Rehearsing your instrument slowly has its own rewards.
It's pretty much any sax player's wish that he or she could pick up the sax and play like greased lightening. A good solo is always awesome. But a fast solo is like a good martial arts trick. It leaves everyone in awe and almost worshipping the musician for their technical prowess. But while speed makes for an amazing technical demonstration, we sometimes miss what it takes to get there.
And one day I discovered something by accident that opened my eyes to the benefit of practicing slowly.
It's amazing what you can learn about a superhighway when you run out of gas.
I'm one of those guys that tends to live a little dangerously with the level of gas in my car. But every once in a while, it catches up to me. And one day, I ran out on a 4 lane divided highway. And I had to go for a walk.
It's fascinating the things you notice about the road at a speed of three miles per hour that you just don't notice at seventy.
Have you ever realized how long those lines really are on the highway?
I had actually stumbled onto the little factoid of the length of the lines in the centre line of the highway and the length of the spaces in between. When you're driving in a car, it's easy to incorrectly estimate the size of those little suckers.
If you've already been told the numbers on these stripes and spaces, it's a little easier to imagine it as you're driving past them. But they blast by so quickly. Most people guess the lines are anywhere between 3 and 5 feet long.
If you've never been told the numbers, let me give you a little surprise. The length of the dashes on the highway are ten feet long. And the spaces - get ready for it - are thirty feet long.
I actually remember that day I was out walking. There was a break in the traffic and, since I had that little factoid in my head, I just had to test that out. So, I got out there with my size 12 clogs and paced those lines out. And then I paced the spaces out. And then I quickly moved out of the way of that semi-truck. Because unlike me, he wasn't going slow enough to appreciate the length of those lines.
But, yes. The lines are 10 feet long and the spaces are 30 feet in between.
You notice a whole different set of characteristics about the road at that speed that you can't imagine if you're always driving fast.
I was finally able to get a perspective on the length of those lines, and the fact that I had missed the reality of that fact about them up until that moment. I knew it in my head. But I experienced it that time. The thing I noticed, too, is that once I gassed up and was driving again, I noticed some of the things I saw at three miles per hour in a different way at seventy. I knew what I was watching for after I had seen them at slow speed. And now I could see them. And now, I could more easily imagine those stripes as actually being 10 feet long.
So what does this have to do with your practice routine?
I have often heard the mantra, "just practice, practice, practice." But there has to be a method to it that gives you a target to the desired end. Most people are interested in speed, accuracy and style but don't always know how to get there.
One of the ways to get there is by spending part of the practice routine practicing slowly. Here, then, is a list of benefits from practicing slowly.
Want to learn how to solo over 5 notes?
Check out this article on how to use the pentatonic scale as a great place to start to develop some "improv chops." For beginning improvisers, this is an excellent place to start.
Here are 4 benefits that come from practicing slowly.
1 - When you play slowly, you're giving your brain and body connections a chance to get to know a different part of each other. Like a walk beside the freeway.
Let's play a game here. We are going to picture that you're going through a practice session. It could be some scales or some arpeggios. Perhaps you're working on a particular Euge Groove solo that you've heard and wanted to memorize to play the next time you're at a jam session.
It doesn't really matter what you're working on so much as it matters that you're taking an occasional "walk beside the speed of the musical freeway." You're giving yourself a chance to look at those stripes in the middle of the road from a totally different perspective than normal. You're walking - plodding - through the exercise. You're going slowly and evenly, note by note. The magic is that you're possibly going to find a couple "firsts" about how you play that you had no idea were there.
Practicing a run slowly, and paying attention as you go, can open your awareness to how you move your fingers when you transition from one note to the next. If you pay attention, you might even notice how the horn shifts a bit in your hands as you make certain note transitions; or how your tongue moves (for better or worse) in your mouth because you're not thinking about where you need to do that due to the range you're in on the horn, or perhaps from tension. Paying attention to these things will help you to see your playing in different ways.
As Itzhak Perlman, the famous violoinist says, "If you learn something slowly, you forget it slowly." Listen to the master talk about slow practice...
2 - When you play slowly, you have more time between the note changes to think about what you're doing in "steady state."
You notice how, when you go to the mall, you want to find the spot closest to the door? Even though you will walk a couple miles inside the mall, you don't want to walk more than 20 feet outside. Because the mall is "the destination." The parking lot is where you have to go from to get there. It feels different inside.
You know what is even stranger? When people fight like crazy to get the closest parking spots they possibly can to go to the gym. That's just plain dumb if you think about it. Walking is exercise. You go to the gym to get that. But if you don't like exercise, you avoid it before and after the gym.
The gym is a chore. A necessary evil. But think of the small, incremental gains that can come from all those little walks to and from the car in addition to the gym time.
You need to think of working out as a lifestyle and not a chore. You need to do the same with your practicing.
