One of the rules of practicing we all hear over and over is "Be sure to practice slowly." (I'm guilty of this too!) Often the result of this is a feeling of inhibition, which leads to tedium. Picture yourself filled with excitement and yearning in setting out to learn a new piece. Suddenly a voice from the darkness whispers: "Don't touch those keys! Sit erect, play slowly, stay strictly in time, watch that fingering..." and your smile is gone. I'm beginning to feel a cramp just talking about it.
The fact is, a certain amount of slow practice and attention to small scale detail is absolutely necessary. But there is something lacking in the approach so many of us have taken; we set out to make music, and end up playing what amounts to no more than a series of sterile exercises.
How can we overcome this problem?
First of all, it's important to remember that music comes to life through shading, dynamics, differences in touch, the shapes of its phrases, the rhythmic vitality that is so much a part of the right tempo. These qualities are all missing in a slow, rigid "practice" version of a piece. They are just as essential as correct fingering, and they don't come across without careful work.
So, perhaps we should change that rule from "Be sure to practice slowly" to "Practice as fast as possible." But Wait! This requires some further discussion. The slow part of practice helps teach the fingers where to go, and makes it mush easier to learn the work. But in order to learn how to create music, how to make the piece sing-we must practice it at a tempo that will help reveal musical relationships and subtleties of form.
Pianists must have the opportunity to experiment with touch and phrasing while practicing, and there is little chance of boredom when so many exciting elements are introduced to the practice session.
In my E-book, I've included many basic exercises with background music to assist you in acquiring this level of keyboard performance. In other words, you will be practicing with other instrumentalists. You will hear the drums, bass and an unobtrusive piano accompaniment that provides a harmonic blanket for YOU to practice your course material!
Ideally, then, both ways of practicing should be used!
First, we should practice slowly enough to learn the notes and fingerings. Then, we should "practice as fast as possible"; that is, as fast as we can without losing control of the basics we learned in slow practice.
Here' how this would work. Take a short part of the piece; you might choose a four- or eight-measure phrase. Practice it slowly. When you feel comfortable with the music, increase the tempo. Don't wait until you've practiced the entire work slowly. In this way, at each sitting you'll get to learn a little section, bring it up to tempo, and feel into what is needed to bring it to life.
At the next sitting, work on the next four or eight measure. When you have that section brought up to tempo, combine it with the first section. Now, you will begin to understand how the phrases relate to each other. You can introduce the idea of dynamic shading and decide which lines to bring out at a given moment. In fact, you will be making real, exciting music-even before you've learned the whole piece!
As you go on in this way, you will probably change your mind about how to play the work as new sections are added. This is part of the process of discovery and experimentation. Concert artists are always re-interpreting, because they think about these elements all the time.
So play as slowly as you need to; but as fast as you are able!
I wish you the best of success.
Copyright 2005 RAW Productions
Ron Worthy is a Music Educator, Songwriter and Performer. He provides online piano instruction for all ages at: