Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Guitar Technical Practice: Metronome Slow-Play

Though this post is primarily about technical practice for the guitar, there is no doubt in my mind but that this method would apply equally well to winds, brass, strings, and keyboard instruments: Anything where finger dexterity and precision is required.

One of the challenges I had when I switched from steel string guitars - where I used primarily plectrum technique - to nylon string, was that I was already twenty-nine years old, and so I had many years of exercises and scales under my belt. I simply didn't have the time, nor did I have the inclination, to play studies and scales for several hours per day only to work on my right hand.

The problem with the Sor and Giuliani studies is that they aren't - by and large - of high enough quality as music to stand on their own: Not the sort of stuff I wanted to perform in my set. As far as scales are concerned: Been there, done that, they are a part of me on a very deep level; I simply wasn't going back to where I was at eighteen years of age.

So, I decided to set for myself some basic criteria: 1) If it isn't music, I won't play it; 2) If I don't want it in my set, I won't learn it; and 3) No scales! I needed some kind of technical studies, so I began to write my own, but they had to stand on their own as music or they went into the trash.

This held me back for a few years. My left hand was way ahead of my right hand. Then one afternoon while I was sitting in on a guitar masterclass, I heard Tom Johnson (Classical guitar teacher at UNT) mention the technique of slow-playing pieces with a metronome. He didn't go into any detail about how to apply the technique, but he said that it added a profound level of solidity to your playing and very precise coordination between the right and left hands. This made logical sense to me, so I decided to try it.

I was amazed to find that if I slowed a piece down more than a little below where I played it, it completely fell apart. Vanished. Couldn't do it! So, I started the metronome just a tad faster than the tempo where I performed the piece, and reduced the speed by a single, solitary click each time through the piece. Before too awfully long, I was able to get the pieces in my set down to half speed with this approach.

Tom was right: This method allows one to deeply memorize a piece, and the reduced speed allows for the minutest details of the fingering choreography to be worked out in exacting detail.

By this time, I had already composed quite a few technical studies for the guitar that passed my musicality test (And I still perform them in my set to this day), so I worked on them using this technique until I had it down to a relatively precise system.


Now, you couldn't pay me to have a music stand in front of me when I perform: I memorize everything. One reason is because reading off of sheet music behind a stand distances me from the audience (I don't care how good a guitarist is, I absolutely hate it when they hide behind a music stand). The other is that I'm a pretty sucky sight reader (I'll have to do a post about the abject inappropriateness of standard notation for the guitar at some point). Further, I've never understood how a performer can emote a superior interpretation when reading: I have to work on interpretations for years before I'm happy with them (Some pieces I wrote over ten years ago are still in the process of revealing themselves to me). Keep that all in mind as I explain the details of the method.


The first step is to memorize a piece to the point where you can simply play it comfortably along with the metronome. For an example, we'll say that our imaginary piece centers comfortably at 120 beats per minute.

1) Play the piece five times through at 120 BPM.

Once you can do this, the piece should have reached what I term an initial stage of memorization (Remember, you are doing this with no music in front of you). The next step is to start slowing it down. The following day, continue with step two.

2) Play the piece starting at 120 BPM, and reduce the tempo by 5 BPM each time through.

At some point in this process, the piece will fall apart and you will be unable to continue. This is good. It's actually the goal. When the piece falls apart, increase the speed of the metronome by 10 BPM and play the piece five times through at whatever that tempo ends up as (Even if it's back at 120 BPM). The third day (You should probably be doing this process with two to five pieces simultaneously, depending on how much time you have to practice), repeat step two.

When you can get the piece down to 60 BPM (Even if it's a little rugged down there), you will have reached a secondary stage of memorization: This is the point at which I feel comfortable adding a piece to my performance set. Note that at 120 BPM gowing down to 60 BPM will take you through the piece thirteen times. Think this will help solidify your memorization and help to prevent "brain-fade" train wrecks? You bet it will. Now you are ready for step three.

3) Play the piece starting at 120 BPM, and reduce the tempo by 10 BPM each time through, and 5 BPM from 65 to 60.

These larger chunks may cause the piece to fall apart again. If that happens, increase the metronome by 10 BPM and play the piece five times through at that point. When you can get this done comfortably, you'll be ready for the final formula.

4) Play the piece starting at 120, reduce 20 BPM to 100, then 10 BPM per rep to 65, and then 5 BPM from 65 to 60: Reverse process.

By the time you can get the piece from 120 BPM down to 60 BPM and back up again, you will not believe how deeply you know it, how solid your fingering choreography will have become, and how precisely coordinated your right and left hands will be. This is the third and final level of memorization that I call tertiary deep memorization.

I go through this process once when I add pieces to my setlist, and then through all of the pieces in my set once or twice a year. It has done wonders for my technique, my confidence as a performer, and my interpretations. Not only that, but at big, scary gigs - If I happen to get nervous (Hey: It happens) - I go into a kind of autopilot and the pieces seem to "automagically" play themselves. It's a weird feeling when you memorize a piece that deeply: You can daydream, people-watch, or whatever, and the music just happens. Of course, when I'm really "into it", I can wring every last ounce out of a piece in terms of emoting an interpretation too (For someone who basically sucks as a performer, that is).

To keep on top of single line playing without having to resort to scales, I just memorized a few cello and violin pieces, and I treat them the same as any other piece in my set: They all get the slow-play treatment, both with rest strokes and free strokes.

As a result, I never bother with anything that isn't music anymore. If you've been playing less than ten years, keep working on those scales, but use this metronome technique! You'll be amazed.

Being a contrarian, I simply think that overly obsessing on scales, arpeggios, and non-musical studies gets one to a point where the returns have diminished to such a degree that you become bogged down. This approach keeps my interest up because it directly and positively relates to my performing, and the returns are staggering and appear very quickly. It's not a do-it-once-and-it's-done kind of thing, as memory can fade over time (Even if you perform several times per week as I do), and that is why it's good to cycle through all of your rep once or twice per year. It certainly keeps me fresh and interesting... er... interested, I mean.



I was thinking of something else when I said "fresh and interesting"...


What brought this up is that starting in January I am going to go through this process with all the pieces in my set as I prepare to record them. On that point, this process can leave your interpretations kind of dry and mechanical after the first few times you do it, but that effect becomes less pronounced with each successive forray into the technique. Still, if you are performing or recording, it's best to wait a few days after doing this to let your interpretations re-assert themselves (The last three days before significant gigs, all of my practice is performing only).

2 Comments:

Blogger John Lanius said...

Hucbald,

That's actually a variation on a more-than-century old technique for learning the organ.

Here's the rule:

Play any new piece of music as slowly as it takes to play without making mistakes, even if it is a completely unmusical tempo. Play all voices (both hands and feet). NOTE: This differs significantly from the piano technique of practicing each hand alone and then combining.

You can use a metronome to reinforce the slowness, unless you are disciplined enough not to need one (I found after doing it for a year that I can now avoid the metronome for the most part).

Gradually speed up the piece, but maintain the constant tempo, even for the easier parts.

This is a great way to learn really wicked-hard pieces, and is the ONLY way to quickly coordinate hands and feet smoothly.

The moment that you bring the speed up to a truly musical tempo is always a thrill.

4:42 PM  
Blogger solitudex said...

That sure is insightful! I usually have problems too when I slow a piece down too drastically. =S

9:12 AM  

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