‘One must practice slowly, then more slowly, and finally….slowly!’
Success with the violin depends on three core elements: love of music making, expert instruction, and faithful practice done with precision.
There are countless drills and practice methods which are necessary to reap great rewards, but the single most important method for the quickest advancement is practicing slowly. The rationale and principles behind this approach are manifold, rooted in both art and science:
‘Slow practice is the key to rapid technical progression. The cerebellum is a non-judgmental part of the brain: it assumes that any repetitive activity in the muscular system is being repeated because the conscious mind is trying to make it automatic. The cerebellum will be just as efficient an automizer of incorrect sequences of timing as of those that are correct. When practicing takes places at a pace too fast for accurate playing, there is very little chance for the material to be mastered, and reliable, confident performance simply will not occur. On the other hand, it is probably true that practice for speed is seldom necessary. The cerebellum can supply all the speed wanted if patterning is correct during practice.’ – Neurologist, Frank R. Wilson, on motor skills & instrumental performance.
The above information illustrates the accuracy of the age-old maxim:
‘If you practice it fast, and you miss a few notes, you are only practicing your mistakes.’
Practice does not make perfect; it makes permanent. So be aware of what you’re making permanent. The first time you play your piece or any section of it, be fanatically careful not to make any mistakes either in notes or in time values. If you have ever learned a passage incorrectly and had to go back and fix it, you will know what I mean. A martial arts teacher once told me that it took 100 correct repetitions to embed a new movement…but well over 700 repetitions to undo and re-learn the same movement if learned incorrectly the first time. This is why you see martial arts students performing their practice routines with such slow, careful precision. It is the same with violin.
‘A very fast technical passage should be worked out slowly, with ever increasing speed. I find a metronome very valuable for this. The metronome is set at a speed slow enough to enable the player to negotiate the passage easily. Set it slow that everything – dynamics, articulations, intonation and rhythm – can all be observed and played, leaving only the correct tempo to be achieved. The speed is then advanced one notch each time the passage is played successfully, until the speed is more than the proper tempo.’ – Philip Farkas, ‘The Art of Brass Playing’
When you execute a passage with speed, it’s quite natural – even subconsciously – to try and put power into your movements. Slow practice unveils weaknesses, inconsistencies, and errors. Soft practice allows us to let go of old ways of generating strength and delivering power. The essence of artistic violin performance is relaxed strength.
‘….You cannot achieve speed by speedy practice. The only way to get fast is to be deep, wide awake, and slow. When you habitually zip through your music, your ears are crystallizing sloppiness. ….Pray for the patience of a stonecutter. ….Pray to understand that speed is one of those things you have to give up – like love – before it comes flying to you through the back window.’ W.A. Mathieu, ‘The Listening Book’
Aaron Shearer, a famous classical guitar pedagogue, was an advocate of ‘aim directed movement’, which is having a clear understanding of where the fingers need to go before you move them there. Aim directed movement can only be accomplished by slow practice.
The slow practice of fast, technical passages has great value, but just playing through something slowly is not the complete answer. We have to practice correctly while playing slowly. How do we accomplish this? During fast passages, our fingers not only move quickly from one note to the next, but they do so without stopping; they do so without any pause between the various intervals. This is where slow practice can be helpful, if it is done correctly.
What constitutes the correct slow practice of fast, technical passages? The key concept is to practice at a very slow tempo, while moving the fingers rapidly and precisely when changing notes. I call this ‘practicing fast, slowly.’ It is not a contradiction! ‘Slow fingers’ move with a languid, flowing motion. The fingers seem to help blend the notes together, enhancing the legato effect. ‘Fast fingers’ change notes quickly, deliberately, precisely, and immediately, helping to clearly enunciate each note.
Practicing slowly with ‘slow fingers’ does little to improve fast passage work when the correct tempo is later taken up. However, practicing slowly with ‘fast fingers’ can work wonders for improving rapid, technical passages. To ‘practice fast, slowly,’ select a very slow tempo with long note values substituted for short values. Move the fingers quickly and precisely at the exact moment the notes change. (It may feel as if you are suddenly jerking the fingers from one note to the next.)
During slow practice with ‘fast fingers’, your fingers are actually moving through the intervals just as rapidly as they will when you later speed up the tempo. However, since the tempo is slow, you have removed the obstacle of rapid succession. In reality, the fingers move through the notes quickly, but since they move one interval at a time, the passage is now completely manageable. Most important of all, you are practicing the very motions – the rapid changes of finger position – that you need to make at the fast tempo. What you now have is effective slow practice of rapid, technical passages.