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Piano Instruction: The Virtues of Slow Motion Practicing and Attentive Listening

It takes patience to approach a piece well behind tempo, tuning in to every nuance and turn of phrase. With ears alert and sensitive, the player tries to create a feeling state where he’s submerged in sound to the exclusion of all else. At the pinnacle of concentration, he’s “in the zone,” attaining Maslow’s “peak experience.”

A practicing Utopia, for sure.

In reality, most piano students, especially the younger ones, race to the instrument when they can–sandwiching in twenty or so minutes between sports practice and homework time. (Don’t forget the quick snack on the run) And when they finally sit down in front of an assigned page of music, they’re stressed, hurried, and far from having presence of mind.

In a frenzied state, the pupil races through a scale or piece, gets trapped in a note, stops, and immediately lunges to play everything over. The results are predictable. The same crashes and new problems.

Adult students, equally stressed out by their busy and crowded work schedules, might come to a lesson so wired, that it takes the first twenty minutes of lesson time to slow them down. And the key word is slow.

In our technological age with high speed connections encompassing all communications, to think below the radar screen at a more relaxed pace is not considered a virtue. Everyone wants to depress a key and move on to the next image or application.

In the practicing environment this fast and furious rate of transition will not apply because piano study demands a parceled, step-wise approach to each piece that has its own unique learning curve. You can’t bundle it, stamp it and send it off perfectly packaged with an overnight deadline. Operating in the Beat the Clock mode is counter-productive.

SLOWING DOWN and savoring each note is true gratification, not delayed or postponed, unless the player believes that rushing achieves something better, and I can guarantee that in most instances, it doesn’t. In this “connection,” students will insist that they can play a piece well very fast but not slowly. Having heard the results of a briskly played piece that hadn’t had a step-wise, graduated preliminary approach in slow motion, I found that phrases were not shaped, depth into keys was lacking, and the music whizzed by without making an emotional impression. That’s not to mention, starts and stops caused by slap dash fingerings.

So what does slow motion, attentive practicing involve and accomplish?

1) It requires relaxation, and a calm, patient, non-judgmental frame of mind.

2) It presumes an acceptance of where the player is, without a value attached. Not knowing a piece as yet with a firm knowledge should usher in a period of wide-eyed exploration, ear opening, and full body awareness. Evelyn Glennie, percussionist, said it well. “Whole body listening” is the desired paradigm for music learning and expression.

3) An attentive listener molds phrases in slow motion with an underlying beat that is steady but sized down. He gets “in touch” with shapes and contours that would otherwise elude him. The finger tips, wrist, elbows and arms form a continuum of uninterrupted motion. The player tunes in to what it “feels” like to achieve a comfortable depth into the keys, sensing his connection to each and every note while dynamics are explored with weight transfer and a supple wrist. “Muscular memory,” a concept I will explore in another writing, has its best chance to take hold and permeate each and every practice session in a relaxed tempo environment.

4) Slow motion practicing gives ample space and time to assign fingerings that realize what is notated in the music. Experimentation with different fingerings gives a clearer idea of what best realizes a smooth, legato line, a crisp staccato section or a combination of both.

5) In a relaxed time frame, a student can study individual voices, shape and balance them, and be aware of their melodic and harmonic dimensions.

6) Playing well behind tempo means that time is suspended, and there are no deadlines to meet. This should reinforce a presence of mind that allows for information to flow into consciousness, be processed and then synthesized with the affective way of knowing. (emotional expression)

7) Achieving “oneness” with the piano, is part of the slowing-down process. Breathing long breaths as phrases unfold, and experimenting with breath control at cadences help nudge a student into the “zone,” at the peak of musical gratification.

Slow, whole body, attentive listening lays down the foundation for advancing tempo when the right time comes, not one note too soon. It should be a joyous and pleasurable journey when it begins and as it progresses along.

Recommended: Just Being at the Piano by Mildred Portney Chase

Video: Evelyn Glennie on “Whole Body Listening”

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