I'm starting up a series of posts on how to become positively dangerous on the classical guitar.
Much of what I talk about will apply not just to classical guitar, but to all styles of guitar playing and to musicianship, practice and mastery in general.
I want to address the most commonly expressed hopes and frustrations I hear from guitarists and from my early-stage students. Such as:
- "I wish I could just sit down and play anything I want, with a minimum of frustration"
- "I have trouble being consistently accurate"
- "Sometimes it seems like I'm not able to play a single piece smoothly."
- "I seem to have hit a wall or a plateau, past which I just can't get any better."
- "There's a gap between the music I hear in my head and what my fingers can actually do."
- "I can't seem to find enough time to practice, and even when I do, it doesn't make enough difference."
- "I wish I knew the best, fastest, and most musical way to learn and memorize a piece."
Enjoy! Hope this helps!
Is Practicing Slowly Really the Fastest Way To Learn A Piece of Music?
Yes. Based on my own decades of trial and error in teaching and playing, yes, it really is.
Often. But not always.
Practicing slowly is an absolutely essential practice tool. If you want to get good at something, be it a technique or a piece of repertoire, you need to do lots of it. Practicing slowly is the art of developing accuracy.
But there are some important qualifications to make about how and when practicing slowly will work in your favour, rather than hold you back or slow you down. How and when you use it to best effect depends heavily on context.
I doubt I’ve taught many lessons in which I didn’t say at some point “Slow that part down!” or “Play that at half-speed!” These admonishments are refrains heard in almost all music lessons, anywhere in the universe, ever, as far as I can surmise, And it’s similar when practicing on one’s own. The slightly annoying internal refrain “I need to slow this down,” is probably the most common thought in the history of practicing. For good reason.
Practicing slowly, carefully, painstakingly, with attention to getting the details right is essential because your fingers may be fast, but they are not accurate. Your mind—an incredibly powerful tool in in its own right—can train them to be incredibly accurate. But it needs to slow things down in order to do so. Developing the fine control to play something difficult requires going over it slowly.
But there is a problem. Fear of “programming in” mistakes, or an excessive obsession with perfection can have you thinking that you must conquer all mistakes and get everything perfect before ever speeding up your music. This is a recipe for frustration. Not everyone gets trapped by this, but I’ve seen it in my students, and it can be a real doozy. What it comes down to is this: If ALL you did ever was practice slowly, your playing would end up patchy. Fragmented, Shaky. Unsure of itself. Your playing would never really get off the ground.
This is because practicing “fast” is ALSO an absolutely essential tool. It’s the art of developing flow. And flow is what music is all about.
It is in this sense that practicing “fast” is JUST as essential as practicing slow. In order to get a better understanding of what I mean, let’s look at some of the language used to describe “fast” practicing.
- Running through the music. A great term which I love. Think about the words, image them in your mind.
- Playing through the music. Also a lovely image.
- Rehearsing the music. A bit workaday, but it’s a common term.
- Blazing through the music. I put this one in for fun, but I’m serious too. Sometimes you need burn through the notes if you want to become dangerous on your instrument.
- Rushing. Again, I list this only slightly in jest. Your teacher, if you have one, has probably yelled “Don’t rush!” at you more than once. But sometimes “rushing” is called for in practice!
- As is ignoring mistakes. I’m serious.
- Sight reading is a massively important “fast” practice skill.
- And last but certainly not least: Playing. As in in “playing music.”
When you practice slowly, you are entraining accuracy. When you practice “fast” you are entraining flow.
And I’ll say it again: flow is what music is all about. All the sections and phrases and fragments and skills and techniques that you have painstakingly mastered, slowly, need to be connected, at speed, seamlessly, effortlessly—so you can fly.
Here’s an image of flow that I love because I used to do this as a kid: imagine yourself jumping from rock to rock in a lovely, gurgling forest stream—joyfully, confidently, trusting your feet to find the next stone—hopefully never slipping, never falling into the water, even though part of the thrill is that you might slip, and get all wet, maybe even scrape something. That’s thrilling. That’s flying. That’s flow.
So how do you know when to practice slowly, and when to practice quickly?
Here’s a supplementary slow-practice video that I made to help you out with some concrete practice suggestions:
I’ll talk more about this in my next post! Happy practicing, stay tuned, and stay in tune!