The weekend in Edinburgh during the Festival was mostly spent at the piano but that’s not to say it was not a productive one. After a week of classes and lessons it was great to have two days to do some extended work and get ready for the performance I gave this morning. After playing the Fauré Nocturne to the class Kenneth set the task – amongst other niggles about my playing – to work through the piece at the shortest note value in the piece, which is the semiquaver. Setting the metronome at a value between 70 and 100 – which Kenneth says is a good range to use as it’s similar to a heart beat – one should work at achieving a high level of control by practising at this slow speed. It can feel incredibly slow but initial attempts show that slowing the playing process down to such a degree allows very detailed work to take place and the tempo allows one to be in complete conscious control of what is played. If errors occur then the speed is too fast and should be reduced until control is achieved. This is the starting point and through subsequent repetitions of a passage can the speed be gradually increased, at all times attempting to maintain control. At all times one is checking whether the quality of sound, fingering and balance are accurate and not allowing inaccurate attempts to persist.
I think of slow practice as working in slow motion as I think it is important not to lose sight of the desired performance tempo. Of course it is not the only practice strategy and not suited to all repertoire – a faster work would need working at a certain speed to learn the necessary physical movements to capture the gestures as a slower tempo would iron out the difficulties in some works (such as leaps). Ultimately the goal of practice should be to prepare a secure performance through work that removes errors from the outset. Practice should not be about ironing out mistakes and the much known quote “amateurs practice until they get it right, professionals practice until they can’t get it wrong” seems fitting.
Composing and practice have something in common for me. Both require careful planning and not always subject to inspiration. We are not always in a position where we can wait for inspiration to strike and motivate us to write or practice. Through the course one gets into working for several hours a day and this might not be possible upon my return to teaching but Kenneth’s teaching has instilled in me a work ethic that maximises whatever time one has to practice to achieve not only fluency in the performance of the pieces studied but a progressive development of the major components of one’s technique. His approach constantly models how one would practice the difficulties faced in repertory and his suggestions often develop into technical exercises. With planning one can include the necessary technical work and preparation of repertoire in whatever time there is available.