December 09, 2020

How to Practice: Strategy 1 - Slower is Faster

Getting our students to practice is a real pleasure for most music directors. This aspect of discipline is generally intrinsically motivated and a skill that can be transferred to other concepts in a student's active life. On the other hand, there are also students that struggle to even pick up an instrument outside of class. For these students who have trouble self-starting their practice engine routine, it is helpful to have a series of practical strategies in your teaching toolbox.

"Slower is Faster" is one strategy, addressed in David Kish's book "Practicing with Purpose," which stresses the importance of understanding and integrating music slowly first. This, in turn, will create superior results and save time in the process. The problem is that many students don't pace out their time effectively and provide themselves time to slow down a difficult section of music really, really well.

What Happens?

Commonly students start practicing an etude, or some other musical selection, from the start of the piece. They "flobble" through the music only getting three-quarters or less of the notes and rhythms correct. Often they will attempt to improve a few of the intricate spots of the music by only slowing down the music a little bit. Then they restart the piece and again, make a large number of mistakes. The process then repeats. What happens is that students attempt to practice at or close to the expected tempo. As a result, technique, rhythmic, and stylistic mistakes are often made. These students accept minimal progress as being "Good Enough" when in all reality they are trying to rationalize to themselves why it is okay to have mistakes.

The salient point about student practice is that when a quarter of the mistakes are being played continue to be repeated over and over again, the brain starts learning them in the incorrect way. Incorrect repetition strengthens musical mistakes and makes it harder to correct.


Try This

Try the "Slower is Faster" technique. In this method, you should take a small portion of the music and slow it down. This should be to the point that you get ALL of the notes and rhythm correct the first time. This will probably be painfully boring at first but will pay off big in the long-run. After you have found a tempo that can be played correctly with the notes and rhythms the first time, repeat the process for 5 to 10 times without mistakes. Once you have done this with perfect technical precision, ramp up the speed on the metronome 3-10 clicks. This process should be continued until the student is consistently playing the music at the desired tempo with no mistakes.

I regard this as a practice strategy as one that focuses on the quality of music. Would you agree? I would recommend any teacher, or student of music, to become well versed in this strategy. Even if you took 5-10 minutes a day to clean up a 4-8 bar phrase of music, that may be all the time you need to spend deep practicing on that particular section of music ever again. Keep in mind this is but one of many strategies that can be used to meet different musical goals. Always take a moment to reflect, after you practice, to see what worked, what did not and devise a strategy to take you to the next level.