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I mainly play guitar but sometimes play piano. Occasionally I aspire to improve my skills by practicing - which for me - usually consists of trying to learn to play a more complex passage in a particular song.

Once I figure out how I want to play the particular passage or riff, I then start practicing by playing the passage repeatedly - while attempting to play it correctly to the best of my ability.

If I choose to devote fifteen minutes to working on a particular passage, I could try to play it as fast as I can each time so that I get more repetitions (say 60 reps in the allotted 15 minutes). The faster I try to play it, the more often I will miss a few notes, but I will get more chances. And if I learn to play it faster than real time, it will be easier to play at a slower tempo when I actually perform the passage live for an audience.

Or I could play it more slowly each time - while concentrating on playing each note exactly right. But then I might only get a fourth of the number of reps in during my 15 minutes of practice. And, learning it at a slower tempo than I will be playing it during a live performance, might make it more difficult to play full speed.

So if my ultimate goal is to be able to perform the passage live with few if any mistakes, what is the best approach for getting to that point in the shortest period of time - assuming a set amount of time per day allotted to practice that particular passage?

Should I play it fast and get in more reps, or slowly to be sure I am playing it exactly right each time, which would mean I am going through it far fewer times? Or should I only practice in real time - the way it will be performed?

  • 5
    As I have always said - if you want to play fast, you must play slow. If you learn something slowly and correctly, you do not need to repeat it as many times. Be the process. Music is about process. It is about journey. – jjmusicnotes Feb 9 '15 at 21:09
  • If you're like me, you'll find things speed up a bit for live performance as the adrenaline fires you up. And a good guide to best tempo is from the singer(s). Lyrics can sound gabbled or drag at the wrong tempo, whereas a guitar solo can be more forgiving of tempo. – OutstandingBill Feb 9 '15 at 23:24
  • @BobRodes I do vaguely recall the scene, I need to see if I can find it again. But apparently that line became one of those cultural quips that now work their way into many retorts (Like the title itself). But yet it is profound in it's meaningfulness. – Rockin Cowboy Feb 9 '15 at 23:33
  • @OutstandingBill I have found that to be true in live performances. I have to constantly tell myself to slow down - and then I still play it too fast. It's hard to slow down after you start. But I have much less trouble speeding up after I start as the adrenalin builds. When I watch video of my live performances, I often notice that by time I reach third verse, I may be a good 10 Bpm faster than first verse. I can get away with it cause I am the singer too - but still rather keep the tempo normal. – Rockin Cowboy Feb 9 '15 at 23:37

11 Answers 11

35

Wrong reps create wrong results. DO NOT play fast and wrong. Practice as slowly as you need to to avoid wrong notes. This is very important.

The reason that you need to practice in the first place is that you need to create muscle memory. If you tell your muscles to do the wrong thing they will remember to do the wrong thing. Every instance of sloppy, inaccurate, and ultimately dissatisfying performance in my personal experience (and I have plenty of those) comes from being in too much of a hurry to learn something, and so never playing slowly enough to be accurate.

I often ask my students how fast a piece should go. Generally the answers boil down to some version of "faster than I can play it". The answer to that question should always be "as fast as I play it"! It takes a certain talent to recognize that. (Of course, if you're playing with other people, the answer is "as fast as WE play it" but the principle is the same.)

In your case, your question really boils down to being anxious about whether you can learn to play it "full speed" in the time you have available to prepare. I can guarantee you that your fingers will remember every few notes that you miss, and faithfully reproduce them for you when you get to the point of performance. This is especially true when you get in extra reps of those few wrong notes by playing fast enough to not pay attention to them. Music is unforgiving that way.

So, if you want to make the best of the time you have, then take the time you need to get the notes right. Practice slowly enough to get the notes right, don't slow down in difficult spots and speed up in easier ones.

