Playing fast, slowly

My father, who is a concert pianist, reminded me and my daughter of this idea a little while ago.

Consider this passage, from Chopin’s Etude Op. 10 No. 5 (‘black note etude’).

This whole section, all 64 notes, goes by in less than four seconds if played at tempo. The question is: how to practice this section, or the rest of the piece for that matter, when you’re just getting started?

The natural, and most common, approach is to play each note one at a time at a reasonable tempo and, over time, increase that tempo.

My dad argues that this is a road to nowhere: there’s no way to play note by note by note and ultimately hit the fast tempo.

Instead, he suggests: play fast, slowly.

This means picking out very small sections, playing them at full tempo, then pausing, and doing the same for the next section. Like this:

In this way, you’re teaching your hand, and your brain, to play at full tempo, and using the pauses to give yourself enough space and time to set up for the next group of notes.

Over time, then, your job is not “play faster.”

Instead, your job is to “shorten the pauses” until they disappear.

This works for four reasons:

  1. You’re exposing and teaching your body the physical sensation of playing at speed. So much of what we learn—in piano, surely, but everywhere else as well—is learned in the body and not just in the mind.
  2. You’re transforming groups of 6 or 12 individual notes—each of which had to be thought of, processed, and remembered individually—into blocks. It’s easy for the mind to think of a 6- or 12-note block as ‘one thing’ after a bit of practice. And since playing the piano is mostly about your mind keeping up with the torrent of notes your hands have to play, any ‘chunking’ you can do of this overwhelming amount of information allows you to speed up.
  3. The breaks, at the beginning, are much longer than the time you spend playing. When doing something new and difficult, we need extra time to recover and reset.
  4. You’re taking something that’s dangerous—in the sense of “if I play this at full speed, it will fall apart”—and making it safe, thereby building confidence and competence. “I can’t play the whole passage at speed (yet). But I can play these six notes at speed, with full confidence that I won’t mess this little bit up.” And then, over time, the little bit grows, as does your confidence.

What’s powerful about this isn’t only the counterintuitive approach to solving the problem. It’s the conjecture that our standard approach must always have a view towards what it will ultimately become.

Is this an approach, or a process, that both works for where I am today and will get me to tomorrow?

The right reaction to a mistake

I come from a family of musicians and have played classical piano all my life. So, naturally, all three of my kids play too. It’s not always easy, because unless they practice regularly at home, they don’t make any progress–and very few kids want to sit down and practice every day.

In an effort to bridge the gap between how I grew up (rules for how many minutes, and then hours, to practice daily) and what seems possible in our family, I try to spend a good deal of their practice time with them to help them make the best of it. Over the years I’ve worked on finding the sweet spot between the helpful role I can play as a more experienced musician; the somewhat stern role I need to play to push them to practice more productively; and being careful not to be too tough on them and take the fun out of things. It’s a delicate balance, one I’m still working on, and I don’t always get it right.

This fall, I’ve been noticing my middle daughter as she’s been making her way back to the piano after a summer at camp. She’s started doing something new that I think is just wonderful: when she misses a note that she knows she should get right, she lets out a small chuckle. It’s almost as if she’s saying to herself, “oh, I know that’s a B-flat, isn’t it funny that I played a B-natural.”

What a lovely, elusive reaction to a mistake:

I see myself making a mistake.

I observe the mistake, and see it clearly.

I note what I want to do differently the next time.

And I take the whole thing lightly.

This is not the typical response to a mistake. Normally, when we notice that we messed up we show up with piles of excess emotional baggage. This baggage doesn’t make us better the next time, nor does it deepen our ability to make a change. All it does is associate our misstep with self-criticism and an imprecise emotional mixture of fear, anger and shame.

Much better to notice with curiosity, be deliberate about what changes to make, and let escape a nearly silent little chuckle.