Ruth Slenczynska, 97 years young as I type this sentence, is the last living student of Sergei Rachmaninoff (above), one of the great pianists of the 20th century. She tells the story of arriving for a lesson with Rachmaninoff, standing outside his door, and hearing the previous student practice extremely slowly. “What an inferior player!” she thought. She knocked, and Rachmaninoff opened the door. He was alone – there was no student there. It was Rachmaninoff himself who had been practicing so slowly!
If someone were to calculate the frequency of words I speak while teaching, it’d be obvious that the one I say most often is “slow,” as in “how about playing that again, slower?”
What exactly is slow practice? It means practicing slower than your expected ultimate performance tempo. Slow enough to be aware of every musical detail. Slow enough to be able to execute each aspect of the music well.
Why is slow practice so useful, even for virtuosos? There are at least three reasons:
- Slow practice helps you avoid mistakes.
- Slow practice allows for improved awareness of technique.
- Slow practice allows for attention to all aspects of a piece – fingering, rhythm, tone color, dynamics, phrasing, articulations, and pedaling.
If slow practice is good enough for virtuosos like Rachmaninoff, why do so many piano students resist it? I can think of at least three reasons:
- We want to impress our teacher.
- We’re impatient; we want to hear the piece the way it should sound.
- We don’t think it should take so long to learn to play something well.
These are understandable reasons, but do they render slow practice irrelevant?
As for #1, I’m more impressed when a student (of their own volition) plays slowly enough to play well.
As for #2, if you aren’t truly ready to play at a fast tempo then your performance won’t be “the way it should sound.” You’ll make mistakes, or not provide all the details necessary for a refined performance.
As for #3, it takes as long as it takes.
In Piano Magazine (Summer 2021), author Sze-Yin Wong suggests that slow practice permits a three-step problem-solving process:
- Identifying the problem (e.g. mediocre execution of dynamics)
- Identifying the cause (e.g. didn’t notice all the dynamic markings)
- Experimenting with solutions (e.g. highlighting the dynamics in the score)
Once you practice a piece at a slow tempo and are able to execute all the details, where do you go from there? Slenczynska progresses by units of 1, i.e. from 40 bpm to 41 bpm. Even after reaching a good performance tempo, she often returns to slow practice, and says she always finds something new to consider.
How do you become a better piano player? By practicing well, which is just one of The 7.5 Habits of Highly Effective Adult Piano Students. And how do you do that? There may be no better way than by practicing slower.
Ruth Slenczynska’s latest album features music by Rachmaninoff and Chopin.