The One Big Problem with Practicing Slowly

Yes, I am guilty of it, too!

Almost all music teachers tell their students to practice slowly. Don’t get me wrong – there are many good, solid reasons to do so. At least if you do it correctly.

Like most musicians, I was on both sides of that equation. For years. Lots and lots of years. I would sit and practice my scales/repertoire/chords/etc. slowly and to perfection. And once I knew I had nailed it, I sped up the metronome. And for a while, I got away with it. Until I hit “the point”. Yes, that point where you could not get any faster no matter how hard you tried or how much you practiced.

Now, part of that was because of my natural learning curve. The rest of it was because not only did I not really know how to practice, but I definitely did not know how to practice slowly.

You see, when you slow something down really slowly, you tend to slow EVERYTHING down. Not only do you slow down the tempo, you slow your movements. Instead of taking a split second to change chords, you’re suddenly taking half a beat or more.

Net result? Your playing starts sounding choppy and you still can’t play fast.

Let me break it down.

You start sounding choppy because you begin cutting your chords off halfway through your rhythm pattern. Instead of playing 4 nice, even quarter notes, for example, you’re playing 3 nice, even quarter notes and an eighth note or maybe a dotted eighth. Your notes and chords aren’t ringing for their full rhythmic value. This results in a very choppy, disconnected sound.

If you mean to play it that way to achieve a certain effect, that’s one thing. Most of us don’t. We mean to play nice, clean, even notes and chords that ring for their full rhythmic value.

As if that wasn’t enough, you still can’t play fast. Why not? Because you’re practicing slow movements. Imagine this: You decide to run a marathon. In order to train for the marathon, you go to the nearest shopping center and leisurely walk through the aisles of your favorite department stores.

How likely are you to survive a 26-mile run?

You might survive if you were in great shape to begin with, but chances are you won’t be in winning shape. And if you weren’t in great shape before your leisurely stroll through the mall, then you’re probably done after a mile or two.

Now for the good part: It doesn’t have to be that way.

When you practice slowly, slow down the tempo but keep your movements quick.

Confused?

Take a C Major scale. Start with your second finger on the third fret of the fifth string. The next note is going to be on the same string at the fifth fret. Start the metronome. Pick the third-fret C. Wait until you’re sure you’re going to hear that next click and then quickly drop your pinky onto the fifth fret.
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Just run through those two notes for a while, until you are sure that you are letting that first note ring as long as possible. Once you’re sure that you have it down, run through it a couple of more times.

Next, move from the fifth fret of the fifth string to the second fret of the fourth string. Here you want to make sure that after picking the fifth-fret D that your pick moves to the ready position for the second-fret E. Once again, wait until the last possible nanosecond before letting your pick dig into that E.

Got it? Awesome! Now turn on some sort of recording device. For something like this, I use my phone.

Start the metronome up again. Run all three notes together.

How did it sound?

We tend to play differently when we play slowly than when we play quickly. Eventually, most of us will intuitively figure that out. But why wait when you can cut that process short?

When playing slowly, concentrate on keeping your fret hand close as close to the neck as possible and keeping your pick movements as small as possible. You’ll thank me when you go to speed up.

Until next time – Play in the Key of You!

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