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The Value of Slow-Practice & Progress

March 14th, 2018

Over the past few months, I’ve been working with several students on speed, accuracy, control, and performance anxiety. What I’ve noticed is that each of these areas is tied together by slow incremental progress (when you actually work on the area consistently). This common point of intersection also is what makes the progress elusive to most people. The work you put in doesn’t pay off in a week. It pays off in months and years. It is, in fact, slow in every respect.

Student finishes playing the piece they are working on:

Student: Well, I worked on this for a whole week. That’s a long time. It’s not better.

Me: I disagree. You have more control over the work as a whole, which is progress.

Student: But I missed these notes and those notes (pointing at various areas of the page) and it’s not perfect.

Me: True, but you could actually play through the entire piece this week. Were you able to do that last week?

Student: …..(silence: Guitarist melting me with lasers shooting from their eyeballs)…..

Me: So, there is progress. Cool. Now let’s look at those tricky bits you mentioned. How did you practice them?

Student: I played it slowly a couple times and then I tried to speed it up.

Me: Let me see you play this passage slowly.

Student: (At full speed)

Me: Wait, slow down.

Student: (Same tempo)

Me: No, slower (now clicking the tempo).

Student: You want me to go that slow?!?!?!?

Me: Yes, that slow.

Student: I can’t do it at that speed. It’s too slow.

Me: Ah, we’ve found our practice tempo for the week.

So, what does slow give you? What’s the value in doing something slowly? Why does everyone say to go slow? My teachers told me to go slowly, build gradually, and the piece will develop (insert eye roll here). Yet, at some point, I figured out that it was true. The funny part about progress, you can’t always remember when that light bulb went on (or may have inadvertently shut off…seriously, it’s an easy thing to forget in the throws of all the other plates that are spinning).

Before I say more, I’d like to say that going slow does not allow you to play fast. I repeat: Going slowly does not allow you to go fast. You have to build speed (over time—aka: slowly). Here’s what going slowly offers me in my work as a musician:

•The chance to observe in detail what my hands are (or are not) doing as I play.
•Provides the environment to develop smooth, coordinated movements of the hands
•The ability to listen critically (in detail) to the quality of the sound I’m producing from the instrument and all the extraneous noises, too (those of you that have spent time recording understand).
•Allows me to work in detail on a particular element, concept, goal.
When targeted = deliberate practice.
•Provides the chance for my head to be directing my hands. Autopilot is not an option. I’m fully engaged in the process of music making

Why is it so hard to do/follow through on a consistent basis?
Perhaps because we all want everything to be fast…

What else is slow?
•building a career
•building a relationship
•learning a piece (well)
•getting in shape
•improving a technique
•learning a new language
•defeating the NYT Crossword Puzzle
•cooking through a cookbook
•raising a child
•aged bourbon
•getting over loss
•playing a game of monopoly
•reading a book
•making anything from scratch
•writing a letter (by hand)
•sailing on a ship
•living a life
•building trust
•starting over

I’d love to hear your thoughts about the value of slow practice, thinking, and living. You can reach me: @zaneforshee on Twitter and Instagram.

You Can (Can’t) Go Home Again

October 26th, 2017

A little over a week ago I went to St. Louis, Missouri to give a concert for the Friends of Music series. As I sat crunched in the airplane on the way back to my hometown, I thought about how long it had been since I played at this venue—18 years.

It was in the spring of 1999 and like many artists, I got the gig due to circumstance. One of the performers canceled and they needed someone to fill in at the last minute. We negotiated a reasonable fee of $0.00 and all was set. While I can’t remember the details, I do remember walking on stage, feeling that it was a huge space and that it was a packed house. I think I played Bach… What sticks with me today from that concert is the realization of how different it was to do it for a grade versus an audience who gave you their time—perhaps the most valuable commodity of all (especially in the culture we’re living in now).

Thomas Wolfe’s novel You Can’t Go Home Again (interestingly, that title emerged from a discussion between Wolfe and fellow writer Ella Winter) came to mind during my short journey as I visited with my family the evening and morning before the concert. You, in fact, can go home again but you really can’t—Wolfe was right (though I hadn’t publicly aired the town secrets like the main character). The diner I used to go to study for exams is still open but there might as well be an ocean between that coffee shop and me. While the booths may be the same and the coffee smells the way it did all of those years ago, somehow it’s completely different. The buildings may be in the same places and many of the people I knew are still there but things have changed—we’ve all changed….together…

Of course, this is nothing revelatory but it’s rare, at least for me, to have moments where you can reflect and see how much you’ve actually changed. More importantly, where you’re given a chance, if you look at it, to see how much you’ve learned and still don’t know. Which brings me back to the concert.

Returning to the hall, the room now seemed quaint, cozy, and intimate. The chairs were in the same places, the space itself had the lovely acoustics I remembered and everything else (i.e. me) was different and hopefully a little better. 18 years ago I was in that stage where the world begins to give you things (if you’re willing, hungry, and able): opportunities, experiences, confusion, adventure.   It asks so very little of you—show up, try hard, be kind, fail, and try again. Now, the stakes of the game have changed. I come to the table with experience, a bit of wisdom (from repeatedly falling down and getting back up) but now there are new twists: while the earlier version seems only to give, now sometimes the world takes things away or asks for compromises or a bit of both. Still, there’s a trade-off in that while you may lose things at this stage, you gain in your ability to share with others and with audiences. Is there a moral to the story? Perhaps it’s this—that change is the only constant.  This leaves me with a question: Why is this always so hard to remember or understand? Perhaps this single sentence from Mr. Wolfe’s novel sums it up “I have to see a thing a thousand times before I see it once.”


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