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Everyone who teaches guitar says that you should practice slowly because that is the best way. One example is here, but there are billions of others who say it too.

I try to take their advice to heart, but it frustrates me because "slow" is relative so what is it? I'm a numbers person so I want exact definitions, not "slow enough."

For example, I'm practicing a piece by Carulli called Andante Grazioso arranged by Eythor Thorlaksson and I'm playing it at a slow tempo of 40 bpm(*). The piece is 64 bars long (including repeats) and 3 beats/bar meaning one play through takes about (64 * 3 * 1.5 = 288 seconds) five minutes.

How do I know if that is slow practice or fast practice? The only definition I've heard is that you shouldn't play a piece faster than you can play it perfectly. What is perfect? Obviously unattainable for a human, what you want is "good enough." So what is good enough? Much harder to attain for a self-critical person who is good at spotting errors.

I can play the piece "really good" (to my untrained ears, that is!) at that slow tempo. If I increase the tempo to 60 bpm, with minor faults, to 80 bpm with major faults and to 100 bpm with glaring errors.

And almost as obviously, I can play it even better at 30 bpm or 20 bpm! But why stop there? 10 bpm or one note every six second because if slow is good, then slooooooooooooow is better. :)

Essentially, I'm looking for a number between 0-120 which is the bpm value I should set my metronome to when practicing this piece to receive the most guitar skill/time unit invested. I also want to know what logic I should use to figure out what this bpm value is when practicing other pieces.

  • I know classical music isn't supposed to be played at a fixed tempo, but more fluidly. But I'm not good enough for playing like that yet.
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The key to practicing slowly is making room for awareness.

It can be detrimental to just play your piece slowly because 'you have to', or because 'it's supposed to be good for you' (like eating vegetables). This can be very boring, wastes practice time and makes you hate your piece little by little.

When practicing slowly your mind has to be active. You have to notice all those little things in your music, how it feels, how it sounds, what it means,... Notice the movement of your hands. Notice how it affects the sound you make. Think about the notes that are coming up. Think actively how you want to play them, and then do it. Think about the place of these notes in the phrase, and the place of the phrase in the piece... Because you are playing slowly there is space in your head to do all of this. In a way it's a very creative moment in your practice time. You are making concious decisions about how you want to play. When you play fast a lot of these decisions are made subconcious because there is no time, or worse when your experience is low: it's at random.

So to answer your question: you need to choose a speed where you can be actively aware of what you are doing.

Or even more specific: take half of the goal speed and try what it does to you. Change to a faster (probably not) or slower speed if needed.

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I'm afraid I have some bad news, Björn: in my experience, there's not really any mathematical logic to this.

From my experience, I just slow down my metronome to a tempo where I can play it without any technical errors. (It's also impossible to define exactly what "good enough" is!) Once I have that consistent, I'll slowly increase the tempo, and over the span of a practice session, or a week, or several weeks, eventually I'll get to the goal tempo.

In going through that process, I naturally end up experimenting with a number of musical decisions so that, by the time I'm up to tempo, I have the musicality included as well (and thus I don't have to reset the metronome to practice that slowly, as well).

But here's the kicker: in some cases, slow practice can be bad! I once worked on a deceitfully tricky Poulenc piece for piano. After weeks of slow practice it wasn't getting any better. So finally I just started practicing it at tempo. It was ugly for a little bit, but ultimately that was the only thing that actually prepared me to play the piece.

The Key Point: Every musical situation is different. Your abilities as a performer are always changing, the repertoire is changing, the particular day is changing, every performer is different, and no one's definition of "good enough" matches. Thus there's just no mathematical way of clarifying all of this; these are just decisions you have to make, and as you improve in your musical life you'll learn how to make these decisions more and more efficiently.

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Slow practice doesn't mean playing the whole piece slowly.

Instead, play the piece first at a normal tempo, and notice which parts you stumble through. Based on your description I would say that would be about 60 bpm.

Next, play those sections as slow as you need to so that you can play them smoothly and without mistakes. This may be extremely slow.

Once you've done that, you can work on bringing them up to speed.

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    +1 "Slow practice doesn't mean playing the whole piece slowly. " - In fact, you can remove two words from that and it's still true: "Practice doesn't mean playing the whole piece". – user19146 Dec 12 '16 at 12:37
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Something that took me a long to realise but helped me in the end was to realise that a slow piece of music is still music. Before that I'd seen practising slowly as a tedious mechanical way to get to be able to play fast.

For me,'slow enough' is the speed at which my mind is able to listen to and interpret the music as I play. The notes remain the same but the interpretation can differ every time you play the piece. If you play at a speed that allows you to play, to interpret, and to listen simultaneously then you will naturally slow down to begin with.

Concert soloists can sometimes be heard playing a piece much too fast and that is because they have played it so many times that they can play, hear and interpret very quickly. An audience member however just feels they are being rushed.

So, to sum up, play at a speed at which you are actually producing real music even if that seems incredibly slow. Speeding up will just happen of its own accord.

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