Also, never, ever (never ever) practice with the goal of just getting the notes right. There is music in every note no matter what tempo you're using. Your job as a musician is to find it (that means NOW, not once you get the notes). If you do not find it, the best you can create is empty virtuosity.

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    Playing it slowly enough to get it right will also be far less annoying to any innocent bystanders ;-) – SamB Feb 9 '15 at 23:27
  • True that... :) – BobRodes Feb 10 '15 at 6:37
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    It's amazing just how slowly you have to play sometimes to get all the notes right. Don't be put off. Go as slowly as you need to, however slow that is, and then increase the speed gradually enough that you don't start making mistakes, either in notes or timing, as you get faster. It might seem like you'll never reach the required speed, but don't give up. Another important technique is to break the passage down into sorter sections and practise them individually. For some reason I find it better to work through the sections in reverse order. – Ian Goldby Feb 10 '15 at 17:06
  • I always thought this is common sense. I apparently was wrong... – idmean Feb 11 '15 at 20:21
  • Why are you wrong? Seems like common sense to me as well. – BobRodes Feb 12 '15 at 2:25
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I've had about five different teachers over my career as an instrumentalist, and they all taught me to play slowly when I was learning a new passage. The objective has always been to play it as slowly as necessary in order to play it smoothly and without error. In doing so, it will naturally become easier to play it faster later.

I believe that playing it too quickly, where errors occur, is detrimental, because you would be reinforcing your mistakes over and over. Also, I wouldn't play it more than 15 minutes at a time; I think that too much practice of the same passage over and over results in a sterilization effect. It might be better to practice it half as long, move on to something else, and then practice it again at another point in the day for the other half of the amount of time (e.g., the other 7.5 minutes).

  • 2
    It's always a good idea to stop practicing after a bit. You'll come back to it later and find that you have it better than you thought you did. It's a lot like weightlifting or whatever that way. You do so many reps and stop. Maybe you do a few sets. Next time you work out, you can lift more. Practicing passages is the same idea on a micro level. – BobRodes Feb 9 '15 at 23:38
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If you play fast and sloppy and "get in more reps", your sloppiness will tend to accumulate in the same places. There will be stuff you always play wrong in similar ways.

And you'll get desensitivized to playing it wrong, to boot. You'll feel that it's ok to make the same mistakes over again and again if you are just making them fast enough.

"more reps" only start to become defensible as a strategy if indeed your errors occur randomly and in totally different places each time. But it usually is more effective to do "more reps" by just sticking to a single page each session.

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    i agree. ideally sticking to just a couple bars until those bars are perfect, then picking the next set of tricky bars. if the piece is at your level, not all the bars will need to undergo "rigorous treatment" – Stephen Hazel Feb 9 '15 at 22:13
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Human minds, to a degree, learn by repeating. Yes, there are other methods that we use to learn, but undeniably, the more times most peolple do something, the deeper it gets embedded in their brain. So - if one repeats something numerous times, and makes the same errors each time, that gets 'learned'. Consider making a journey. if you ge the same way several times, you learn the twists and turns. Go a diferent way numerous times, and the next time, you haven't much of a clue. Something to do with the way a lot of us are programmed.

So - try to play the practice piece correctly each time it's played.

4

Take our time and practice slowly 80 to 90% of the time. Play it carefully and correctly. With that careful practice under your belt, also practice at a moderate and overly fast pace to give your muscles some different work 5-10% of the time.

When performing, exercise caution and try to hold back on your speed at least a little. When we are performing, most of us get so much adrenaline in our system. This adrenaline messes with our sense of time. We tend to play faster then we practice. This can also lead to mistakes.

I agree that you should emphasize correctness over speed, but also understand it is possible to practice something too slowly, sometimes. Some pieces and techniques can be easier at speed (Like riding a bike can be tough to do slow.). Also, if you go so slow that you can not hear the melody in your head, it will be difficult to train your memory at that speed.

With all this in mind, you will also recognize that some of the things that you work on are easier than others. Work on the tougher passages first and then the easier passages.

