Living Beyond the Notes
Written by ANDREW EALES
”Often we find ourselves in trouble simply because we are going too fast, disregarding signs of trouble that we would have seen if only we had been going a little slower.
All too often we get caught up in the rush; our whole culture is based on it. Get ahead! Do it now!
Sometimes the right thing to do is not to do anything.”
Solala Towler, Cha Dao (Singing Dragon, 2010)
These comments (which are taken from a book about the preparation and consumption of tea) offer golden advice which can be applied to pretty much any aspect of our lives. No wonder so many of us feel completely worn out most of the time!
For our purposes, I want to touch on the value of taking our time in two areas:
• firstly teaching and learning
• and then our personal piano practice…
Teaching & Learning
The idea of a fast-track approach to learning piano inevitably appeals. Everybody seems to want results, no matter whether shortcuts are taken.
The commercially-minded teacher will inevitably be keen to meet parental expectations, satisfy pupil ambitions and impatience, and demonstrate that their students have “achieved” above and beyond the norm (whatever that is).
Taking the fastest route, shortcuts and all, doesn’t bode well for the player’s future, however. Secure foundations in aural development, creativity, technique and notation-reading are all essential for balanced, ongoing progress; sadly it is often left to a later, better teacher to more methodically fill in the cracks previously papered over.
It is only as we slow down that proper understanding takes root.
When players (or those around them) get caught up in a frantic rush towards “completing” the next music book, level, grade exam, audition or competition, then taking care to develop a holistic, lasting engagement and appreciation of music can easily get lost.
In piano playing, there is no finishing line. If we fail to enjoy each step of the piano journey, savouring its full potential, then we have perhaps completely missed the point. Instead of looking for a quicker route to success, we should be asking:
Slow progress: is there truly any other kind?
If the teaching and learning of the piano represent the macrocosm of the race towards progress, our personal practice sessions are the microcosm. And it’s here most of all that we can happen upon a window into our true thoughts and attitudes towards our piano journey.
Discovering how slow motion practice can (ironically) accelerate progress was one of the big discoveries of my own piano playing journey. I rarely practice any other way now, and rarely need to.
I now regard playing a piece up to speed as playing, the slow-motion work as the actual practice; following this model, it should perhaps be admitted that few piano players practice at all! When I ask students to play more slowly, they very often can’t. This suggests that they are relying on kinaesthetic memory rather than being more mindfully engaged in their own music-making.
How slow is slow?
My advice is to play just a little slower than is usual or more comfortable.
If we are aware that our playing is slightly slower than usual, it seems to flip a switch that allows us once more to properly engage with our playing.
Just as t’ai chi and Piano Qigong allow us to reconnect with the quality of our own movements, so too slow piano practice seems to facilitate and develop more effective, efficient, controlled piano playing. It is the route to security.
And … Rest!
Solala Towler concludes his point by suggesting that sometimes the “right thing to do is not to do anything”.
This speaks to the value of rest. In an article a while ago I mentioned recent research which shows that our piano playing can continue to improve between practice sessions, for example overnight while sleeping.
It’s surely important to note this extraordinary link between activity and progress: we may think that the one leads to the other, but that is often not the case!
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4 thoughts on “Slow Progress”
“sometimes the “right thing to do is not to do anything”.” Thank you, I needed that today. At least on some issues.
I resonated so much with your article! Sometimes I can get too impatient. Really needed to read this today. Thanks for your great writing! ☺️
Thank you for re posting this article. I intended reading it the first time round but didn’t get chance. Everything mentioned here is so true and resonates with how I am encouraging both my pupils and myself to approach especially learning new music. This method really does work like magic. However, I agree it certainly is a challenge to even encourage this slow approach, but when the individual feels it working for them, a hurdle and a crucial lesson has been learnt. I remind my pupils that everything is possible in slow motion!
We all like that concept! A brilliant article well done.
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