We all know that “practice makes permanent” and that if we try to learn a piece by constant repetition via repeated complete up-to-speed readings, we are going to regret it eventually. What we gain in instant gratification we lose in the ability to ever really get a grip on the piece, because a mistake, an unhelpful fingering or any other sort of sloppiness repeated often enough to become ingrained, is like one of those stubborn stains that refuses to come out – ever!

The attitude seems to be: “Yes, I know it is wrong, but I’ll fix it later”, and this might seem reasonable if you are an amateur who, after a long day at the office, wants to come back home and relax at the piano. Yet I would offer an alternative. How can something be all that satisfying when you know, in your heart of hearts, that you are compromising not only the music but also yourself? The deepest form of satisfaction comes, surely, from a job well done, from seeing an investment mature (I always think of practising as investing, and playing as spending).

I contend that there is an ENORMOUS amount of satisfaction to be had from playing a piece, or (preferably) a section of a piece through at a quarter of the speed. And I do mean a quarter, not just a bit slower. Provided you know how the piece is supposed to sound, you’ll find an ultra-slow practice tempo gives you exponentially increased control of everything, and if done regularly you will hear and feel fantastic results. This is also a bit like a meditation, and even if you have been using your brain during the working day, you will feel calmer and soothed after a bout of this. No note will slip by you without your stamp of approval. You needn’t end up playing a wrong note because you will have had the time to think about what you are going to do before you do it.

Take the opening of the third movement of the Pathetique Sonata of Beethoven:

Half speed would be notated like this – but please imagine ‘adagio‘:

Simply imagine that the note values have been changed in this way, I am not suggesting you imprison yourself with a metronome. By all means do it even slower (crotchets now become minims).

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Here is another way of practising, useful as an in-between stage from slow to up-to-speed playing. I am going to take the simplest of pieces as my example (the lovely little G major Minuet of Bach, from the Anna Magdalene Notebook).

Take each bar and repeat it as many times as you like, but maintain the pulse between each repetition. You could stop on the last note of the bar, but this is perverse in the bars where the four quavers demand resolution on the downbeat. If you go over the bar line, then the next section begins on the note you ended on. There are various ways of doing this – here is the most comfortable, with nearly two bars rest between each segment:

You could:

  • play one bar, then take one complete bar off before repeating this bar as many times as necessary to make it feel easy.
  • play each bar once before moving on to the next bar.
  • play each bar and take only the remainder of that bar as rest, etc.
The rule is to keep the pulse at all times, and try to refine each repetition by using a feedback loop (in other words, learn from your mistakes).

Why stop there? You can, of course, go back over your work, this time in two-bar units, or in phrases. Because you are keeping the pulse, the rhythm is still alive in your body and you do get something of the satisfaction of a play-through.