I’ve been exposed to many different systems of how to break down and learn music. I’ve tried isolating a difficult section, repeating something 10 times perfectly, finding the “skeleton” of the phrase by taking notes away, and simply just playing a section of music slowly. Although every one of these methods has merit and can be used to great effect, it is my finding that no matter what method you employ, the best place to start learning is at half tempo.
The Beginning Is Everything
When we begin learning a piece of music, we are in a delicate state of learning for a period of time. The work we do when initially learning (or re-learning) material will have a profound impact on our ability to internalize and be able to consistently reproduce a desired result. Often times, a player will feel the best way to learn a piece of music will be to play through the material they are preparing at full tempo a few times, in order to find the difficult sections they need to work on. This is a fine strategy, but I think it could use a little tweaking to maximize how effective it is.
Practice Slow, Learn Fast
When beginning at half tempo (when I say half tempo, I mean dead slow. Most of the time half tempo is sufficient, but in rare cases, you may need to start even slower than that), we are able to challenge our ability to understand the material. It is my belief that the majority of the difficulties players face when trying to execute a piece of music come because they do not understand the material deeply enough. A speed of half tempo allows us to address issues such as: do I understand how every rhythm fits together? Am I able to hear each interval clearly? Can I focus enough to produce high level repetitions very early in the learning process? One of the most common issues I see when working with younger students is they don’t seem to have the ability to understand how rhythm works together. They learn how something should sound through repetition at full tempo, and then they play “by feel” to try and reproduce what’s on the page.
Slow Practice Isn’t Exciting
If half tempo is such a great idea, why don’t more people use it as a tool for learning? Simply put, it’s not easy. It’s boring. It takes focus and attention to detail. To implement slower tempo work in your practice means putting off faster tempos for when you’re more prepared. I think it’s important to shift our thinking, and to understand that running things at full tempo doesn’t actually make us better at executing the material we want to learn. It certainly helps us have comfort at performance tempos, which is a necessary step in building confidence for a successful performance. But if you want to improve your ability to play something consistently, spending more time at sub maximal tempos is a great way to do that.
A Challenge For You
Try this challenge: pick a short etude, and find the tempo you want to play it at. On your first day of practice, practice it at half tempo (50%). On your second day, play it a little faster (60%). Day 3, a little faster than that (70%). On Day 4, we can get closer to the desired performance tempo (80-95%), and on day 5, play it at full tempo. Use it as an experiment to see how much better you are able to learn a piece of music, and how much more consistently can you play it, if you spend 3-4 days playing it slowly.
“Slow and steady wins the race”
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