Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Slow Down

The other day Joy (from Denmark, vs Joy my daughter in Jersey) commented on wanting to improve her speed running. This reminded me of a time when I decided to become athletic and a technique for acquiring speed that I haven't practiced in a long time: In order to do anything fast, you have to do it slow.

Playing Slow
I first discovered the benefits of slowing down at Berklee College of Music. When I applied for admission, I declared piano as my principle instrument. I was a composer and arranger, and although I played sax and flute, I figured I best become good at playing the piano. Nowadays, thanks to sequencers and music software, playing the piano is less important, but in those days, if you wanted to actually hear what you'd composed or arranged, you could either assemble an ensemble or play it on the piano.

One of the many things that overwhelmed me as a novice piano player living and studying among experts is how fast the experts could play. In high school, I'd heard people who could play fast, but never in a manner where each note was precisely positioned and articulated. The speed was accompanied by dynamics and emotion. And to make matters worse, no one seemed to be working that hard at it.

I would spend time pounding through scales as fast as I could. I'd look at the clock and then begin playing a Bach invention trying to improve my time from beginning to end. I got a little faster, but it always felt like work. My forearms and shoulders would tighten up and after a bit I'd simply have to stop playing.

I would emerge from the practice rooms, surrounded by people asking themselves, "How the heck did he get into school here?"

I started wondering the same thing.

Then one day, a guy who was in my arranging class, a blond haired Texan who was one of God's gifts to the piano (in other people's opinion and not his own) , walked up to me after class and said, "Hey man, the key to playing fast is playing slow."

I had no idea what he was talking about. I mean, I could play slow! I wanted to play fast.

He apparently picked up on my line of thought and continued saying:
"What you want to do is find yourself a metronome. Go sit in the practice room and set it set to 60 (beats per minute). Then play your scales one hand at time with one note per beat."

"As you're playing don't focus on your fingers. Play with your whole body. Move from your shoulders. Breathe. Listen."

"After you get your hands working perfectly independently, then put them together. When you get to the point where you can play your scales perfectly at 60, with dynamics and flow, with no tension in your body, set the metronome to 61."
Standing Naked in the Light of Day
So, I walked down the street to the music store, got myself a metronome and headed over to the practice rooms.

You know what? Playing slow is hard. You know how much better you look naked when you're well tanned, the lights are turned down, and the candles are burning? Well, playing the piano super slowly is kind of like standing naked in front of one of those mirrors that shows you front and back, turning the all the lights on and then having someone walk in with a magnifying glass just in case. There's more than enough time to analyze every little thing. There's no gliding past mistakes, even the little tiny ones. Getting your notes to align perfectly with the tick-tick-tick of the metronome is simple, but it ain't easy.

It took me a couple of weeks of practicing hours each day before I could put my hands together and play a respectable C scale. However, I improved. Whereas I was initially hyper-focused on the metronome, trying not to get ahead, trying not to fall behind, after a couple of weeks, the metronome became a friend who I knew would show up exactly on time. My body relaxed and playing became playful. Everything felt easy. After a while, I graduated to 61.

Over the months I progressed from 61 to 180. I went from playing quarter notes to eighth notes to sixteenth notes. I started playing scales in intervals. Whenever I started feeling myself getting sloppy or tight, I would crank everything back down to a speed where I could play well.

Playing slow, worked.

Running Slow
So, when it came time to become athletic, I decided that I wanted to learn to run fast. I'd never been athletic, let alone fast. I grew up being the last one picked for a team and the first one traded away. I never won anything that involved running. I can remember being beat in the 50-yard dash by a kid with chronic asthma who wasn't supposed to exert himself but decided that he could at least beat me.

Nonetheless, when I was thirty or so, I decided that I would become athletic. I started paying attention to what I ate (turns out that carbs are my friends). I learned that, if you exercise rigorously for an hour a day, you can pretty much each whatever you want. I lost weight and I started feeling really good. But I still wasn't fast.

One day, I decided learn to run in a manner similar to how I'd learned to play piano. I ran slowly paying attention to every nuance of my stride: how my foot hit the ground, how my knee moved, where my center of gravity was, where I carried my tension, where my internal clock was. All very slowly, painfully slowly. It was tough because I'd got used to that high you get after working out really hard for an hour. I was running so slowly that my pulse rate increased never reached my aerobic range (let alone my anaerobic range).

However, I got so that I could run slowly without effort, without tension and without pain. And then, slowly, I started to speed things up.

Running slowly worked.

Although, I never got to the point where I was super fast, I could run ten miles (sixteen kilometers) in just under an hour without any pain or residual effect (other than euphoria). I also got so that I loved running.

Thinking Slowly
I can't remember whether it was in Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman or What Do You Care What Other People Think? (read both of them), but in one of his books, quirky Nobel-laureate Richard Feynman talks about how he always had problems reading about physics. He simply couldn't understand anything that he was reading.

