Why (& How) You Should Be Learning Music a tempo
Updated: Jan 4, 2021
I feel like I need to start by acknowledging that slow practice has endured as the most valuable of music learning tools because it IS a helpful way to approach numerous technical and musical problems. These include, but are not limited to:
-Breathing and breath control
-Embouchure and tongue placement
Each of the above elements can benefit immensely from “slow practice” because the music we play often goes by too quickly for us to examine what we’re doing in real time. Slowing down allows us to hear more accurately and gives us a closer look at how we’re doing what we’re doing. This, in turn, provides us a chance to anticipate our habits and close the gap between intention and execution. Playing slowly can also increase accuracy, which boosts confidence and motivates us to persevere. But when it comes to actually learning the notes, it is my philosophy (and one that was deeply ingrained in me at Carnegie Mellon) that the conventional wisdom of gradually speeding up music from under (usually half) tempo is a monumental waste of time. Here’s why:
Muscle memory relies on repetition. When we play music slowly, we are training our muscles to do something slowly. This is why starting under tempo is so inefficient - every time you take it faster, your body has to learn it all over again.
Breathing, articulation, phrasing, and even fingering can be completely different at different tempi. For this reason, starting slowly gives us a woefully inaccurate sense of how the piece is going to sound, and how we’re going to feel playing it, later. This means you are wasting your time developing habits that will ultimately not serve you in performance.
Especially if you’re going to play something fast, beginning slowly can make the performance tempo seem like an intimidating goal. If you practice a tempo from the start, you’ll be more comfortable (both physically and mentally) playing quickly.
“Sure Liz, that makes sense, but I can’t just play through it perfectly a tempo from the start.”
Of course not! This is where strategy comes in. The key to learning music quickly and efficiently, while developing musicality and solving technical problems as you go, is to make it easy while still playing at performance tempo (hint: I never said you had to play all of the notes!). This means employing a technique called “Rhythmic Deconstruction.” Here are the basics:
Use a metronome! Coordinating your warmups or scales with the speed of what you’re learning is a great way to build comfort and familiarity with the tempo.
Start with the “skeleton” of the piece. Identify the rhythmic/harmonic structure of the passage or piece you’re learning, and only play those notes with a metronome. In many cases this will be the first note of every beat or group of notes.
Once you can play through the “skeleton” easily and in a relaxed manner, begin to fill in notes. If it’s a passage of 16 notes in 4/4, for example, you’ll graduate from every beat to every 8th note (aka every other note). This step can be challenging! Just play one or two beats at a time until you feel completely comfortable, and then add on little by little - again, always with the metronome.
Next try playing just one beat, then two beats, and so on. You may not be playing a lot of music at a time, but you’re training your muscle memory and building an accurate sense of how much you know. (reminder: if you can only play through a piece at a too-slow tempo, you don’t know it.)
Continue adding notes and playing short segments one at a time. Over time, you’ll be able to piece these segments together to form the complete passage.
Once you’ve learned the notes by practicing Rhythmic Deconstruction, return to “slow practice” to fine tune the details of your playing! I like to do slow and fast practice simultaneously - this allows me to regularly check in with what I’m doing in slow motion while benefiting from the accuracy and efficiency of fast practice.
My forthcoming book, “Applied Flute Practice Technique” demonstrates Rhythmic Deconstruction in a step-by-step, “learn by doing” format, using Mendelssohn’s “Scherzo” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
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