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Slow, Medium, and Fast Practice: Finding the Right Speed to Improve Your Playing

Updated: May 25, 2020

It can be a challenge to ensure that the tempo you have chosen to practice at is the right fit to improve your playing, whether working on scales, arpeggios, or a piece of music. In this post, I want to focus on how to dial in the metronome to a speed that works best for each practice situation.

The Advantages of the Slow, Medium, Fast Workout

By taking the tempo of the piece at a slow, medium, and fast pace, you will be able to take advantage of the benefits that each of the tempi have to offer. Those benefits are:

  • Slow tempo: This is the only speed that someone can work on improving playing technique and is the best pace to sight-read a piece. This is also a good pace to workout tricky rhythms and it can force you to make sure the pulse is extremely accurate.

  • Medium tempo: This is the speed that you should perform pieces and is a great tempo for establishing the "feel" of a particular piece.

  • Fast tempo: Practicing at a faster tempo is great for pushing the boundaries of your technique, showing where the weaknesses of your technique lie, and can actually promote relaxation at lower tempi.

Getting Started on the Metronome

When working with a metronome, it is important to first establish what speed you need to start practicing. To establish this tempo, first play the piece or scale you will be working on at a speed where you can play the whole passage with decent tone and consistent rhythm. This is your starting tempo. Practice the piece at this tempo a few times to get a feel for this speed.

Starting Slow

Once you have found a good starting tempo, turn down the metronome around 20-50% from where you started. At this speed, all of the nuances of your playing will become noticeable and you will be able to focus on your muscle movements, as well as how accurately you are feeling the pulse as you play.

Any tension that you feel at this speed, any deviation from the desired rhythm, and any moments of lackluster tone will be magnified at the higher tempo and can most easily be corrected at this speed. Take your time to count tricky rhythms out loud and isolate strange passages. Most of all: relax! Play this as if it were the easiest thing you have ever played, and do your best to maintain this feeling all the way up through the faster tempi.

Heading Back to Medium

As you move the metronome back to the initial speed, focus on what you would want out of a performance of the piece you are working on. You would want the music to be controlled but also at a tempo that is lively enough to be interesting.

By practicing music at a moderate tempo, you are practicing music in the perfect tempo for performance. Getting used to the feel of this timing and trying to play for longer stretches of time as opposed to the short bursts we will use in the faster tempi can help us improve our sense of "playing in the pocket."

As the primary purpose of practice is to enhance our performances, most of our practice time should be spent playing at this tempo.

Moving Along to a Fast Tempo

Imagine if your dream was to become a world class weight lifter. No one would recommend that you stick with small weights forever! But so often, we as musicians stick within our comfort zone, playing licks at speeds we know we can.

As musicians, it is important to push the boundaries of our playing. This includes spending some time working at tempi that make us feel uncomfortable. The advantage of working at a faster tempo is it can make us feel more comfortable with more moderate tempi, making us even more at ease when we perform. It also helps us feel more comfortable at higher speeds.

When practicing at higher speeds, be sure to practice in "bursts" of speed, focusing on a measure or two at a time. You will not be able to play at these faster tempi accurately for as long of a duration as you were able to play at the moderate tempi. Therefore, be sure the section you are focusing on is sufficiently short; otherwise, you will likely lose the pulse as you play.

In addition, make sure not to move the metronome up too much too fast. Going back to the weight lifter analogy, if we attempted to bench press 250lbs when our previous best was 145lbs, the most likely outcome is injury. Make sure to be cautious when jacking up the tempo to not develop bad habits that can affect the rest of your playing!

Lastly, it is a good idea to end every practice session in the medium-to-slow range. It helps to have the positive reinforcement of playing a piece of music well at the end of a tough practice session!

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