How many of you use slow practice in your practice routine? Slow practice is a tried and true method for working through and solving all kinds of difficult passages in our repertoire. (Simon wrote a blog post about three different ways of slowing down that you should be using in your practice routine if you’re not already!)
Slow practice is an essential part of the learning process and can help identify problems we might otherwise miss while playing at faster tempos as well as give our fingers the time they need to choreograph difficult movements in the hands.
When Slow Practice Isn’t Enough
However, have you ever tried slowing something down and you still struggle to play a passage or difficult left-hand shift accurately? Our fingers have a mind of their own and sometimes we’re asking our little muscles and tendons to make intricate movements they’re really not used to in their everyday activities. Naturally that means even when we try and slow things down our fingers might still resist. We must take time to develop these movements so that we begin to get control of our fingers and they can go where we want them to and not where they want to! I’d like to discuss with you a practice exercise that can help a great deal in this kind of situation where slow practice isn’t quite enough: it’s called spot practice.
Spot practice is a lot like slow practice, but with one important difference: while slow practice reduces the tempo to give your fingers more time to make the movements they need to make and to identify problems you couldn’t notice when playing at faster tempos, spot practice removes tempo as a factor altogether.
Here’s how spot practice works: when you get to a tricky spot in a passage (something slow practice should have helped you identify as a trouble passage!) we want to STOP. Completely pause right at, say, that difficult left-hand shift. Then take it step by step, without the tempo: (1) Determine exactly the movements your fingers need to make to get from where they are to where they need to go; (2) Begin to prepare your fingers over the strings they are going to go; (3) Shift positions and carefully and in a relaxed manner place your fingers to land the shift; (4) Repeat. That’s it! The point here is to give your fingers the time they need to make that shift accurately.
“Whatever you do, don’t play it faster than you can do it accurately.” -Martha Masters
Focus on Accuracy
One popular method for learning repertoire is the “play-through method”: play through it and, if you make a mistake, start over and try again. Unfortunately what this method does is actually reinforce the mistake so that we start to make the mistake into a habit: our muscles start to build up memory of the motions we’re training them to make. What we want to avoid in our practice is playing through mistakes and inaccuracies. Instead we want to make quality repetitions in the practice room, which means our focus must be on accuracy when utilizing spot practice.
Bringing Slow Practice Back in
Once spot practice has done its work and you feel very comfortable with the shift or finger movements without the tempo it’s time to bring slow practice back in to work up to your target tempo. Start from a very slow, steady tempo (it has to still be slow enough to give your fingers the time they need to get where they need to go) and then gradually work up to your target tempo without rushing the process: be patient and let the process do its work. Use a metronome so you know exactly where your comfortable tempo is, so if you move up and it’s too fast you know exactly what tempo to back up to. If you bring the passage or shift up to tempo too quickly without really reinforcing accuracy and quality repetitions, once again you’ll be building up bad habits and spot practice won’t benefit you the way it could.
What will you make of it?
Spot practice is an excellent practice method that can make a difficult passage much easier than it at first seems. It can really build confidence and all but ensures that you’ll be able to play the passage without mistakes more times than not. The real question, though, is: Will you make this a part of your practice routine and stick with it? Spot practice can only really be effective when we begin to purge older, bad habits and replace them with new, good habits.
So I’d like to offer you a challenge:
Take a difficult passage–just one passage, just one shift even!–from your repertoire and give spot practice a real go this week. Remember the key features of spot practice:
- Stop at the difficult spot;
- Plot the movements your fingers need to make and make those movements one step at a time without the tempo;
- Repeat so you can play it accurately until it becomes comfortable;
- Then use slow practice, starting at a slow steady tempo, to work back up to your target tempo.
- And, most importantly, don’t play it faster than you can do it accurately.