In my lessons with the undergraduate students here at Yale I find myself repeating a few core ideas many times. Perhaps one of the most common suggestions I make to students is to… slow down.
Young musicians seem to have a fascination with playing things fast. I must admit that I too went through my phase… ok. several phases, of obsessing over my speed. However, I have found in my teaching and my own studies that the best way to improve control, accuracy and even speed is to slow everything down.
There are three types of slowing down that I would like to talk about here. (I do admit, the titles don’t sound promising but the ideas are!)
1. Slowing down the tempo
2. Slowing down your practice
3. Slowing down your performance
Slowing Down the Tempo
When you slow down the tempo of a section that needs work then, and only then, can you see what isn’t working and how you can fix it. Slowing down allows us to understand the very complex movements of both hands that are involved in a passage of music. Once we understand the movements we have more control of the movements. With more control comes accuracy and speed. It also aides in the speed at which we learn a piece and perhaps, eventually memorize it. Once you start slowing down the tempo of passages to work on them you will find out that you are saving a ton of time by slowing down.
Slowing Down your Practice
In a similar way slowing down your overall practice means that you work more efficiently and productively. By slowing down your practice I mean that you do not try to learn the piece in one sitting or even ten. Take your time. Map out all of the fingering, try different fingerings, analyze the form, the structure, the harmony, the phrasing… etc. There are many facets to each piece yet most of us jump straight in the deep end and start playing a piece from beginning to end… at full speed. By doing this you are making the entire learning process stretch out over a much longer period of time than it needs to be.
Slowing Down your Performance
So, after a coffee and a good warm up you can play that overture at a blistering pace of MM. 120 all the way through with only a few slips… (congrats!)… but when the performance comes around half of the notes were missing and the other half may have been in another key! Does this sound familiar? It is all too common to hear the phrase “but I played it much better last night at home” following a less than spectacular performance. So why do we always try to play at the very extreme of our capabilities when the situation is at its toughest?
Well, the answer to that question can be left for someone else to answer but I am here to say that if you shift down a couple of gears in your performance and take things at a more manageable pace you will be a happy chappy.
and here’s why…
The positive reinforcement you feel after being on stage and feeling more in control is worth its weight in gold and the positive side effects filter through all of your playing. (can you imagine how good you would feel if you were always in control on stage!)
We naturally speed up tempi on stage and in other high stress scenarios. If you think you are taking it at your top speed you are probably taking it a few notches more thanks to all the adrenaline.
When notes are played cleanly and rhythmically on the guitar a listener perceives the music as much faster than sloppy playing taken at a faster tempo.
So. Slow down everyone. O.K?