slow practice who once said if we listened to him practising, we would think him a very bad pianist!

  6. Pingback: 10 Top Tips for Successful Piano Practice in 2014 | The Classical Piano and Music Education Blog

  7. Very useful information. I am a piano teacher myself and while I routinely drill this information into my students I often forget to apply it to myself particularly with pieces i am just desperate to be able to play. I have always struggled with the first movement of Ravel’s sonatine with the intricate fingerwork not to mention the final movement, and I have been applying slow practise to these parts with great effect.

    I have also found that it helps to sometimes look at the hands while practising, and sometimes concentrate only on feel and instinctively judging interval gaps it would be interesting to know your thoughts on this. This combined with slow practise seems to be a very zen way of learning a piece and it has definitely improved my performance of these parts.

    As a question do you believe there is a point most pianists reach beyond which they cannot surpass. Or can everyone continue getting better indefinitely?

    • Hi Baiser, Thank you for your kind comments – glad you liked my post. Yes I think that kind of instinctive practice can be very useful, especially if done slowly, as you say.

      I do think most pianists can go on improving…..but it is more a question of how the practice is done. If you have a very good teacher who can teach technique properly then a student should continue to improve irrespective of their age. Rather like finding the best way to learn scales or exercises, pupils should find the best ways to learn to play the piano to maximise their success.

  8. Hi Mel
    Just got onto your site. Nice to see this topic.
    I’m a firm believer in the adage that if you can play it well, slowly, then you (mostly) have the control to play quickly – same piece.
    My students always think I’ve fallen out of the wrong tree. I tell them this;
    Play at the speed that there is not one mistake!
    Now depending on your piece development, this will also determine your speed..
    So therefore: If you’re making mistakes, you’re too fast.
    Those that actually listen (put into practice), hear the melody, see the fingering, play with correct weight, phrasing etc etc.
    Like the post above, I too am a teacher and currently learning the music of Felix Blumenfeld. Last year I was learning the music of Gottschalk.
    I show my students that I have to do the same and they say “do you count too” do you really play slowly”
    Enjoy each note.
    Thanksfor your posts Mel.
    Greetings from the east coast of South Africa.

  9. Just what I needed! An article confirming how important slow practice is. I need to focus more on it to improve my playing indeed. My teacher used to say it but having other people say it validates it for me.
    I tend to practice several pieces at a time, some times because my brain seems to progress better that way and others because I realize I am going for a piece way above my level thus I have to put it on “hold” and wait for my skills to catch up with my dreams 😀
    Like Moonlight Sonata 3rd movement…I learned part of it but while its fun to try it a good speed trying not to miss to much , the fact is, I have been doing slow playing for a week on it and already can see how my finders seem to fit better and move smoother during the transition plus it REALLY shows if you know a piece or now when playing slow as odd as that sounds.
    In any case, I am currently working on Mozart K545, and couple others using Slow playing and Hanon exercises.
    Thanks for the article

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