Slow practice isn't just for learning new pieces or hard passages - though it is good for that. Sometimes it's just what you need, once everything is already learned, to put it all together.
I've been thinking about this idea as my own students prepare for our spring recital. Part of that preparation involves is getting things "up to speed." But sometimes, in trying to play something faster, things can get tangled. It's almost as if there are literally knots in the music, certain places where the fingers get all tangled up with the bow-crossing and the brain is firing off too many directions, too fast. Sometimes the directions get so compressed, so knotted up, that they go in the wrong order.
So how do you untangle it all? Slow practice! First I'm going to give you some principles for slow practice, then after that, I will list three different ways to practice slowly.
When practicing slowly, it's important to concentrate on three overall things:
1. Left hand before bow. Place the left-hand fingers before the bow changes directions, and also before the bow does any string-crossings. Shift before bow changes directions, changes strings, etc. If the shift is during a slur, you can simply stop the bow to practice getting the shift correct. If a passage is not sounding "clean," this is likely the culprit, that the left hand is interrupting before the bow change. When you slow things down, it is easier to concentrate on left hand movement happening before right-hand movement.
2. Finish one note before starting another. Sounds simple, but this can be a problem when stress arises: cutting off the end of one note in order to get to the next one, especially if the next one involves a shift, a big string crossing or a chord. The solution: place a stop between notes. Finish one note completely and calmly, then stop the bow. While the bow is stopped, do the shift or the string crossing or the combination of maneuvers needed for the next note, using deliberate movement that is not rushed. Only after that, play the next note. Practice it this way until those "moves" become swift and easy, then slowly make the stopping time shorter and shorter until you eliminate the stops. This kind of practice can help make it feel like you have plenty of time between notes, even after you stop "stopping"!
3. Make it sound good. Don't forget to listen to the sound coming out of your violin! Do you like it? Are you playing with good tone? Vibrato? Dynamics? Capturing the mood of the music? Expression is the ultimate goal, so take the time to hear yourself, and make the effort to produce something you like to hear.
There are several different ways to "practice slow." Here are three:
1. Practice slow, with the metronome. This is the most literal form of "slow practice" - just slow down the beat until everything feels like it's at a more do-able tempo. When doing this kind of practice, keep everything proportional, so that even if you have a half-note among your passage of 16th notes, you hold it for its full two beats. It can be surprising to learn that things are still difficult, slow! I find that once a student can play every single note correctly, in rhythmic proportion, at a slow speed, then increasing the speed becomes a simple matter of cranking the metronome a notch or two every couple of days. But getting that base-line solidity at the slow speed, with rhythmic proportions held, is important.
2. Practice completely out of time. That's right, take yourself off the clock entirely. Ignore all the rhythms and simply play the notes slowly and in the right order - but correctly and extremely in-tune. Take as much time as you need to get from one note to the next. This is a technique from violinist Danielle Belen, who recommends it for warming up and for doing fine intonation work. "Take out the rhythm and turn it into a series of tones," she said at a Sounding Point master class last summer at the Colburn School. "Make it perfect - match every open string. And no squeezing. It's so calming. And it's really the only way you can get your ear in order."
Practice "loose and easy." This is what Hilary Hahn calls "Light, meandering practice." Hilary shows herself doing this in one of her recent "100 Days of Practice" videos (Season 6, day 98 - notice, she's doing it on her 98th of 100 days). It's absolutely fascinating to watch her doing this, to see her taking time, stopping to listen and think, keeping things so relaxed, even when she is playing all kinds of double-stops, octaves, big shifts.
In this, Hilary appears to be taking pressure off by not bearing down, by literally playing light with the fingers and bow, and slowing down for things like shifts. She is loosening brain and body and practicing little bits in the most relaxed way possible. If you think about speed, it's about compression of time, and this is what I'd called "decompression" practicing. She is not literally going "slower" in everything she is playing, but she isn't bearing down with the bow or fingers, she is going "light and easy." In performance she will undoubtedly apply more "pressure," which is needed for greater tone production, speeding up the shifts, etc., but with this type of practice she is putting ease into her playing, and that ease will hold.
Happy practicing, and feel free to share your thoughts about slow practice!
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