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Playing slow to play fast – mental aspects

The awe-inspiring violin playing in the film The Red Violin, which I watched recently, has piqued my curiosity about how violin soloists practice, memorize complex pieces, and learn to recover from mistakes and deal with performance anxiety. Violinists’ playing techniques are completely different from guitarists’, of course, but the overall principles of practicing to reach such an extreme level of expertise– particularly the mental aspects — can surely transfer across musical domains.

One theme that runs through much of what I’ve been reading is the importance of metacognition (basically, thinking about thinking) and visualization for attaining peak musical performance. So when I embarked on my slow practice experiment, I paid close attention to my thoughts and feelings to see what I could learn. Here are some of my observations about the mental challenges of slow practice.

It’s easy to get impatient and be tempted to increase speed too quickly. Sticking to my strict program of one minute’s perfection, one click at a time took heroic effort. Knowing that it paid off, however, should make it easier next time.

There is much research indicating that directing negative thoughts towards ourselves is a great way to commit self-sabotage, and that we can gain much from engaging in positive self-talk and visualization. This may sound a bit too new-agey and wishy-washy for some, but research has shown that our thoughts and mindset can make a huge difference in how we approach tasks and whether or not we succeed.

It’s easy to lapse into negative thinking when practicing slowly, e.g., “I’m only playing at 80 bpm — I’ll NEVER reach 180!” I had to repeatedly turn my thoughts in a positive direction, imagining what it would be like when I could play faster, telling myself that it was possible with practice and that perseverance and patience were the only way to get there. It made a huge difference, and was a big part of why I was able to fight off the temptation to try to increase speed too soon.

Concentration and breaks
One of the main benefits of slow practice is that you can concentrate hard on various micro-aspects of your technique. But it can be tough to maintain concentration during an extended practice session. Apparently, classical musicians often take frequent short breaks during their extended practice sessions. I tried this approach, and found that taking a 5–10 minute break when my concentration was flagging was really helpful.

The importance of privacy
One of my greatest mental barriers to getting quality practice is my fear of annoying others with my endless repetition of scales, arpeggios and other technical exercises. I have found that the ONLY way for me to do any extended practice is to ensure that I have complete privacy so that nobody will hear me. Even if the others in my surroundings repeatedly assure me that they don’t mind hearing me practice, it still bothers ME. I just can’t relax if somebody is listening.

My first slow practice sessions took place when I was home alone. I remember thinking several times that I could never have practiced like that if someone had been listening. I would have been preoccupied with worries about bugging them with my widdling and clicking metronome.

If you also feel inhibited by people listening to you practice, you owe it to yourself to arrange a private space for yourself where you can tap, alternate pick or sweep to your heart’s content without feeling as if you are annoying others.

Thumbs up for metacognition
This short experiment has convinced me that it is useful to reflect on how you are thinking and feeling when practicing and playing. My guess is that it’s also beneficial to reflect on your thoughts ABOUT practicing in general, particularly if you tend to procrastinate about getting regular practice. Procrastination has been a big problem for me for a long time, and I know that tons of people share this wretched affliction. So as I learn to overcome it I’ll be sharing what I learn here.

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+ Comment by Sierra Burke
2007-07-05 20:24:19

I watched The Red Violin about two weeks ago, and it made me think about the same thing for a bit. Very true statements, now if only I could be patient enough to actually apply them :p

+ Comment by --=MR.JOE=--
2007-07-05 23:28:50

Negative thinking will pretty much put the kibosh on anything you’re trying to achieve. It’s like a chain reaction: Impatience leads to negative thoughts, negative thoughts lead to anger, anger leads to the Dark Side of the Force and crappy guitar playing. I was Mr. Sourpuss the past few days and my playing reflected it immensely. Then last night I was in a good mood and I’m playing beautiful. Arrrgh! these human feelings…sometimes I wish I were a Vulcan…but then I’d probably only play the Vulcan Lyre. :(

Have you ever thought of playing through your computer with headphones on? That way you can use the metronome and play and no one will hear you. :)

Always Hot and Fresh!

+ Comment by Laurie Monk
2007-07-06 00:39:50

I got to the point were I stopped playing to learn to play slow ;o)

+ Comment by Joe
2007-07-06 06:47:47

I read something by Joe Satriani in a magazine once. He said there’s been research into learning, and if you practice something for a while, then rest for an hour and come back to it, new neural pathways will have formed and you’ll be better at it.

+ Comment by Kristof
2007-07-06 08:15:16

Joe, I’ve tried that but I’ve also blown up a good part of my backyard and shed trying to assemble that atomic bomb in under 2 hours …

Lorinatore (Pronounced like Italian). You’re right and totally on the money, of course. The times I most nail my solos is when I haven’t got enough time to really think about the solo. Or when it just creeps up on me from behind and says “PLAY! NOW!”. It rarely does that, however, since it’s got metal boots with metal heels on and I can hear it coming from a mile away. So can the audience.

+ Comment by Kristof
2007-07-06 08:16:52

Also, I remember someone telling me that speed is a by-product of accuracy. If you play slow and accurate enough, you’ll find you can go faster and faster as your accuracy goes up. But without accuracy, no speed. Well, there can be speed, but it’ll kill.

+ Comment by Lorinator
2007-07-09 12:09:19

Sierra: Glad you’ve seen the film — I really enjoyed it. Can’t believe it’s been out for several years and I hadn’t seen it until now.
Mr. Joe: I always use headphones when I’m home alone. But my boyfriend and I have our workspaces in the same room; I don’t like him having to listen to the pling pling of me playing through headphones. So now I take my guitar into the other room for technique drills.
Laurie: Ha ha!
Kristof: According to what I’ve been reading about how classical soloists (who play extremely complicated pieces by memory) prepare for concerts, they rehearse to the point of automaticity with regard to the mechanics of a piece, which gives them freedom to focus on expressive elements during performance and not be worried about the metal boots. ;-)

Your comment about speed being the byproduct of accuracy is right on, too. ‘Twas a wise person who said that. I only wish I’d understood that sooner — I’ve got years of sloppy habits to unlearn!

+ Comment by Kristof
2007-07-09 22:00:30

I’m still trying to find a habit of mine that ain’t sloppy. But enough about me!

+ Comment by Juan Antonio
2007-07-10 00:52:16

Hi Lori

First, i like apologize for my bad english.
I discover you a few hours ago, and i’m very impressed. You are amazing, the beuty (woman) and the beast (guitarist).
Your blog is very interesting for beginner guitarrist like me.

Kisses from Barceona, Spain

+ Comment by Matthew Hutchinson
2007-07-13 01:47:52

As a Classical guitarist, I relate very well to the practice techniques discussed above. My first year of lessons were spent having my teacher drill into me the importance of starting slow and working my way up to speed.

Another useful technique, for learning music and committing it to memory for performing at concert level, is to learn new songs backwards. The idea is that, by starting at the end and working your way to the beginning, you’ll have played the thing so many times while practicing that you’ll have developed the muscle memory needed to play it automatically. Working back to front also forces you to examine each section of the music from a more abstract point of view, focusing on the structure of the music instead of what your brain is telling you the song is supposed to sound like.


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