Getting Students to Play More Slowly
Dianna V., Minnesota
I have a couple students that I know tend to play through their simpler songs asfastastheycan. I assume that this isn’t the best to help them develop playing with feeling, etc., and the one girl has trouble playing the song itself when she slows down.
I know that it’s really hard to slow the fingers down once the muscle memory has them flying along, and I wondered if any of you who have encountered this have suggestions for me to coach them in slowing down their playing – or even reasons to give to them (and their parents) to take it slower.
Cheryl G., Pennsylvania
I demonstrate what I mean by slow by playing the songs very slowly myself. Sometimes they have no concept of ‘slow’.
Also you can try playing 5 steps of sound very slowly by saying 1st finger, 2nd finger, etc. They are not to go ahead of your instructions, sort of like Simon Says.
Also if they are singing the words, that should help them to play at a reasonable speed.
Reasons: the slower you practice, the faster you will learn. You will make fewer mistakes, and will spend less time correcting mistakes. Practicing slowly gives you time to think about what you’re playing and what’s coming next.
I have a class of 5 boys in 1st grade and we play the “stop and think” game. I tap on my knees in the speed of walking, running and then stop. They run around the room while they have to listen for my cues. They are really bad at it at first and then they can usually stop on just a 2 tap stop. Then I just say it while they are running in a quiet voice “stop and think”. After they are successful there, I take it to the piano.
Because they are boys I also say, “YOU WILL NEVER, EVER BE ABLE TO DO THIS CHALLENGE.” Right then and there, they are hooked to prove me wrong.
There was a great clip on TV about a dog that balanced a glass of water on its nose while going upstairs (he’s in the Guinness Book of Records) and after each step the owner gently said “stop and think”. I described that to the class, too, but if I could get a clip that would be better.
Louise H., Michigan
I have a mantra that I repeat: “The slower you play, the faster you’ll learn.” I think our society in general likes to do everything fast–drive, play video games, etc. Everything is linked to speed and how fast you can do it. It has to be a conscious effort to slow yourself down.
Oftentimes the child doesn’t understand what we mean be “slow”. To them, fast feels slow, and so they end up playing faster. I demonstrate what I mean by playing slowly and then I have them play it along with me so they can feel the correct speed. I also have a keyboard that records, so sometimes I record them playing and have them listen to it. They are often surprised by how fast it sounds. There is a disconnect between what we hear when we are playing, and what it actually sounds like.
I also remind them that each time they play the songs on their playlist, it should be a bit better than the last time they played them. They should always be striving to make their songs sound better. So many problems in playing can be resolved by slow, careful practice.
Yvonne O., Perth AU
You could make it a challenge to play a specified song ‘as slowly as you can’. eg For 4 days play Dreams as slow as you can, then on the fifth play it with appropriate ‘feeling’. You could give the ‘movie scene’ idea to discuss how it might sound to suit the piece. ie. Background music for a particular scene- get the student to help set that scene. Then play it that way at the next lesson.
I have asked students who flit through their songs too fast to play everything very slowly for a week (and sometimes very heavily for a week) in order to regain control of their pieces. You (and they) can hear the difference at next lesson.
Debbie V., Oklahoma
I had a group of 4 students who liked to play everything super fast. One day they decided to have a contest to see who could play Alma Mater Blues the fastest by next week. I didn’t know about this. When they came in they wanted me to judge the contest. I said I would so I could see what they did.
Well, one student got is so fast you wouldn’t even recognize it. Of course she won, but actually lost. I asked her to play it again so I could record it, so she did. Then we all listened to it and discussed how bad it sounded and how music should be enjoyable for us as well as anyone who listens. We also discussed smoothness and clarity in music. How we don’t like things that are so smeared together that we cant understand it.
I asked her to now play it at a normal speed and she couldn’t and broke down in tears. After a week of trying to slow it down and always ending in tears I made her and her mom promise not to play it at all until after the Christmas break ( that would be 8 weeks). When they returned after the break I CTE and made her do it very slowly. She was sent home to practice it very slowly. She came back all smiles and the song played perfectly! I think a good lesson was learned by all because we don’t have that problem anymore. They will play a few songs a little faster than the CD, but not much faster and not very many.
It is crucial for all teachers, always and with all students, when shifting from training the ‘what’ to play over to the ‘how’ to play, to routinely require that students play along with the audio recordings. It is a valuable exercise to do this in the class with the students, so that they can hear for themselves, the extent to which they need to generate modifying their playing.
The absence of doing this (and for that matter, asking that students play slowly and not requiring that it occur), is merely one more way that teachers forfeit territory. Unfortunately, this area has a direct and profound, debilitating impact on the student’s development of musicianship.
I can think of nothing more important than students being able to play pieces with a Slow, Steady, Musical and Even manner (SSME – or “sesame” as I call it). Coin the phrase with your students, have them take ownership of this, and make it a fundamental requirement – a determining factor in your being willing to move them forward more deeply into the program.
I would never let students move ahead more than two songs, unless the preceding songs were demonstrably SSME in their execution. Having said that, I have no issue whatsoever if a student wants to play Dreams, or Night Storm etc., at breakneck speed, provided that, at any given moment I can ask them to play it slowly (or at audio recording speed), and they can do it.
Consistent with that, and also in making sure that the Life Coach is on board and taking responsibility for that which they are responsible for, it is important to have parents ensure that the child is regularly playing along with the audio recordings.
Rhea P., Western AU
I sometimes find that even when we control the events in class, and that I stress continuing to control the events some people come back with the piece not solid. My ‘soapbox’ issue this month (every few weeks I get excited about something else and it becomes something I say to everyone) was from an article I read about practice.
This guy wrote (and I’m paraphrasing) “We often think of ‘practicing’ as the process by which we go from a state of making lots of mistakes to a state where we don’t make many or any. But that’s not how we should think of it. Think of it going from a state of playing it perfectly but extremely slowly (always controlling the events) to one where we play it perfectly but quickly. Let speed be the only variable in your practice.”
I too have been a bit of a ‘speed freak’. I like to play faster than I really can. And even though I’ve known about controlling the events and how important it is, I confess that I haven’t always done it consistently in the pieces that I’ve learnt. I think that is because I really want to play it and ‘feel’ the piece before I’m fully entitled to (ie. I don’t know it well enough). I’ve discovered that I feel that way because I feel I should be able to play a passage well – almost that I’m ashamed of that I can’t. So now I try to be a bit zen about it – I am where I am with the piece and I just need to accept that I have to work at that level. I do it very, very slowly and before I know it, the knowledge is lodging in the places in my brain where they should and the speed is edging up.
By the way – I slow down students by playing with them. I have another piano in my teaching room.
Sheri R., California
I’m getting so much out of hearing people’s ideas on slowing students down. Thanks to whoever started this discussion!
One thing I have found that helps people play their playlist slower, at least in the lesson, is to designate a band leader each time one or more people begin to play. They clap out the three or four beats and if they clap too fast I just tell them to try again slower, which for some reason they easily do (rarely when I just say play slower do they slow down, they usually play softer!)
Everyone gets a turn at leading and it helps keep those involved who aren’t playing. The players learn how to internalize the beat and are really getting good at slowing down and playing evenly and staying together–not to mention the practice they get of finding their way back in without backtracking if they make a mistake. I’m definitely going to start incorporating many of the other ideas that have been brought up.