Monday, September 13, 2010

The benefits of playing slow

I have been rock climbing an awful lot this summer. Not as much as I'd like to but maybe a little more than usual. Did a great climb in Leavenworth this past weekend and my hands are a bit punished. Here's a photo I borrowed of the wall. It's the gray rock in the center of the photo. It's about 600-800ft tall depending on who you ask.

I tried practicing the day after but my fingers hardly worked at all. After another day of rest I was able to get back to picking again. My latest is goal is a bit of an ambitious undertaking. I've been working on Bach's Partita #3 for Solo Violin. Classical guitarists have been playing it a while and a few of the big dog bluegrass folks like Chris Thile, Bela Fleck, and Mike Marshall have performed it. It is an incredible piece of music. Of course it's hundreds of notes but Bach doesn't waste any on this one. Here's a video of John Williams slaying it.

Aside from my slow sight reading skills which create a challenge all it's own, I'm realizing that pulling this thing together is going to require advancing my ability to practice. So here are a few things I've noticed.

  • Slow is fast
There are so many new movements that have to be mastered, (Just like any beginner would encounter) the best way to get them memorized is to play through things slowly. Real slow. Often times I'll just work on a couple of especially difficult moves. It's amazing how much faster the muscle memory starts to set in if I take extra time to really know where my fingers are supposed to go. Once I've thought it through, then I can start the process of repetition playing and the fingers will start to go where they need to on their own. I find that taking extra time is important. As soon as I'm speeding things up, I'm messing up.

  • The metronome is your best friend
You may think that you're playing slow enough but I bet you're not. Try this for slow.

  1. Set the metronome on 60bpm. Work on a short passage. 2-3 measures or so.
  2. Play one note on the click.
  3. Let three clicks go by before you play another note. (This allows you to relax, make sure you're not tensing up, and gives you time to think about your next note.)
  4. Play the next note on the click. Continue through with your chosen passage with three rest notes. How many mistakes did you make? If you're making mistakes now, you will later. Better to fix these problems before you speed up.
  5. Did you play it with little or no mistakes? Speed it up. Now to 100bpm, but continue with the three rest notes.
  6. Keep working up through the tempos until you are playing your passage at 60 bpm with one note per click. At this point I bet your fingers know where to go. Now you're ready to really build muscle memory with repetition practice. Slowly still.
  7. I promise you'll be amazed at how much more solid your fingers remember where to go, slow is fast.
  • Speed is last thing you should worry about.
Easy to say, hard to let the ego get out of the way. More to the point though, if you start speeding things up before you're ready, you have no hope of playing the music clean. There's just no way. Speed should be brought up slowly.

If you're playing a piece slowly and want to start getting faster ask yourself a couple of questions.

  1. How many mistakes am I making at a slow speed?
  2. How easy does it feel?
I'll let you answer these questions. If you feel good about the answers then you're ready to put some speed on it.

Perhaps you're getting the point. Try playing slow. You'll be surprised how much better you'll play.
Hope it helps.

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