So what does this have to do with practicing slowly? Well, you have more "down time" between note changes when you're playing slowly. But instead of "taking it easy" and just coasting through the note changes, you "use the opportunity for those few extra cumulative steps." You have time to think about the notes that are coming next, and to prepare beforehand for those fingering changes that are coming. You have time to anticipate and to remind yourself that you need to be conscious of your hand position. So when it comes, you're not off guard and caught having to move your hand more than necessary.
Instead of merely playing the notes as they come, if you use that interim time between notes to think ahead, not only about what note to play, but how to position your hands and fingers to do those changes with a minimum of motion and exertion (and therefore less stress) you're using that "time" between the notes to be more self-aware of what is going on when you play normally.
3 - You have time to listen to your sound.
Most people talk about warming up and doing long tones. But have you ever thought about why you're doing long tones?
Hopefully, (hopefully) you're working on long tones because you're trying to develop good sound and good resonance on your instrument. You're studying your sound to see how changes in your breath, your palate and your embouchure affect your sound.
But don't forget: you're working on your sound as a means to the end of sounding good when you play normally.
This is where you need to stop trying to "find the closest door to the gym." You need to think of the long tones as a lifestyle. And here is where you can make some connections between your "long tone practice" and your playing.
So now, in our game, you're walking down the highway. And the notes you're playing slowly give you a chance to incorporate some of the listening skills from doing your long tones now, here, with your "semi-long tones." If you practice slowly, you can try to listen more of the time while you're playing to see if your lessons learned in your long-tone warmup exercises are being applied as you're transitioning between notes. You can do some "course corrections" as you go. It's an interim step between the theory you develop with playing long, isolated whole tones and playing at speed. It helps you "connect the dots."
Playing slowly gives you the chance to connect the dots between your lessons learned in long-tone practice and maintaining those embouchure and breathing techniques in normal-rate playing. Bridging the speed helps bridge the connections from theory to reality. If you're playing slowly through a piece or an exercise, and you listen to your sound as you do, you are allowing the brain-body connections to improve for the sound of the music.
4 - Not only can you listen to your tone as you play, but you can pay more attention to your "note style."
I mentioned that you can hear your tone and your fingering changes. And exercising slowly lets you see a different aspect of those things. You can "course-correct" your embouchure as you go to make your "practicing slowly" sound conform to what you target with long tone exercises. I also mentioned anticipating fingering issues and how you can anticipate the changes.
You have more of a chance to not only hear the notes; you have time to listen to how your notes start. And if a note starts badly, you might have a little better chance to figure out why. Perhaps it is because the particular jump you made caused your horn to move. Maybe it moved because that move from an A in the upper register to a D above the high C with that left-hand palm key made your horn shift in your hands. But you never noticed it until now, when you practiced it slowly.
Or maybe your notes start badly because you're not tonguing the notes in performance the way you do when you are starting notes with the tongue as a conscious effort. You have more time to be conscious of more things now, and how they fit together.
In another article I wrote about saxophone mouthpieces, I talk about a trip to KB Sax in New York City where Kim Bock talked to me about how many things affect our sound besides the tone of our instrument: how we start notes, how we end notes, our volume and timbre changes as we play our notes. Things like that all affect how we sound. Playing slowly while thinking about your style gives you more "walking to the gym door" time to think about that kind of thing.
It's the little things that make so much of a difference. But sometimes you don't notice them without the variation of practicing slowly once in a while.
4 - Now that you noticed things that were off (and having thought about why) slow practice gives you time to think about ideas for the kinds of things you should be practicing in the future.
If you are practicing slowly, you will notice things that you don't notice practicing more quickly.
You have time to notice things that are off, and you have a little more time to think about why they're off. And to experiment..
And if you don't miss the magic of the moment, you can make mental notes (or better yet, write down notes) about the things you need to work on and schedule some practice time on those issues.
The 4 reasons, in a nutshell
- Slow practice gives your brain and your body ways to get to know each other differently from the standard "practicing at speed" approach.
- You have more time between note changes to anticipate what comes next to train your body to prepare beforehand and to maintain your best hand and lip positions.
- You have time to listen to your sound - to hear if you are applying your lessons learned in long tone warmups to how you play each note.
- You have time to think about what you could do to practice through the rough patches that you now have time to notice. It helps you plan your practice better.
Don't misunderstand here. Practicing slowly doesn't solve all your problems. And if you were to ONLY practice slowly, all the time, you'd never get speed. But you need to keep it as part of your arsenal of variations for your practice routine to throw a spotlight occasionally on different aspects of your playing that you might not otherwise see.
If you want to learn to solo with just 5 notes, check out this post.
And as usual, your feedback is appreciated. Let me know if it works for you or if there is anything I can clarify. I always love hearing from my readers.
As always, let me know what you think. I love to hear from you.