Fast Practice Vs. Slow Practice: Which is Better?
In a previous post titled "How Many Repetitions Should You Do?," I mentioned that we should generally aim for no more than 3 to 5 corrective repetitions of any challenge where the majority end up being correct. I also mentioned that an exception to this guideline is fast practice, where we repeat a phrase at or near our goal tempo while making corrections.
Since fast practice doesn't give us time to aim as carefully as slow practice does, we naturally make more mistakes on the front end. So, it's logical to assume that by engaging in fast practice, we risk solidifying errors and consequently getting worse.
But, according to some wonderful research, cited by performance psychologist, Noah Kageyama, this is not the case as long as we don't just mindlessly repeat our phrases. It turns out that engaging only in slow and precise practice doesn't allow our bodies to incorporate all of the muscle groups necessary for fast movements, including those that require precision. Interestingly enough, starting slowly and gradually increasing our tempo doesn't get all the right muscle groups involved either. As a result, we can get very precise at slow to medium tempos but once we start inching closer to our goal tempo, precision will fall apart.
OK, but doesn't practicing fast sacrifice precision? Well, not necessarily. In fact, according to one of the studies cited by Kageyama, if we don't incorporate fast practice early on we risk sacrificing both speed and precision in the long run! 😮
That said, fast practice isn't a replacement for slow practice. Just like limiting ourselves to slow practice is detrimental to progress, exclusively engaging in fast practice has the same result. Fortunately, there's a solution!
In order for fast practice to be effective, it needs to be combined with three essential elements: 1) Strategic practice, 2) Spaced practice, and 3) Slow practice.
Strategic practice simply means that we need to make a conscious effort to correct every repetition before doing another one. In an excellent video on fast practice, guitarist Troy Grady points out that a key component to successful fast practice is to analyze our repetitions in order to reach our goals. Grady suggests that the main goal in fast practice is to get our fast movements to feel smooth and natural even if we make mistakes -- which we will make. If they feel tense and awkward, we should slow down a bit, make adjustments, and try again. He also suggests that the minimum speed for fast practice should be somewhere around 150 to 160 BPM (quarter note). Although I haven't found any research to support Grady's tempo suggestion, I have personally found this starting point to be about right for most people.
We also need to take plenty of micro-breaks after each repetition. These breaks give us time to analyze our repetitions, allow our brains to assimilate our analyses and corrections, and help us prevent injury. (NOTE: I made a video on the learning benefits of taking breaks in practice which you can check out here).
Finally, fast practice won't work unless we mix sprinkles of slow practice into our routine. For example, when we first learn a phrase of music, we need to do so slowly in order to memorize our fingering, rhythm, articulation, (etc.), and be able to play our phrase slowly and comfortably. That said, this initial slow practice should generally take no more than about five minutes at which point, we can jump right into fast practice. This means that the phrase we are learning needs to be very short.
For example, if I want to play the phrase below at a fast tempo, I need to start by learning the first 4-5 notes slowly. Once I can play them comfortably, I'll start practicing them at a fast tempo right away. Working on the first 4-5 notes of this phrase in this manner should only take about two minutes! I'll then continue the same process for the rest of the phrase.
In my personal experience, I've also found that slow practice is necessary when I make the same mistake in the same manner 2 to 3 times during fast practice. At this point, I'll slow down to analyze the challenge, find a solution, and try the solution twice at a slow tempo. If it works at the slow tempo, I'll try again at my faster tempo.
Like everything else, there is no single strategy for fast practice that works in every situation or for everyone. So here are my 3 favorites:
Slow-Fast / Fast-Slow
This is the strategy I mentioned earlier where we start slowly to learn a short phrase and immediately move to fast practice as soon as we have memorized our phrase and can play it smoothly at a slow speed. Again, it's absolutely necessary to make corrections during fast practice but if we repeat the same mistake 2 or 3 times, we need to slow down to analyze, adjust, and do 1 or 2 repetitions at a slow tempo before jumping back into fast practice. I often like to think of this kind of practice as hitting a nail with a hammer. We aim, do a couple of slow-ish reps., and then speed up. If we whack ourselves in the thumb or miss, we slow down briefly and repeat the same steps.
This is one of my favorite strategies for building both speed and accuracy simultaneously. It works by creating groups of short and long notes through the phrase we want to speed up. We start with 2-note groups and work our way up to 4, 5, or 6-note groups, depending on what we feel we need. Here are examples of what the groups look like:
2 Notes: Short, long
2 Notes: Long, short
3 Notes: Short, short, long
3 Notes: Long, short, short
4 Notes: Short, short, short, long
4 Notes: Long, short, short, short
The key to this strategy is to make our short notes as short as possible and our long notes long enough to allow us to analyze, problem-solve, and prepare our next group of short notes. Violinist, Nathan Cole put together an excellent video that shows us exactly how to use note-grouping in practice.
Fast Chaining + Decreasing Tempo
In the fast chaining portion of this strategy, we chain the notes of our phrase together, one at a time, at or near our target tempo (e.g., BPM = 150) until we complete the phrase. We can chain our notes together in a forward direction, backward direction, or from the middle outward in either direction. For example:
Forward Chaining: A → A+B → A+B+C → A+B+C+D
Backward Chaining: D → C+D → B+C+D → A+B+C+D
Middle Chaining: C → B+C → B+C+D → A+B+C+D
We do this, despite the fact that our phrase may not sound completely clean at our fast tempo. The main goal here is to be able to get our fingers to move smoothly and naturally, despite mistakes.
This leads us to the second part of the strategy, which is to decrease tempo 1 BPM at a time until we reach a tempo where we can play our phrase smoothly and naturally without mistakes. For example, BPM = 160, 159, 158, 157, 156, 155.
Just like both previous strategies, here we also need to take time to problem-solve between repetitions. Trombonist Jason Sulliman put together an excellent video that shows exactly how he uses this strategy in his practice. Notice how he verbalizes his analyses between reps.
If you're going to try any of these fast practice strategies, make sure that you prioritize natural and smooth (i.e., relaxed) movements. Accuracy needs to be a secondary goal. If you do feel tense during any of these exercises, you need to decrease your tempo a little bit until you do not feel tense.
Remember that fast practice will initially result in more errors, this is OK so long as you are actively problem-solving after every repetition and making progress. If you make the same error 2 or 3 times, you will need to slow down to correct it before trying another fast attempt.
Keep your amount of repetitions low. I recommend no more than 2-3 fast attempts for each new challenge where the last 1-2 repetitions are correct or almost correct. If they are not correct, slow down and try again. Do not do any more than three sets for any challenge spot (i.e., 3 sets of 2-3 repetitions).
Please let me know in the comments (at the bottom of the page here) if you found these strategies helpful.
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