Many musicians spend their early years of training – and maybe some of the later years – fighting a cold, hard fact about their practice habits: the slow way is the fast way.
Slowness is the magic ingredient that makes the idea of repetition valuable. When a singer or an instrumentalist is learning new music, there’s usually a good amount of repetition involved in practice, in order to make “perfect”. The catch is, “perfect” doesn’t come after a certain number of repetitions; it comes after a smart use of those repetitions. Just like when you re-read a paragraph over and over without actually knowing what it says, mindless practice can go on for eons if there’s no sense to the repetitive work.
That’s where slowness comes in. It’s the great magnifying glass, the exposer of weak spots. It’s in slow practice that you find the crux of the problem, the ignored detail, the missing piece that makes the difference between a section of music that’s hit-and-miss, and one that’s consistent like a Swiss watch.
Of course, while you’re being very tortoise-like with your work, it can feel like the progress you’re making is too slow. To keep you thinking positively, and working well, there are three things to keep in mind as you plod along:
IDENTIFY WHAT YOU’RE FIXING
Are you dealing with some tongue-twisting text? Stick to speaking instead of tiring yourself out with sung repetitions. Figuring out the mystery of a strange and unfamiliar rhythm? Subdivide like a mathematician. Are you navigating a dizzying headache of coloratura? We’ve got you covered.
Whether you’ve got one or many issues to solve, tackle them one at a time, and trust that you’re not spending too much time doing so. On a related note…
KEEP THE PIECES SEPARATE, FOR LONGER THAN YOU THINK
If you’re dealing with a page of music that has weird rhythms, complicated coloratura, and a hellish bit of text, you might be tempted to mash all three elements together in your slow repetitions. Resist! Spend your time working on the difficult elements as individual tracks. It might feel like you’re spending double or triple the time you could be spending working on a single section of music, but combining text, notes, and rhythm that you only kinda know will slow down your overall progress at best, and solidify bad habits at worst.
DON’T WORRY ABOUT GETTING THINGS A TEMPO
It’s easy to say to yourself, “well sure, I can do it at 30 bpm, but what good does that do me when the tempo is marked prestississimo??” While you make a good point, getting up to a tempo is a detail that can only ever be achieved by knowing the music really, really well. All that slow practice has shone a light on the difficult corners and the problematic consonant clusters that would otherwise keep you from getting that line of music a tempo. Once that work is done, you get to do the great grand finale of any practice session: slowly (really, go slowly!) turn your metronome up notch by notch, until you’re a prestississimo pro.