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.