The Art of Slow Practice
Musicians from the 18th century believed that the body created a “natural tempo” that governed the speed of music. That speed was about 80-100 BPM, the average heartbeat of a human. Over years of teaching, I find that beginning piano students tend to play the first piece they are assigned at a similar tempo, and most often our “natural tempo” is slightly too fast for the synapses between our brain and fingers to align! This leads to frequent pausing and frustration during lessons for students and exasperation from piano teachers as they try to teach their students to play at a steady tempo. Piano students, as opposed to those of other instruments, have this problem especially due to the high level coordination between the hands required to play pieces. Here are some tips to remedy this problem for beginning, intermediate, and advanced students.
Beginning students: From the very first lesson, I have students visualize a very slow animal like a turtle of sloth, and I will pantomime the motion of these animals as the students play! For the first several piano lessons, I remind students to start at “turtle speed” and work their way up to “human speed.” A speed of 60 BPM tends to work well as turtle speed since students can feel the ticking second hand of a clock. Even if a student can play through beginning pieces with ease, it is important for them to learn how to practice slowly.
Intermediate students: Slow and steady practice yields strong results, but often students will find that they hit a speed plateau. To overcome this plateau, piano teachers should have students practice measure by measure in very fast bursts, at least double the speed they would usually play, with timed pauses in between. This reduces thinking time within measures and helps students anticipate the difficulties in the following measure.
Advanced students: Slow practicing is not mechanical; rather it should be executed like meditation or yoga exercises with emphasis on smooth continuous motion. Often students will practice slowly and play with extreme precision and verticality, like two xylophone mallets tapping in time. The problem with this approach is it doesn’t address the connection of notes and tones. I address this by taking short videos during our piano lessons and have students watch on replay like an athletic film room. Often they will find that their arms and hands hover indecisively in the air, causing awkward pauses within the music. These spots can be isolated and slowly corrected with increased muscular awareness.
I hope these tips work well for your piano practice, whatever skill level you are at. You can also check out this video by Danae Dörken "Why You Should Practice Your Instrument Slowly."