Slow Practice for String Players

At a recent Q&A session with kids and their parents, someone piped up, “My son likes to play through his pieces instead of practicing them. His violin teacher says that he should practice slowly. What does this mean?”

As anyone who has taken private lessons is probably aware, one practice technique encouraged by teachers is indeed “slow practice”. However, it can be difficult to know where to start when beginning to apply such a method. Many students – at one point, me included – wonder why it’s so important to do this, what they’re expected to listen for in the process, and how to relate that to their “up-to-tempo” efforts.

Below, I’ve described some of my favored approaches to slow practice, but these were all around long before I began violin studies. Some people stick with one method; some prefer another. I mix it up, doing all of them individually from time to time, depending on my needs on any given day.

To any students out there who may need slow-practice advice, I’d suggest reading this through, trying these different options, and figuring out what works best for you. Remember that slow practice is only one of many different practice techniques. A good practicer will alternate it with other musical work, in order to improve consistently on numerous levels. Finally, I have to mention that if you feel like your teacher understands you, chances are that he or she will be able to guide you in the right direction better than anything you might read on someone’s website.

Starting from the beginning of your piece, play everything in slow motion: every note, every bowstroke, every shift, and every string crossing.

In the left hand, pay special attention to the distances between fingers (which ones play half-steps and which play whole-steps), the number of positions your shifts are covering, the name of each position you’re playing (first, second, third, fourth, fifth, etc.), the distances your fingers cross between strings, the angle of your fingers on the strings, the amount of space your hand takes up on the neck and body of the violin, and – very importantly – the absolute and relative intonation of the notes you’re playing. To check intonation, be sure to slow-practice with AND without vibrato.

For the right hand/ bow technique, concentrate on bow distribution (the proportionate length of each bow stroke to the ones surrounding it, depending on rhythm, absolute length, loudness, and intensity of tone), contact point (your bow-hairs’ placement between the bridge and the finger board), the straightness of your bowstroke, the flexibility of your fingers in bowchanges at the frog, and the position of your hand when you’re playing at the tip. Count the number of notes between string crossings; make sure that your bow is ready to cross strings by being as close as possible to the new string, so that you can cross without showing a lurch; and listen carefully to the ends of your bowstrokes, avoiding any sudden, unintentional change in dynamic when you switch bow direction. During this time, also work on correcting any technical issues your teacher or colleagues have pointed out.

I use this version of slow-practice when learning a piece; when reacquainting myself with something I haven’t played for a while; and on a regular basis, when maintaining a piece over a long period of time. It helps to clear my mind of the chaos of full-speed practice, rehearsal, and performance, allowing me to focus on the building blocks of technique.

This is the next step after basic slow practice. One problem many people have with slow practice is that it doesn’t connect to their in-tempo playing. They’ll carefully repeat a certain passage under tempo again and again, but somehow, every time they try to play it up to speed, it feels entirely different and refuses to cooperate. The problem is logical: slow practicing doesn’t realistically capture the difficulties of full-speed transition – in this case, transitions from one finger or hand position, or string, or part of the bow, to another. As it happens, playing an instrument is very much like dancing or performing an athletic feat: momentum and motion add a whole different dimension of difficulty to what would otherwise be a simple series of steps, leaps, motions, or poses.

There is a way to work around this common slow-practice problem, once the player is familiar with the technical challenges inherent in a particular piece:

Practice the notes slowly but move between them at the speed required at full tempo.

For the left hand, this means – among other things – setting one’s fingers at an angle from which the next series of notes is efficiently reachable at tempo; shifting as fast as one would at full speed; and arranging one’s arm and wrist in a position to vibrate immediately if needed.

For the right hand, this would include very smooth, quick string crossings; concise, up-to-tempo bow changes; and precise bow placement for tricky techniques (staccato, sautille, martele, ricochet, etc.).

Lastly: always, always think at least a beat ahead – if not a measure or more – while practicing this method. I find this practice technique to be useful in lyrical, melodic lines as well as virtuosic passages. It makes me think both in the moment and ahead of myself – exactly what a performer should do when onstage.

This is a biggie: body position. If a musician plays with poor posture or an unhealthy setup, he or she runs the risk of physical strain and chronic injury. Even the most physically-aware performers should check their playing-alignment every day. Slow work to that end can shed light on harmful habits which would otherwise go unnoticed.

Some things to keep in mind during this exercise: straightness of the spine and neck, side-to-side and linear angles of the left arm and wrist, torque on the right arm and shoulder, inefficiencies of motion, exaggerated postural asymmetries (seated or standing) while playing, and unnecessary twisting of the body. If the musician has aches or pains, consider the source and any motions which might be forcing the muscle, joint, or tendon to do something overly unnatural. Playing an instrument should not be strained; it should feel physically satisfying if a little awkward. The more advanced the instrumentalist, the more efficient and comfortable his or her motions should be. Inexplicable discomfort may be the result of a bad habit, ill-fitting equipment (shoulder rest, chinrest, etc.), or a basic technique which is unsuited to that musician’s particular body.

To a certain extent, the player ought to be able to tell whether or not he or she is properly set up. There are, however, many aspects of technique and posture which are noticeable only from a third-party perspective. To get around this obstacle, an instrumentalist may videotape him- or herself, look in a mirror, or – my favorite – check him- or herself in a window reflection or a wall shadow.

It’s extremely important for the musician to be honest and to keep an open mind. Therefore, NO CHEATING. Maintain normal playing posture throughout this exercise, however tempting it may be to model the ideal. Everyone is capable of carrying themselves well for a few minutes, but most problems can only be identified through realistic observation.

This slow-practice technique is appropriate for instrumentalists of all levels. It’s essential that beginners learn proper playing posture and that professionals maintain it throughout their careers.

This final listing is the icing on the cake. It focuses on phrasing and musicality. Some teachers believe physical technique should come first, the interpretation developed later. My teachers taught me that technical prowess and musicality are inextricably connected, so I’m used to working on both at once. Whatever your opinion, this can fit into anyone’s practice plan.

To produce phrasing, one must refer to technical means: loudness, softness, tone control, bow distribution, articulation, rhythm, and vibrato, among others. Some people consider intonation to be expressive, too. Working slowly on all of these in the context of phrasing is different from the other three abovementioned practice techniques, which build and maintain technical skills. This method forces the musician to apply his or her physical abilities to the interpretation itself, which is well-nigh impossible at a slow tempo without a clear idea of the direction of the music or the shape of one’s interpretation. At a slow speed, there is no such thing as “inspiration of the moment”. Hence, to practice phrasing in this way, do the following: use the same differentiations in volume you’d use at full speed; be as expressive as you want to be; shape every note; work on a range of articulation; linger at appropriate times; and vibrate the way you’d like to when playing full tempo – but do all of it slowly. Carefully consider the phrasing decisions you make during this exercise, because they will help shape your musical identity for years to come.