Slow Practice ~ Fast Practice
Drink your tea slowly and reverently,
as if it is the axis on which the world earth revolves –
slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future.
~ Thich Nhat Hanh
I was a young teenager learning Bach’s D major Toccata. Its Fugue, in the wonderful key of F-sharp minor, is dense, dark, cavernous and complex. It’s traditionally played somewhat slowly but lacks a tempo marking, so I brought it into my lesson as an Allegretto, playful and ironic. My teacher, less-than-convinced, asked me to slow it down a bit. I took it back a notch or two for her benefit, but kept its detache, nervous character. By the following week, it had returned to its original tempo, and my teacher, now visibly perturbed, asked me to PLEASE slow it down, as slow as I could bear. It was as if she were triple-dog-daring me.
I had long heard of the merits of slow practice, and not to be one to ever go half-way, I had played through each of the Chopin Ballades, for example, at about 20 times under tempo, waiting for each note to stop sounding before attacking the next. I was no stranger to slow playing…
I embarked on the most excruciatingly slow tempo that I could muster. The fugue lasts all of two pages and there were twenty minutes left in my lesson. I could feel her glaring at me, but soon I was enjoying my new creation. It was as if I were hearing it for the first time! I waited for her to stop me and beg me to speed it up; she waited for me to end my insanity. Through the closing bars of the Fugue, I was rescued by the next student knocking on the door, on time as always.
Oddly, I discovered in those long twenty minutes a certain beauty in Bach’s dense landscape passing me by in slow motion, almost frame-by-frame, and although I sped it up to human tempo by the time I offered it at the following week’s Performance Class, it was still remarkably slow and intense. The other students were always encouraged to say something positive before offering criticism, and they remained silent. Finally one of the Doctoral candidates chimed in, intrigued but confused. Well I must say, I’ve never heard the Fugue played quite that slowly before…
Slow, expressive, sensitive practice opens up your ears and mind to new truths and alternate realities. The depth of emotional life embedded in a line of music often only reveals itself to the interpreter at a slower-than-normal tempo. Playing slowly also challenges the interpreter’s ability to express long, arching lines of energy without forcing or breaking them. How slow can you play and still remain mentally and emotionally connected and in-control?
There is more to life than increasing its speed.
Simon Barere is famous for playing everything too fast. He and Horowitz had both studied with Felix Blumenthal and were buddies. At a recital at Carnegie Hall, Barere offered Schumann’s Toccata, one of the most fiendishly difficult works in the repertoire, at break-neck speed, not a note dropped. Horowitz went backstage afterwards to congratulate him. Wonderful! But don’t you think the Toccata was perhaps a little too fast…?
His eyes twinkling with a childlike speed-lust, he replied, Oh, but I can play it much faster!
When you listen to Barere, despite the speed, there’s a cool control and a beautiful command of phrasing and overall structure. It’s as if the speed brings clarity to his mind and vision.
One day I set out to play as fast as Barere. As I increased the speed, I decreased the weight and volume, using only my fingertips. Gradually, my fingers began moving faster than my mind could dictate, and I had to sit back and listen, marveling at them. The structure of phrases started to become crystal clear, and unnecessary inflections and physical movements disappeared.
I slowed it back down to normal tempo and discovered that I was seeing and feeling in slow motion, with the clarity of mind and intense, relaxed expression of slow-practice.
It was then that I realized that fast practice and slow practice are two sides of the same coin; both are necessary to master your subject.