Motivating Children to Practice Music (Part 3)

Playing Slower for Faster Results

Young Mozart at the Piano by E.S.M (MozartiniShop.com)In music, speed of execution has a tendency to be a used as an indicator of excellence. Playing fantastically fast is the trait commonly associated with musical virtuosity and accomplishment, most especially by amateur listeners. I will only say briefly how this favoritism for one trait does great injustice to the other facets of musical performance such as tone, articulation, etc. as the point of this little essay is to explain how overvalue of fast playing is many a young musician’s greatest enemy.

Playing music very fast is satisfying and a often sure way of getting compliments. For these reasons, young and beginning musicians will too often attempt to play a piece at a faster tempo than they can execute correctly. Sometimes the result is that the piece sounds “okay” but will never reach the level of excellence that is possible with slower practice. Usually the result of trying to play too fast is that the student repeatedly plays the wrong notes or the wrong rhythms and unless slow and deliberate practice is applied, scant improvement will result from many hours of such practice. The frustration of making the same mistakes over and over is the frequent reason of a child declaring “I hate this piece” or “I hate piano practice”.

The reality is that those who learn to play brilliantly and fast have learned to practice very slowly. It is possible to make a game of playing slowly and deliberately by praising it as a skill and offering the task as a challenge. Setting slow tempo as an objective may help to remove the common delusion of its being tedious. Children should be encouraged to practice no faster than they can play without errors. The tempo should be gradually increased and if incidence of errors increase, it should be slowed down again. An older person should sit by if necessary and count out each beat as it is almost impossibly hard to play to a metronome when very young. A teacher may explain this principle, but cannot enforce its application in daily practice, therefore parental participation will be necessary on a daily basis.

It should be clearly explained that playing slowly is not a sign of incompetence or stupidity, which other children might tease or adults accidentally imply. Accuracy should be placed before speed and when learned in this order the difference between playing fast and playing well fast will be obvious. Being able to play accurately will remove much anxiety in performance and lessons. Practicing slowly will make difficult passages seem less like insurmountable problems, render faster results, and increase a student’s satisfaction and determination in the endeavor.

For parents who are not themselves musicians, the following guidelines may be useful:

  1. The faster the projected tempo of a piece the slower it should be practiced. A Largo or Andante may often be learned at Largo or Andante. It is possible for many to play a Moderato prettily from the start and achieve successful performances, however some technical accomplishment may be lost if at least certain parts are not singled out for slow practice. I strongly recommend that one begins to study an Allegro or Presto at something like a Largo in order to play it well as Allegro or Presto.
  2. Also please note that after the mastery of a fast piece of music, it is often necessary and always beneficial to practice it with exaggerated slowness and attention to detail on a regular basis. This activity is not only necessary for maintaining technique, but also prevents music from being reduced to an automatic activity, which is sometimes called physical memory. It often happens that the actual notes are forgotten and a pianist can only remember a piece by playing really fast without thinking. This is a condition in which a child is in terrible danger of memory loss in the middle of a recital and being frightened off forever.
  3. The most obvious reason for practicing slowly is to figure out and memorize fingerings which then become automatic and fluent when playing faster. This is extremely important, but equally important is the development of technique and familiarity with dynamics and details which the student might otherwise forget or fail to notice.
  4. When playing a piece slowly, make a point of playing beautifully and expressively, dwelling upon dynamics and articulation, bringing out legato or staccato, and making choices in phrasing, etc. Experimentation with expression and technique is also possible at this point so long as it is not in any way encourage bad habits. Practicing in this manner will not only improve the finished piece but can be extremely enjoyable to the practicer and those who are forced to hear the practicing. In fact, one can put on charming family performances of fast pieces expressed slowly. Those who are unaware of the indicated tempo may never suspect that an eloquent Andante is actually named Presto.

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