Sometimes I think I’m jinxed. The last few times I’ve played Beethoven’s sonata (opus 109) at my lesson, the music has fallen apart. I make clumsy mistakes. I have memory lapses. Why can I play it well at home and so disastrously at my lesson?
Dr. B is much kinder and more patient with me than I am with myself. Even though my disappointment is obvious to him, he always comments on the bits I played well: a phrase here or there, perhaps correct rhythms, or good dynamics.
“The piece just needs more time to mature,” he said. To me, it’s had enough months to mature. Perhaps not.
“To get it more solid,” he continued, “you need to slow it way down. Work with the metronome. Then gradually increase the speed every few days. After several weeks it will be much better.”
Dr. B always has techniques for improving difficulties. I do what he suggests — I’ll either prove him right or prove him wrong — because what I’ve been doing obviously hasn’t created success.
The next day I set the metronome at 50 — half the speed I’d been playing. Immediately I realized I couldn’t play the music slowly. My fingers didn’t automatically get me where I wanted to go, which meant my memory wasn’t secure. I studied the difficult spots, and worked until I could play them slowly. I also noticed dynamic markings that I’d overlooked in my rush to play faster.
Playing slowly was harder than I thought. Several days were required just to play the first page correctly. And this was a piece I already knew!
Eventually I worked my way through all six pages — at 50. At every stumble I rechecked the music, drilled the tough spots, checked other markings on the music. Once I could play with no mistakes, I increased the metronome to 55. After a few more days, I increased to 60. And so it’s been for the last few weeks.
Here’s what I’ve learned:
- My memorization wasn’t as secure as I thought, which explains disastrous playing at my lesson.
- Slow practice allows me to pay attention to the details: rhythm, dynamics, articulation, notes
- Slow practice is about being careful and getting it right and listening.
- “Perfect slow” will eventually be “perfect fast.” It’s the only way to get there.
My questions for you are
- What are you trying to accomplish at full speed before you’ve mastered the details? Where do you find yourself repeating the same mistakes or continuing to have the same struggles? What if you slowed down, looked at the details, and worked them to your satisfaction first? What if . . . .
- Where are you speeding ahead because you don’t think you have time to slow down? What if you decided to give up on mediocre and sloppiness? What if . . .
- Where are your personal disappointments? What if, instead of declaring yourself a failure, you slow down, look at the pieces and parts, and create a plan for small changes. What if . . .
In all my years of piano playing, I’ve never understood the value of slow practice until now. I was always in too much of a hurry to play full speed.
Dr. B wants the music right first. Speed comes later.
Until next Tuesday . . .