A blog post about slow practice by the music psychologist Dr. Noa Kageyama is doing the rounds among my acquaintance right now. Kageyama’s central premise is that slow practice isn’t about perfecting a troublesome passage at a slow tempo, but rather about fine-tuning it.
I’m a huge fan of Kageyama’s, but in this one instance I respectfully disagree with him. It’s become axiomatic that slow practice is what you’re supposed to do, and yet, the older I get, the more I question this.
Of course, I practise very slowly myself when I’m in the early stages of note-crunching a new piece, and I advise my students to do the same. I want to see what I’m in for, I want to plan my expression, I most of all want to avoid the musician’s bête noire, the ingrained wrong note.
After that, I’m not sure it helps to make slow practice part of everyday recital preparation. We use different attacks, bow strokes, shifting mechanisms, vibratos, even intonations when the tempo is faster. It seems to make more sense to me to get the tempo up as fast as possible so that we can put expressive parameters first. Phrasing and expressive intent should dictate which strokes and fingerings we use, and not the other way around.
A perfectly accurate rendition of a piece is not, obviously, going to spring fully-formed from any but the absolute best of us, but spending excessive time practising slowly seems like a waste of time to me. If all I can do with a section is play it at half tempo, I’ll work it up to tempo by the two-steps-forwards, one-step-back method. I first learned about this in a masterclass with the violinist-composer Todd Reynolds, but I’ve heard of other wonderful musicians using it too. Essentially, you move the metronome up a considerable rate above what you can currently play, and struggle through the passage a few times until it becomes easier. Then you move the tempo down about halfway between the tempo you can play and the too-fast tempo. Although the new tempo is faster than your original slow tempo, this method makes it seem instantly easier. You keep doing this until you can actually play faster than your goal tempo–by which time the goal tempo will seem easy and manageable.
Even so, misuse of the metronome can actually make things worse when you’re trying to get a piece up to a goal tempo. I don’t recommend the “notch-by-notch” method where you start slow and work the tempo up by one “click” every time you repeat it. All you’re doing is teaching yourself to play ever so slightly behind the beat in an ensemble. Being behind is always a problem for cellists anyway, because of the thickness of our strings and the corresponding slowness of our attacks. We need to practice being ahead of our game much more than we need endlessly to repeat our pieces slowly.
Post-script: this post got a lot more attention than almost anything I’ve written. I learned from this that when you write an off-the-cuff musing on slow practice on the internet, 127 people will write to you to tell you that you’re an idiot. There’s nothing like internet strangers to make you feel good about yourself.