Go Slow, Stupid

posted in: blog post, francis | 0

Go slow. Take it one step at a time. Speed will come quicker than you think.

 

I said these things so often in my music theory classes this past semester that it almost became a mantra. My students probably got sick of hearing me say it, but I didn’t care. It may be a cliche, but it’s still damn good advice.

 

Go slow. Take it one step at a time. Speed will come quicker than you think.

 

The thing is, the constant repetition of the advice worked. Most students want good grades, and there comes a magic moment when they realize that if they take things slow, they do better. The result? Better grades. Everyone is happy. I especially get happy seeing their new found fluency with the material. Suddenly, they can spit out the right notes of a German augmented sixth chord in E flat major in a matter of seconds, rather than the agonizing minutes it took them to do the same thing when they first learned about the concept. All because they slowed things down. Thought through the steps. Understood the chord’s function. Going slow works. I’ve seen it happen too many times to count.

 

So why the hell don’t I follow my own advice? It’s another cliche: Do as I say, not as I do.

 

***

 

At a certain point, I stopped practicing slow. It happened because of a combination of reasons. For a while, I was a staff accompanist. Staff accompanists have to learn a lot of music in a short amount of time. I was often overwhelmed by the amount of stuff I had to learn and play. That meant I practiced just enough to know I could get through a piece without any disasters. No time to practice slowly, especially when I had to play the piece in half an hour in front of people.

 

I could barely handle this, but I survived because I began to notice a new found fluency in my playing. What had taken me days to learn when I was younger took me a matter of minutes. I had finally built up enough proficiency to be able to learn things quickly. What use did I have in practicing slow? Cliche: Famous last words. I now see how wrong I was, but at the time I was too full of myself to see it. Hubris always leads to hell.

 

When I left my staff accompanying days behind me and began my DMA in harpsichord I was never satisfied with any of my performances. I always left feeling like I hadn’t represented myself. This isn’t me, I’d think. I can do so much better.

 

I had no one to blame for these crappy performances but myself, of course. I said yes to everything. Took on more than I could chew. And left myself with little to no time to practice. The little time I did spend practicing, I didn’t use well. I still had that just-get-through-it mentality. No use in practicing slow. Another cliche: Old habits die hard. I may have left my staff accompanying days behind me, but my staff accompanying mindset hadn’t left me.

 

It was a huge problem. My performances sucked and I knew it was because I wasn’t preparing well. The solution was simple: spend more time playing slow. Just like my poor theory students, I was told this many times. And just like my students, I got sick of hearing it said to me (hubris again). I wasn’t ready to listen. It made rational sense, but for whatever reason, I kept ignoring the advice. Cliche: You can lead a horse to water…

 

It took a long time, but the advice finally clicked. A violinist friend of mine had asked me to play the first movement of the Brahms G major Violin Sonata with him. I agreed, not just because it was a paying gig, but because I had always loved that piece. I loved it so much, that I was even willing to play it on the modern piano–at that time, I was not happy to be playing only early keyboard instruments and tried to avoid the Steinway like the plague.

 

If you know the Brahms G major Violin Sonata, you know that it has a difficult piano part (what Brahms piece doesn’t?), and as a committed harpsichordist, I hadn’t played piano seriously in years. I had to get reaquainted with the modern piano again. So, that meant that I actually practiced the piece slowly, because I had to.

 

The result of that slow practice? That Brahms performance was one of my best. The slow practice helped me be rock solid on my part. I knew where my hands had to be at all times. But there was also an added benefit. Practicing slow helped me notice more details about the piece–it’s structural design, its elegant harmonic progressions, the interplay between the piano and the violin. I found that I appreciated the piece all the more because I knew it way better than I had before.

 

Not only that, the slow practicing helped me learn the piece quicker. It seems like a paradox, but it’s true. Practicing slow gets things into your head and body so much quicker than just hashing through something. All the slow practicing, only helped to reinforce that fluency at the keyboard I mentioned earlier. Because of the time I spent practicing slow, figuring out hand positions, dealing with awkward reaches, finding fingerings for the passage work, my hands seem to be able to play the piece effortlessly when I brought it up to tempo. It gave me a huge sense of security. I was now free to think about other things than just finding the right notes to play, pushing the correct buttons at the right time as if I were playing a game of Guitar Hero (do people still play that game?) instead of making music. I could now focus on the emotional impact of the piece and communicating that to my listeners. Performing the piece made me feel at ease, all because I had built up the proper security by practicing slowly.

 

Of course, most of you know this already. I’m sure many of you have heard the same things and already know the value of the advice. What I’m saying is not original to me at all. It’s just a string of cliches. I know this. But more and more, I’ve been noticing the wisdom behind these dull, insipid cliches. Be yourself! Just do it! One step at a time! They all ring true, at least they ring true for me (though if ever you hear me say I find wisdom in a retch-inducing phrase like, “The present is a gift,” know that aliens have taken control of my body. Please rescue me from them). And when it comes to music, there is no better advice than to practice slowly. It really is that simple, though–cliche–it’s easier said than done.

 

I still struggle to practice slowly. It can be frustrating, especially when I’m eager to play a piece or I’m particularly busy (I should also talk one day about the benefits of saying no to people, but that’s definitely another blog post). When I find myself becoming frustrated or impatient and just rushing through my practice sessions, I just need to tell myself to calm down. Speed will come quicker than I think. I need to take it one step at a time. Go slow, stupid, go slow.

 

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