When Slow Practice Isn’t King (Or Queen)

The problem is that the inexperienced pianist does not know what the correction hand motions should look like at the original tempo. Slow practice would always be king otherwise.

Here’s an analogy.

If I told you to move across a field 100m away in under 15 seconds, would you crawl or hop there? How about brisk walk?

You have several ‘moving techniques’ to get yourself 100m away from where you are. All of them would do the job if I gave you 30 minutes to arrive at your destination.

But only one of them would work safely for my specific instruction.

Can you guess what that ‘technique’ is??

Yes, you run, duh!

You can try hopping all you want, but you’ll soon realize that no matter how hard you try, you’ll never make it in under 15 seconds. You might even injure yourself and fall.

This analogy explains why your slow practice isn’t king, or even queen. You are using the wrong technique (hopping).

Your slow practice simply becomes a waste of precious time, because your slow-play motion either does not work at all at the original tempo, or it becomes ineffective. Likewise, you could injure yourself.

Back when I was a kid and couldn’t think much for myself, I thought that your fingers absolutely needed to connect for the legato (finger lifts only at the instant the next one depresses), regardless of whether the damper pedal is depressed or not.

This is nonsense. In fact, it is not always necessary even with the damper pedal off.

And if you think like I did, then there is a good chance that some of your slow practice is counterproductive.

Let’s take a look at one very obvious example. Basic arpeggio runs.

Play this arpeggio run and try connecting the highlighted notes with your fingers at a slow tempo first. Pass your thumb underneath your 3rd finger for the first pair of highlighted notes, then cross your 3rd finger over your thumb for the second pair.

Can you do it?

Of course you can.

Now ramp up the speed gradually. You will find that once you reach a certain fast tempo, it becomes really difficult to execute. Even if you do successfully execute, you will find the motion increasingly awkward.

This motion of passing the thumb under your 3rd finger is no longer effective for this fast tempo. You are now using an inefficient motion (bad technique). 

But there is a better way. And whenever there is an easier alternative that does not sacrifice on the quality of the sound/music, you really should use it.

First of all, forget about connecting the notes with your fingers. This is totally unnecessary. It is still possible to achieve a legato sound even with the damper pedal off.

You achieve that by a combination of the right elbow and wrist movements, along with using the 3rd finger to propel your hand and thumb over to the next note.

Get this combination right and you will achieve a motion that they call good technique.

Watch this from 2:52 ~ 3:02 for an example of me playing some arpeggio runs:

Notice how I do not connect all the notes with my fingers, even with the first two slower sets of arpeggios. My thumb is also hardly passing under my 3rd/4th finger for the ascending arpeggios. It is instead somewhat ‘flying’ above. (Slow the video down if you need to!)

At slower speeds, there are many different motions that will work for a given technical passage. But at the original tempo, your options become more limited. But even then, there will always be more than one way to play it.

Your job is to find the ideal and most optimal one that gives the best result for the least effort.

But how do I go about finding the correct hand motions??

You will know if you have a good teacher. ;)

But if you don’t, here’s a good rule of thumb that has worked well for me over the years. And it is very simple.

Keep asking yourself this question: “Is there an easier way to play that without sacrificing the sound/music?”

Ask that question enough times, and the right combination of motions will fall into place for you. You don’t need to think about arm weight, how to caress the keys, how much wrist movement you should use, and so on. You don’t need to think about your technique.

Because once you have found the motion that gives the best result for the least effort, THAT is already good technique. 

Once you have found the correct hand motion for the original tempo, once you have a decent idea of how that motion should look and feel like up to speed, then you can begin doing your slow practice in peace.

Do take note that I am not necessarily suggesting you take this motion and slow it down for your slow practice. You could, that is one of the many ways to do it.

But the whole idea of beginning with the end in mind is so that the wrong motions will not be ingrained by your repetitions. 

So the key takeaway for the article is this: Understand that the motions you use for your slow practice may not work in the original tempo.

As always, leave your questions below and I’ll do my best to answer them!

Keep practising and level up. :)

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