The Slowdown Technique in Music Practice
Beginners are consistent in making the same tactical error in their practice. Most of my students will do this until I talk them out of it. Students who come to me from other teachers also make this mistake. It’s very tempting, and it’s very wrong minded.
You make a flub when going through a piece. Then you stop, back up just enough, and play the part correctly. You do that time after time. And so it is, you are practicing the flub. It doesn’t pay to practice a flub. It pays to eliminate the flub.
Even if you mentally reject the flub and fix it by stopping and replaying the passage the way you want it, you are wasting time. It’s faster and more efficient to just eliminate it as soon as you identify it.
Suppose you have identified a place in the music where you make an error. It might be a hard part, an awkward part. It could be something you are not used to doing. It could even simply be a place where you have to look to another spot on the chart while playing.
By looking closely at the spot, you can determine exactly where you hit the wrong note, the off pitch, sing the wrong word. use the wrong rhythm. The possibilities for error are extensive, aren’t they?
You can soon learn to play the passage the way you want, the correct way, and integrate it into the whole. It’s a two step process.
First, go through just enough notes to complete the tough spot. That would include at least one or two notes before the passage and one note beyond the passage. You need to choose notes before and after that are not hard.
That is your primary segment of practice. This is your unit of practice. There is already a speed at which you can execute the passage with no error. Figure out that speed and get well acquainted with it.
You may even spend a minute going over the spot to increase the speed a little bit. Be patient, and do not attempt to get it up to speed at this point. Just get it 100% reliable at a slow speed.
Second, play through, or sing through, the entire piece at your normal pace until you get to the hard part. Just as you get to it, slow down to your reliable practice speed, avoiding any flub. Go as slow as you need to go to avoid the flub.
Once you are past that spot you can pick up the tempo to your beginning speed.
This technique connects all the dots. (Pardon the pun.) This creates a pathway in your brain that is good and reliable. Now the only thing is to build smoothness and, then, speed. The main thing is to keep the passage clean and accurate as you work your way through the whole piece.
I use this technique when I learn fiddle tunes and folk songs. In the music teaching studio I go over it with students.
In classical music, as you advance you get to play longer pieces, concertos, sonatas, etc. You need to chunk these down to a manageable section that only has a few really tough spots. Then you can apply the process and enjoy playing the section with no errors.
Even etudes will sometimes have too many places of danger to do the whole thing right away. They are often made that way to challenge the student. Any piece of music that has seven or eight flub-worthy spots is too much. Too much to listen too and too much to work with. Chunk it down.
The big principle is this: you are training your brain to work through data and produce a definite desired result. It isn’t the hands that are being trained, or the mouth, larynx and lungs. It’s the brain.
When you get the result you want, you are allowing all the neuron connections and relays to work in just the right order. Even if it’s very slow, the right order is the right thing to do. Speed can be increased. But, flubs cannot be fixed. They must be eliminated.
There is at least one tradition in which a flub is not necessarily a mistake. Improv playing can allow you to choose a fortunate error and repeat it. Now you have a new way of playing a passage. You have a new way of singing a song.
Even in an improv tradition you can choose to do a piece note for note a certain way. just as you received it. This can teach you a valuable new way to produce music, taking you beyond your favorite licks or ways of contouring a melody.
In summary, it doesn’t take many times through a new piece, or etude, or section to know where you tend to mess up. Once you spot the places, resolve to work them out.
If your piece has more than two such spots, mark them with pencil. I put a wavy line over such places. It symbolizes, “Caution, dangerous curves ahead.”
Just slow down and succeed.