Summary: If aiming for a goal tempo, try going much faster and much slower, to learn how you need to do it. ☆☆☆☆☆
This is one of the most versatile practice techniques. Here are my favorite variations:
By mindfully alternating between slow (say, quarter- or half-speed) and fast (full-speed or faster), you can quickly find good approaches to technical difficulties.
For example, suppose you’re working on the hybrid picking technique in the Cliffs of Dover intro (all downstrokes are with the pick, all upstrokes are with the middle finger of the picking hand):
After getting an idea of the motions required for this lick, you can play a few notes of this at half speed, and then the rest at full speed:
During the slow part, pay close attention to how things feel internally (see
Slow Practice for notes), and find and reduce tension. Then carry that forward into the fast part. Use what you learn while working on the fast part to adjust how you play the slow part (e.g., hand position, muscle engagement, pick attack), and so on, in an ongoing cycle of refinement.
You can also start the slow picking on different parts of the lick to explore further:
Go as fast or as slow as needed. Sometimes repeating the same part of a lick, cycling slow and fast, can be helpful.
Why slow-fast-slow-fast works¶
Playing fast helps you find the right motions for you, but can also cause you to rapidly accumulate tension everywhere as you try to “push yourself”. Playing slow lets you observe your body and playing, and lets you locate and release tension; however, it might not contribute to your progress if the motions you make aren’t approximately the same as when you play fast, and if you can’t apply what you learn while playing slow to your fast playing. Combining the two lets you rapidly refine both.
Adjusting the tempo helps keep your mind engaged, so you don’t practice on autopilot.
Suppose you want to play the Kreutzer Etude #5 at 160 BPM:
Kreutzer etude intro
If you can’t quite get it, setting the metronome at 160 and repeating endlessly won’t give you or your body much chance to experiment and learn about playing. Shake it up a bit!
Ensure you have a rough idea of how you will play it – work out basics at a comfortable tempo, whatever you can do that feels relaxed, and is rhythmically even and accurate.
Floor it! Put the metronome beyond the target speed – sometimes far beyond it, and see what happens.
Take a short snippet, and try it for a short while, at most one minute.
It is very important that you continue to stay loose – if you tighten up to hit tempo, you’re teaching your body the wrong thing! Always aim for ease in playing.
Take the metronome back down to the target tempo, see how it feels:
Then, give yourself a break, and take it down to 120, or 100, and see how easy it feels at that tempo.
Then take it back up to the target tempo of 160, and try it again, seeing if you can bring forward any of the ease that you had at the lower tempo.
Keep going back and forth, up and down, with the tempo, sprinting a little bit at high speed, relaxing and cleaning up at lower speed, always exploring and trying to keep things accurate and loose.
Why floor-it-then-refine works¶
By starting with fast, even if it’s messy, you’re giving your body and mind a chance to find suitable candidate motions that don’t hit a speed wall.
Cleaning things up at slower tempos keeps your accuracy high, but continuing to spend time at fast tempos keeps the goal of speed and ease in mind.
Once you can get through a passage – even roughly – another way of working on it, as explained by Jason Sulliman, trombonist and educator, is to try at the top speed, and then bring it down:
Start at target tempo (160 here), and try to play the passage. Drop the tempo until you can play it perfectly. e.g., on day 1, you might need to drop it to 130. Note that tempo in your practice journal.
The next day, start at the target, try to play it, and again drop the tempo until you can play it perfectly. e.g. on day 2, you might drop it to 132.
And so on.
Why slowing-down-from-fast works¶
By keeping the goal tempo firmly in mind, and always incorporating it into your practice, you don’t build a “speed wall”
You can build up to your target tempo, but doing so by slowing down to today’s practice tempo will ensure that you don’t adopt bad motions.