Practising Fast and Slow

One thing about writing regular articles for magazines and websites is the alarming rate at which the weeks and months tick by, and it’s hard to believe that the Autumn is already upon us. In the new October/November edition of Pianist magazine (pictured below) you can enjoy all the usual articles and scores, as well as the CD recording. I don’t usually mention my How-To-Play articles (or my regular feature in Pianist Magazine) on this blog, but the one I’ve written for this edition is quite interesting.

The featured piece, for which I’ve written the practice notes, is called The Cricket and the Bumble Bee; it’s around Grade 2/3 level, is fun and certainly fuels the imagination for the less experienced or elementary player. It was composed by American composer George W Chadwick. Chadwick was a member of the  ‘Boston Six’ or the ‘Second New England School’; based in Boston, this group of composers included John Knowles Paine (1839–1906), Arthur Foote (1853–1937), George Chadwick (1854–1931), Amy Beach (1867–1944), Edward MacDowell (1861–1908), and Horatio Parker (1863–1919).

These composers were greatly influenced by German Romantic tradition, either through direct study with Germans or by association with German-trained musicians in America. Their works were published by A. P. Schmidt, an important music publisher during this period. I was delighted to discover the group whilst searching for this piece, and I have enjoyed listening to their music. Whilst Amy Beach and Edward MaDowell are renowned, the others are not household names, but they are certainly worth exploring, if you’ve not yet had the opportunity to do so.

My most recent article for Pianist Magazine’s newsletter, which was published at the end of August, focused on tips for practising ‘fast and slow’. I hope you find the following ideas and suggestions of interest.

You can find out more about Pianist Magazine, here.

Slow practice is, as we know, a valuable practice tool. It allows us to work in isolation at tricky (or, perhaps, not so tricky) passages, assimilating and digesting those sections which might otherwise elude us, if constantly practised at speed. However, can there be too much of a good thing? Yes, it seems there can, because if we constantly practice under tempo, there is a distinct possibility of becoming accustomed to only the slow tempo, rendering a return to the actual speed, troublesome. It seems as though our minds have difficulty adjusting to, what can eventually feel, an alien tempo. Slow and fast practice is, therefore, a must. Here are a few ideas.

  1. Let’s assume you are working at a movement of a sonata, and you need to do some very slow work, but you still want and need to keep a feel for the tempo. It can be helpful to set three speeds on your metronome; an extremely slow tempo, perhaps a quarter (or a fifth) of the actual speed, for deep, secure practice, with fingers going to the bottom of the key-bed; a slightly faster speed, such as half the suggested tempo, so you can still practice with a firm touch, but slightly quicker than the first tempo; and finally, a speed much closer to the actual tempo, which will remind you of the composer’s original marking. I suggest playing the piece through at all three tempi, too, as opposed to using the concept only for spot practice (although this is also beneficial).
  2. Reverse practice can also be useful. Find a rapid passage in your piece; it might be a group of demisemiquavers or a group of semiquavers. Let’s say it’s a group of sixteen notes. Play the first four notes up to speed, the following four at half speed, the next four up to speed and, the final group, half speed. Now reverse this.
  3. Taking this idea a little further; play the first four notes at speed, the next four, at a quarter of the tempo, then follow this with a group of four at half the suggested speed, and, lastly, a group of four at double the speed. Again, reverse this idea. The continual speed change will help to ensure your mind is constantly on alert, and that you are not just playing the passage mindlessly. It will also drill your fingers so that fingering, key depth, evenness and rhythmic security are achieved.
  4. Keep in mind that as you practice slowly, exaggerated movements and a heavy touch are required, but aim to lighten your finger power and volume as you adjust and increase the speed. The overall result should be neat, even passages.
  5. At the end of a practice session, irrespective of how slow you’ve been working, be sure to play your piece through at the written tempo, or perhaps just under the written tempo, as a reminder of the speed and the character.


    Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

    For more information, please visit the publications page, here.


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