Always reinforce your practice. Less than three days in a row on the same material, and you are likely to forget the material.

Vary your practice. If you spend too much time on the same passage you are spinning your wheels, and your brain will not absorb as much. Taking breaks from material and then coming back to it improves your retention (memory).

1

I use this guide, as a teacher once advised me:

  • Start slow enough to avoid mistakes
  • (Optional) Try alternative rhythm patterns in the same speed (like playing four eighth notes with the middle ones as sixteenth notes)
  • When feel comfortable on the above (let's say 3 times in a row each, or more, depends on the passage, with no mistake) play it (only just) a bit faster (let's say increase speed by 3bpm).
  • Keep pushing as long as you achieved correct performance
  • From time to time try pushing the speed quite far, see how it goes, then go back and continue moving upwards (But if you did pretty well in this high speed you may try increasing now by 5 or even 10 bpm)

So, in a few words, quality matters here but it's also useful to try a few times playing the passage in a higher speed, where you feel uncomfortable.

  • 1
    As for pushing the speed quite far, one of my teachers once said that that's the carrot we hold in front of ourselves to keep going. – BobRodes Feb 10 '15 at 22:55
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Just because you mentioned piano: to learn something quickly, rehearse it one hand at a time. Drill the right hand. Drill the left hand. Occasionally put them together (or drill one hand while plunking out a few notes with the other, claims this survey paper by an old colleague of mine). That gets you from zero to sixty in far fewer hours than struggling with both hands as soon as the light turns green. (This is easier on the piano than on most other instruments.)

1

One approach that can sometimes be helpful is what one director called "wood chopping". Identify a small section of the piece an exact number of bars long and play it repeatedly. For rhythm guitar, if there's a hard chord change, make certain you include any "set-up" that's necessary for it so that the chords before and after the change are fingered the ways they will be in "real" performance.

For example, there are many ways of fingering a "D" chord. You can bar the index finger across the top three strings second fret and use the middle finger for the second string third fret, or one can use the first three fingers, or you can use the second through fourth (the latter is my most common choice when using standard tuning). The two-finger D7 chord can follow very nicely after an A7bar chord (bar first finger across four strings second fret; second finger on first string third fret), but will lead awkwardly into a D7. Using the second through fourth fingers for the D will make the D7 very easy (left the pinky and put the index finger on second string first fret, leaving other fingers as they are), but getting there from the A7bar may be a little harder. If you decide on the former fingering, chop wood going back and forth between the two-finger D and the D7. If you decides on the latter, chop wood on the A7bar and the second-through-fourth-finger D. It won't do any good to chop wood between the upper-finger D and D7, or between the two-finger A7bar and two-finger D, unless you also practices the proper "hard" change to go with it.

  • I play mostly classic rock and country and in the key of G so I often use the D - Dsus2 - Dsus4 - to D embellishment which requires the common 1/2/3 fingering of the 1st position D chord. I usually play D7 as a C7 shape moved up two frets to D sometimes alternatively fretting the high e on the 5th fret an playing highest 4 strings. I like the wood chopping analogy. Chopping down a tree with an axe works better if you keep hitting the exact same spot on the tree. Chopping all over the tree may result in wearing out the axe before the tree falls. – Rockin Cowboy Feb 10 '15 at 19:00
  • You can always sharpen the axe - the tree will eventually fall anyway ;) Personally., for a nasty change in a given piece, I would chop wood on that version of the change, right down to 4 changes a bar - whatever the song required, ignoring the 'song' & just getting the changes until they sat. Then go back to the song itself & put that exercise into real practise, once the changes themselves were no longer an issue. – Tetsujin Feb 10 '15 at 19:13
  • @Tetsujin: One thing I've found about wood chopping is that while it can sometimes seem to take forever, the amount of actual time consumed is often surprisingly short. If one's chopping wood on a four-second section from a three-minute piece, two dozen reps will feel like ages, but in reality will only take 1.6 minutes--less time than would have been required to play the piece once. – supercat Feb 10 '15 at 19:36
  • for sure. I have a 'try it, if it doesn't work right now, leave it til tomorrow' approach a lot of the time. 3 mins of frustration today will somehow sink in overnight & you got 10 mins of practise 'for free' – Tetsujin Feb 10 '15 at 19:38
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    @Tetsujin: If one manages to get something right after a lot of frustrating effort, sometimes it may be tempting to take a break, but a minute or two of wood chopping once one finally manages to get something right can help make it much easier the next time. – supercat Feb 10 '15 at 19:41
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Practice makes permanent - my highschool band director.