One day his sister suggested that he start reading slowly, super slowly: never proceeding to the next phrase until he completely comprehended what he'd read so far. Feynman describes building specific models in his mind as he pursued general theories and concepts. Each time a new step was introduced, he would map it into his specific mental model so that he could see it.

In Surely You're Joking, Feynman writes:
At all these places everybody working in physics would tell me what they were doing and I'd discuss it with them. They would tell me the general problem they were working on, and would begin to write a bunch of equations.

"Wait a minute," I would say. "Is there a particular example of this general problem?"

"Why yes; of course."

"Good. Give me one example." That was for me: I can't understand anything in general unless I'm carrying along in my mind a specific example and watching it go. Some people think in the beginning that I'm kind of slow and I don't understand the problem, because I ask a lot of these "dumb" questions: "Is a cathode plus or minus? Is an an-ion this way, or that way?"

But later, when the guy's in the middle of a bunch of equations, he'll say something and I'll say, "Wait a minute! There's an error! That can't be right!"

The guy looks at his equations, and sure enough, after a while, he finds the mistake and wonders, "How the hell did this guy, who hardly understood at the beginning, find that mistake in the mess of all these equations?"
I think this approach of going slowly and building a mental framework on which you can hang all the things you're learning is wonderfully powerful. If you've ever struggled with math or logic or chemistry or physics, it's probably because you've skimmed quickly past something simple, something that you would normally learn early on, something that seemed inconsequential, but upon which everything else depends. The solution is to stop, go back to the beginning and proceed slowly, never going to the next step until you've mastered the current one.

Slow Down
I bet you can think of something that would benefit from slowing down. If you'd like to try it, there are a few things to remember.

Find a Clock. When going slowly, we all have a tendency to speed up. Going slowly often reveals things we don't particularly like to see. It can feel tedious (typically, because we're still focused on going fast.) Since you'll tend towards speed, it's important to use something outside yourself to establish your pace. It might be a metronome. It might be a treadmill. It might be a series of questions that you ask yourself after reading a paragraph of text.

Pay Attention. Dismiss thoughts on the order of "is this working" or "am I getting faster" and focus on your process, your technique, your method. Notice everything, your breathing, how you're holding your shoulders, where you're carrying tension, the things that distract you.

Be Perfect. OK, this is a case where perfect is actually a quite useful concept. When I was teaching Iris to play flute, one day we stop playing little duets and I asked her to simply play a perfect C-sharp (a C-sharp on the flute involves no fingers on any keys; it's all about your lips, your mouth and your breath.) We must have spent an hour, playing, listening, deciding what could be better, how it could be better and then trying again. We didn't proceed until we had an amazing C-sharp. As you practice slowly, strive to make the simple things perfect.

End Perfectly. We tend to internalize whatever we did last. You can play scales slowly and flawlessly for an hour and then sloppily play just one more really fast. And you know what, it's the mistakes and slop of the last run that stay with you. Why? I don't know. But it seems to be the case. So, always end on a good run, no matter how slowly you have to do it.

Happy sweet and slow Tuesday!


  1. I can tell you why: the last thing you do is what you remember best!
    At any time when you are going through your training session you will end at the end - and that still-picture is what is staying.

    So if you want to do the funny, fast, sloopy one: do it in the middle.

    Everyone who knows to play golf, knows to not empty the basket with balls: you stop when you had a good ball - even if you had a few left in the basket.

    With slow running you want to decide whether to run slow long distance or slow short distance, since the running style might differ!

  2. Teflon: just wanted to let you know that part of this blog was extremely useful to me. My younger son has been taking lessons in tabla (Indian drums), and, being possessed of a fair amount of native talent, tends to be attracted more to the flashy and faster patterns and less to the grunt-work of practicing and getting his fingering just right. So once while he was looking over my shoulder at this blog, the anatomically accurate Greek statue caught his eye. I took the opportunity to explain your point about slowing down. Much to my pleased amazement, he got it, and it now takes no more than a gentle reminder ("standing naked in the light of day") to get him to practice at low tempo. And if you know my son (& his parents), anything that reduces the need for nagging is worth its weight in gold, so, thank you!

  3. Sree, how cool! The tabla provides the perfect opportunity to get really fast and flashy by playing slowly (especially if you use a click track or metronome). I'm sure that once your son starts experiencing the results, he'll become the nagger rather than the naggy in his advocacy of slow.

  4. I recently shared this post (and the one with you teaching the guys to sing)with Isaiah, who was puzzling about a group of guys he sings with not hearing a harmony. We explored the slowing down idea, and came up with harmonizing "Mary had a little lamb" slowly, in thirds first, then in other (? ... seconds... dunno) less frequently used harmonies. He thought he could find a metronome app on his iphone. Thanks for the inspiration!


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