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What is Slow Practice? A guide for the best ways to practice for great results!

Updated: Sep 12, 2023


We’ve all heard that saying “practice makes perfect”. This is true in some sense, but it’s not a perfect statement. The quality of our practice plays a huge role in our overall success. This is why getting into the groove of a great practice routine is so important. It took me a long time to learn how to practice effectively. I learned bits and pieces throughout all of my schooling and tried to apply what I could when I practiced, but I still struggled to understand what it was that I was missing in order to get ahead. I just couldn’t understand why some of my friends and colleagues seemed to have everything down perfectly – especially intonation. Intonation was my Achilles heel for a long time because I just couldn’t believe that what I was playing wasn’t close enough, didn’t it already sound fine? What difference did that tiny adjustment really make? It was only when I got out of undergrad that I made a decision that no person would ever be able to comment on my intonation again that I started to make big changes in the way I practiced. This was just the beginning of a journey that I don’t even consider close to being over.


When I made that decision to buckle down on my intonation, it was transformational. I was always pretty good about getting myself to practice, but never with great direction. I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to accomplish, but I didn’t have the patience to really slow down my process to get there. After I graduated from undergrad, I spent an entire summer doing excessively slow practice (See below for the actual method I used). At first, it was so mentally agonizing that I clearly remember those moments of practice better than most of the other tens of thousands hours completed in my life. I developed a sense of focused patience, which became one of the most powerful tools in my arsenal for self-improvement. Long story short, this is the ability to practice when it isn’t fun. To stay extremely focused for longer durations of practice. Focused patience doesn’t come all at once, or overnight, or over the course of a summer for that matter. I had only just started to practice that skill, and I still practice it to this day. When I have students I always try to push their threshold of focused patience in lessons – it’s the “how slow can you go” idea. It has to feel mentally painful, like the neurons in your brain are firing at the edge of their capabilities. It’s the frustration level we are trying to get to. At first I wasn’t able to sustain this feeling for long, but over time the duration where I could maintain focused patience has increased because I intentionally practice for it.


One of my teachers, Ralph Fielding, is great at pushing students’ threshold for focus. In some of my lessons with him, it actually felt like time slowed down. Twenty minutes felt like an hour, so by the end of my lesson I would be totally drained and exhausted. These were some of the best lessons I ever had with him, although they were also the most challenging. And even though I studied with him three years after I decided nobody would be able to comment on my intonation ever again, he still had plenty of commentary for me! I remember when I had just had my recital, and he sat down and told me “I think your intonation took a dive this semester, I would say you played about 70% of your recital in tune. It’s time to start focusing on that again.” 70% in tune! I felt so disappointed in that moment, it made me mad at my intonation all over again. I really wanted to be mad at Mr. Fielding, but I knew that I still had a lot of work to do if I wanted to succeed so I better get to it. One month after that comment I was fortunate to have a successful audition and nab my job as Teaching Artist with The Florida Orchestra, which to me shows that even if you are doing well in auditions there is still a lot of work to do to master those fundamentals.

 

So how can we train our patience, our focus, and our focused patience muscles? Slow practice. It sounds counterintuitive, but slow practice is the most efficient way to practice for improvement. Slowing things down gives your brain the time to truly hear every note and analyze it properly. It increases awareness of what you are doing physically to make sound and to get around the finger board. When I am learning music, I like to practice slowly enough that I hear every single note-note that hearing every note will also involve actively listening to every note (we’ll get into that). Let’s start by looking at Kreutzer number 11, the Florida All State etude.

Kreutzer, Rudolphe – 42 Etude Studies for Viola – No. 11 – Quarter Note = 60

There are so many notes on this page of music that I can’t blame anyone for blowing through it measure by measure, arpeggio by arpeggio. It’s already marked at a “slow” tempo for the quarter note, but we are going to take it to the extreme. Instead of practicing at 60 to the quarter note, we will practice it at 60 to the 16th note. That’s right. It should be painfully slow. But you don’t have any room to zone out-the minute your eyes start wandering or you think about what’s for dinner-stop! Your focus needs to be 100% on each note you are playing. Listen for great intonation, full tone, watch your bow to see the contact point, notice every single string crossing, make every shift deliberately. I almost guarantee you will notice that the notes in the middle of each phrase-where you are up high and doing string crossings-don’t sound the way you thought they did. It might seem like it’s harder to shift or to play in tune generally. That’s because at this tempo, every single note is exposed like you left your music out on stage in its underpants. It also throws off your muscle memory, which is used to a certain tempo. At this point in the process, you may just want to turn off the metronome and turn on the drone so you can spend some time tuning each note to the key of the arpeggio you are practicing. When you finish tuning the arpeggio, try the metronome exercise again. Whatever you do, don’t throw your instrument into the bonfire-it’s not the instrument’s fault!