Play it slow and purposeful. Take it from someone who always wanted to play it fast.

The brain seems to have two approaches to getting good at something. One approach is to become "passably good," and the other is to become "the best you can be." As you spend more time in music, you'll find that playing the right notes is actually the lowest bar you could seek. Tone, expression, dynamics, all of these things will start to matter more as you climb up through the ranks.

As an excellent example, here is a TED talk about listening by a profoundly deaf percussionist!

The most important thing I have found in practice (and it took me 25 years to figure out it out!) is to be very open and sensitive to yours playing. You don't have to get the tone perfect, but be sensitive to parts where your tone falters. That awareness is what pushes our "the best you can be" engines deep in our brain and teaches us to do these things better. Over time, as you get better, you'll find you can be sensitive at faster paces. That's the time to start picking up the tempo.

The great thing about these skills is that they will apply to every song you learn, not just the one you are practicing today. They build on each other. Eventually you may choose to pick up jazz, where tone and expression is everything... I'm not 100% sure if a jazz musician could define "wrong note" on a multiple choice exam! I've seen jazz musicians playing famous songs who get a note wrong; instead of trying to hide it, they lay into it and really make sure they get some emotion out of it! Real groovy sound!

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I read once that "running downhill" prepares your body and mind for what it will be like to (eventually) run quickly.

I was a firm believer in "play slow and correctly, gradually speed up"... well I still am. HOWEVER I did not make the jump to playing lighting fast until I FORCED myself to. I joined a thrash/tech/grind metal band and at first I objected to the tempos, because it sounded too blurry and mooshy. You would never be able to "hear" the melody unless if you were watching them play. So I simply made the finger motions and picked as fast as possible.

Within months I was actually playing fast, and clean. I threw myself into the water and cared not for the mistakes and progressively filled them in with each and every pass. I do NOT think this is the way everyone should learn, but perhaps 10% of your practice time should be spent attempting to play much faster than you really should be.

use a metronome and set it just a few clicks above your comfort level. you won't be able to do it but TRY. After a little bit of this relax and go back to perfecting things at a slower pace, which does have good results.

I read once that Robert Fripp makes his students begin by holding a single note and sitting still, meditating on it for an extremely long time

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Quality over quantity, but quantity is nonetheless still important. When playing fast pieces especially, one relies a lot on muscle memory, so it's important to imprint the right kind of muscle memory instead of just your default playing-- you want to slow down here, press lightly here, lift ever so slightly here, etc. Slow and deliberate practice that focuses on perfecting everything and centering your tone is incredibly helpful to shape this muscle memory. Moreover, you're having a more intellectual engagement with your music, cutting down on the number of panic attacks and mistakes you have as you do not have to rely solely on your muscle memory to play the piece.

However, for some people, like me, simply practicing deliberately is not enough-- I need to play it many times to make sure I have it down pat and remember everything I want to do-- in these cases, quantity is also important. Not only have you decided and carried through what you want to do, you want to be able to replicate it many times without fail, so when the one performance time comes, you deliver.

To sum: quality practice is always better than quantity, but for those of us who do not have great musical execution and recall, we need to also focus on quantity of practice as well.

protected by Matthew Read Feb 11 '15 at 3:30

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