The Practice Notebook

flutist Zara Lawler shares tips on learning music

When in Doubt, Slow Down


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I had a great learning experience recently.  It was the night before a big performance, a featured spot at the National Flute Association’s Annual Convention . The event was called The Flute on its Feet and combined several staged and choreographed works for solo flute with workshop activities to introduce the audience to interdisciplinary performance.

I was having a pretty typical night-before-the-big-show practice session.  I felt good about my preparation up to that point: I had put in many hours of practice and rehearsal, done quite a few practice performances, and I was really excited to be able to present this material at the Flute Convention.  That night, however, I found myself making mistake after mistake, and getting more and more wound up as time passed–not exactly what you want in a final practice session.

I was rehearsing my version of Density 21.5. It starts with me telling the story of the piece, alternating phrases of speaking with phrases of music.  Here’s the funny thing:  I wrote the words and crafted the performance myself, but that night I was stumbling over the words and saying them wrong, or awkwardly. It was really unnerving the night before a show!

I needed to solve this problem, but practicing speaking is a little different than practicing playing.  I don’t know any good tricks for speaking like I do for playing (such as Metronome Trick No 1), so the only thing I could think of to try was to slow it down.

It solved my verbal flubs INSTANTLY!  It also made my shoulders relax noticeably, and gave me more expressive possibilities.  It’s always cool when a technical fix opens up more communicative horizons.

Next I moved on to Lowell Liebermann’s Eight Pieces, some of the most challenging music I’ve ever memorized.  Take a look at the first half of No. 2 for example (complete with my markings):

lieb no 2

As you can see, it’s got a lot of notes, and if you look closely, they repeat themselves, but not quite (for example, just compare the ends of the first two lines).  There are many opportunities to go through the wrong door mentally, and many opportunities for your fingers to end up in a knot instead of a note. By the night before the show, I had been performing these pieces well and consistently.  But what do you know?  My night-before nerves were at it again, and I couldn’t get through a single one of the eight pieces without crashing and burning.

I tried the “slow down fix” again and it worked.  It was almost like magic: I’m used to incremental improvement, but this was an instant solution.

And again, it fixed more than just the technique.  The benefits were musical:  it was like space was opened up in each phrase, and expression and beauty were welcomed in.  It also fixed my anxiety:  with each passing mistake, I had been feeling worse and worse about the next day’s performance.  But by slowing it down, I felt in control, relaxed, and even joyful.  I was literally giving myself time to enjoy the music.

Hopefully everyone already knows to start slow.  The lesson of my experience at the Flute Convention is that sometimes it’s good to finish that way as well.  If you’ve been doing good practice, and you know you can play a particular passage well, but find yourself having sudden, unexplained problems with it or anxiety about it, try it slower.  If possible, use a metronome to make sure you keep it slower for the duration of your practice session.  Performance jitters can do all sorts of crazy stuff to our perception, so rely on a metronome to keep you slow when you’re nervous.  It’ll feel like magically creating space in time.

Photo Credit: suika*2009

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4 Comments to

“When in Doubt, Slow Down”

  1. On September 25th, 2009 at 4:04 pm Anne Anderson Says:

    Yes! It’s like the first time I picked up the cello after being in Paris for two weeks. I tried playing Bach 4th Suite Prelude at the pace I left it at, but, aghh, everything was off, naturally. So I slowed the whole thing down and played it like a Zen meditation, celebrating each note, letting the phrases slowly speak to me in new ways. And I’ve been playing everything better, with better tone and intonation since then.

  2. On September 25th, 2009 at 4:06 pm Bonnie Whiting Smith Says:

    I think this technique (playing slowly at a time other than in the very beginning stages of learning a piece) might also be applicable in the middle of the learning process. . . especially when one is doing something slightly uncomfortable/different. (i.e., speaking and playing or, if you’re me, doing something like playing kick drum.)

  3. On November 1st, 2009 at 10:13 am rachel deren Says:

    This is the very concept my teacher has been nagging me to use. I have to admit I have been a bit hesitant to use it because stubbornly I thought it would cause me to regress rather than to progress toward my goal because slow practice was what I misunderstood as being a beginning step but after reading in your blog and seeing how it helped you I feel I MUST TRY IT and I may have hurt myself by not having utualized this.

  4. On November 24th, 2009 at 3:38 pm Metronome Trick No. 1 Says:

    [...] September 25th, 2009 at 4:01 pm The Practice Notebook » Blog Archive » When in Doubt, Slow Down Says:[...] practicing playing.  I don’t know any good tricks for speaking like I do for playing [...]

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