After I graduated from my undergrad and I made the decision to “fix” my intonation, I went to some extreme lengths in my practice. My go to “torture practice” was to take a passage of whatever I was working on, and to practice that passage one note at a time with the metronome on 40. I would play one note, rest, play the next note, rest, play the next note, rest, and so on. In the rests I would hum the next note, trying to fully imagine what it should sound like. I did this every day for the entire summer. This one is a real test of ear training and patience. It’s great for scales as well as whatever type of repertoire you may be working on. If you can do this 10-15 minutes a day with extreme focus, you will certainly improve! Let’s try it with a D scale.


Active listening is another one of those muscles that we need to train on the regular. It is the act of listening with hyper focus. There are different types of listening. There is background noise, which is having sound on in the background but not paying attention to it to the point of tuning it out. I sometimes have the Alexa play renaissance music at home as background noise, and one time a student came over and it was playing for a full 20 minutes into their lesson before I even noticed it was on! I suppose it created a nice vibe for the lesson, but it was still pretty embarrassing. After background noise I would say there’s secondary listening, which is having something playing that you’re vaguely listening to while you’re doing something else. This is how I listen to podcasts and music while I’m driving or doing chores around the house. It’s there, you hear the words, you understand what’s going on, but you still aren’t 100% focused on it. Active listening is the ultimate listening experience. If you are reading this blog, you probably have experienced this listening to a great recording or attending a concert, maybe even listening to a really good podcast or book. You are 100% engrossed in it, experiencing the soundwaves, your entire being is devoted to that sound in that moment. That is active listening. When you are practicing, you should be 100% focused on the sound, the feeling, the experience of the instrument in that moment. It’s not natural to be 100% focused on something for too long. It’s a muscle that needs to be used in order to grow. Next time you practice, put a stop watch on and see how long you can practice with full focus. The second your mind wanders, hit that stopper. Try it again and see if you can go longer. Challenge yourself to practice with 100% focus for 10 minutes, 20, 30, a full hour, etc. You’ll have to put your phone in airplane mode to eliminate all distractions.


Another great way to practice active listening is during orchestra or chamber rehearsals. While you are playing try listening to a part that is far away from you. Start by listening to the basses, go beyond just trying to hear them, try to figure out exactly what they are doing and move in sync with them. Do the same with the violins, percussion, woodwinds, brass (although this group is never hard to hear-they always make their presence well known!). If you are in a small ensemble listen to the musician across from you so closely that you can anticipate exactly what their next moves are. Active listening is the only way to play chamber music. In a way, you need to almost become the other members of the group. There is no moving by yourself, leading yourself through. In the best groups you are moving as one entity and the team comes before the self. When you practice your chamber music on your own, that is the only time you are listening to yourself. In rehearsal, your awareness should be 90% on the sound of the group. If you need to focus more on your own part that means you have not learned the piece well enough and you need to spend more time in the practice room. We should have the same goals in orchestra as well. Learn every note well enough that you don’t need to think about the fingerings or how the rhythm goes when you are in rehearsal. All of that work should be complete before the first rehearsal so that you can then spend the rehearsal contributing to the team. I emphasize that last point because I never realized how important preparation before the first rehearsal was until I had to learn new programs every week and money was on the line. I find it funny that when I was in college my attitude was that “the first rehearsal is where I’ll figure out what I need to practice”. It wasn’t until a festival where the very wise conductor Victor Yampowski taught us that every single note needed to be learned before the first rehearsal. Not that I believed him until I started playing full time and realized the pressure of the orchestral world-it is far more cutthroat than I could have ever believed. There is no room for error, not even in the first rehearsal.


 

Slow practice really is the best way to learn your music. If you don’t have the patience or the ability to focus 100% for a long time, that is perfectly OK. It won’t happen automatically. It is a skill that needs to be practiced in order to improve. When you feel frustrated take a step back, a deep breath, and accept that you are at your threshold. Make a fresh cup of coffee, take a quick walk, and come back to it. It will be easier the more you practice it, and you’ll find that your overall level of patience improves along with your practice. I hope that this gives you some ideas on how to practice slowly, with purpose, and with great effectiveness!


 

Thank you for reading my blog, I hope it has been helpful and you are able to take your music playing to the next level! 🎶🎵🎶

KS

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