The benefits of slow practice

I talk to my students a lot about breaking down what they’re working on into smaller pieces and practicing slowly. I want to spend a little time taking about this, and how it applies outside of music.

This is important because in the past I have been guilty of ‘practicing mistakes’–doing something wrong (or at least not-quite-right), and repeating that wrong thing over and over thinking I was ‘practicing’ 😉 It sounds funny, but it’s been true for me, and it’s sometimes true for my students.

The key to this is developing accurate muscular memory, which is critical to playing any musical phrase properly (as well as lots of other tasks like typing and distance running). There are other aspects of this approach that involve focusing on small parts of a larger whole that you’re trying to learn.

I firmly believe that any musician can get through most any piece of music if you slow it down enough. I’m not saying that slower is necessarily easier–many times it’s harder to play a passage slower than the music calls for. But, slowing things down can be very helpful in getting your mind and body to be able to perform a musical phrase properly. It will also point out areas where you need to develop your technique.

I’m not an expert on how the body develops muscular memory, but here’s how I see it working with me: when I can play something properly and consistently at a slower tempo, I develop muscular memory to do so. That muscular memory is much, much closer to what I need to perform that music properly at tempo than the alternative–playing the music at tempo, but improperly.

Your body’s muscular memory doesn’t discern between good playing and poor playing when it comes to these types of tasks. It just learns what you tell it to. If you ‘tell it’ to play it poorly at tempo, that’s what it learns. If you ‘tell it’ to play it properly, but at a slower tempo, that’s what it learns. What your muscular memory learns is up to you–it has no sense of right and wrong.

Here’s how I have my students do this:

1) Identify what music you need to work on (make sure you’re not trying to do too much at once)
2) Using your metronome, find a tempo where you can play the passage consistently (don’t be afraid of going very slow). You may need to record yourself playing to be able to tell if you’re being consistent (a simple recorder–like those found on a smart phone–is fine)
3) Once you can play the passage one time through consistently, then repeat it. Repeat the phrase (with or without breaks–use your good judgment) until you can play it consistently for one minute.
4) Once you can play it for one minute consistently, move the metronome up by 10 BPM
5) Repeat the process until you reach song tempo

When I’m able to do this process properly, it takes a lot of patience. But, there is a huge payoff at end–I’m then able to play the passage properly at tempo (as opposed to playing it not-quite-properly). I’ve seen it work many times for my students too.

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So then, to speak about this more generally and not just in terms of music, part of the idea here is breaking down something that you’re trying to learn into smaller, more achievable chunks. This does two important things: 1) it makes things easier to learn, and 2) you get positive feedback and reinforcement more often.

Let’s say you’re working on public speaking, and making presentations in front of large groups is really tough for you. One of the things you could do along these lines is simply get up in front of people for shorter periods of time. One example would be to volunteer to make some announcements at a company meeting. It’s still public speaking, but it’s a much shorter version of it. Or, you could join Toastmasters and start off with doing short presentations with that group.

In this case you might measure progress by doing a certain number of presentations in a certain time frame, or you might videotape your presentations and measure your progress that way (this is something many musicians do all the time–check out recordings of their work).

The other idea here is how to deal with developing muscular memory so you can do something that is a physical task.

So now we have to look at things that require repetitive physical movement. I’m a distance runner and here’s how it works for me: when I’m trying out a new technique – for example, striking the ground with the ball of my foot not the heel — I start out very slow in a very confined environment. I usually run on trails, but in a situation like this I would run on the track around a high school football field, for example. Only once I felt very comfortable at slower speeds and shorter distances with this new technique would I then moved to my circuit on a trail.

Here, you could measure success by tracking the distance you run and compare it to how you feel the following day. For example, you might want to be sure that you can run a mile on the high school track (the controlled environment) before you attempt a mile on the off-road trail with this new technique.

This is important because we’ve all been guilty in the past of ‘practicing mistakes’–doing something wrong (or at least not-quite-right), and repeating that wrong thing over and over thinking we’re ‘practicing’ 😉 The above is one method I’ve developed for myself and my students that helps us get past that barrier.

What are some areas of your life where this could help you? What have you tried in the past to address these issues? How well have those processes worked for you? Share in the comments!

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5 comments on “The benefits of slow practice
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