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slow practice on classical guitar

How to Use Slow Practice For Classical Guitar

The I Ching is an ancient Chinese divination text used for personal guidance, much like astrology. There is one reading that proclaims: “Total collapse – very auspicious.”

The idea is that an upcoming failure should be welcomed eagerly and warmly. This counter-intuitive idea only makes sense if your main concern is the “long game”.

The implication is that you can

  • lose a battle to win the war.
  • take the knocks and be stronger in the long run.
  • take a small dose of poison to immunize against it.

It’s the classic marshmallow test.

One way to sign up for this “Total collapse – very auspicious” in your guitar practice is to embrace “slow practice”. Humbling and ever-demanding, it just may be your most productive practice tool.

The Anatomy of a Musical Breakdown

It happens every day:

  • You learn a piece a music.
  • You think everything is just so.
  • You play it through, and…
  • Something unexpected happens.
  • Something goes wrong – whether it’s a memory slip, a finger fumble, or a simple case of sloppiness.

So confusing. You had it, right? You could play it before. Why not now? What’s the problem here?

Your Music Never Stands Still

It’s not completely fair: painters and woodworkers have it too easy. If they build something today, they can reasonably expect it to still be built tomorrow morning.

But for those of us practicing music, it doesn’t work that way. Our ability to play a piece is liquid. “Set and forget” doesn’t apply.  We can learn or polish something today, and it may be gone tomorrow.  Two steps forward one step back.

Our pieces are either getting better, or getting worse. We’re either advancing forward or slipping back. Musical abilities are never static.

We’re either advancing forward or slipping back – never static.

If we practice a piece well every day, we can assume it’s getting better. If not, we can assume it’s slipping.

This is a bummer, but that’s the way it is. By its nature, music is ephemeral and fleeting.

The Benefits of Slow Practice on Guitar

One way we can ensure that our pieces continue to forward is to practice slowly.

Many players resist slowing down–especially beginners. This is understandable. Speed creates the illusion of perfection. And it’s much more fun to remain in the illusion of perfection than to slow down and realize how much is going wrong.

Speed creates the illusion of perfection.

Highlight the Fuzzy Spots

When we slow down, we have time to notice more note-by-note issues. Small sections are magnified. Small details are more evident.

Slow practice gives us the opportunity to notice where “fuzzy spots” appear. Fuzzy spots could be moments of confusion, inconsistent fingerings in either hand, or lack of musical clarity and understanding.

When we specifically seek out these fuzzy spots, we have the opportunity to eliminate them. And in addition to helping the piece, we grow as musicians and technicians (more on these later).

Finger Placement and Preparation

When we slow down, we can pay attention to how we place each finger.

We make music beautiful by connecting one note to the next, intentionally and with larger musical goals in mind.

We make music beautiful by connecting one note to the next, intentionally and with larger musical goals in mind.

Sloppy finger placement undermines the overall clarity and continuity of the piece. Buzzed notes and “foot shuffling” distract listeners from what’s important, and make us sound insecure. (Instead of enjoying the music, listeners are just praying we can make it through without any awkward crashes or memory slips. Not fun.)

Adios Muscle Memory

Have you ever had the experience of being able to play something fast, but unable to play it slowly? This often happens with memorized music.

Our “muscle memory” (kinesthetic memory) kicks in and our fingers just play the right notes. Muscle memory is wonderful, and we couldn’t play advanced music without it. But it can also be a trap.

Highly focused slow practice is extremely effective for training musical memory.

When we perform in front of people, our physiology changes. We may get a little nervous. We breathe shallowly, our shoulders rise, and our hands shake. These reactions change our musculature. And that means that our muscle memory is at risk.

This is why our pieces always “sound better at home”: Our muscle memory is at it’s best when we’re in our safe, comfortable practice space. We change that and muscle memory lets us down.

Slowing down in practice can void muscle memory, and require us to know the piece in some other way. Instead, we must rely on our

  • visual memory (of both our hands and the printed music),
  • aural memory (how the music sounds),
  • theoretical memory (how the notes relate to each other and to our wider musical knowledge and ideas).

Highly focused slow practice is extremely effective for testing and training all these aspects of musical memory. We can be confident in our memory if we’ve put it through the paces at a slow tempo (speed).

Training Habits of Appropriate Tension

We can play more expressively and fluidly by maintaining freedom in joints and muscles.

Also, when we slow down, we’re better at recognizing excess tension.

Likewise, when we play fast, it can be more difficult to recognize excess tension.

And how do we know how much tension is appropriate in the first place?

With slow practice, we can take the time to only use as much pressure or force as is absolutely necessary. This is true in our hands, and throughout the body.

Slow practice gives us the space to notice, for instance, if we’re curling toes, arching backs, or tensing tongues.  Over time, we notice the warning signs of excess tension more quickly. Then we can inhibit or release tension before it gets out of hand (excuse the pun).

We can play more expressively and fluidly by maintaining freedom in joints and muscles.

Slow Practice Lets Us Explore More Deeply

Perhaps the biggest advantage of slow practice is that it gives us the opportunity to explore our music more deeply.

We have time to notice relationships and patterns within the music. We have time to ask different questions, and seek better answers.

We can be more mindful of our bodies, and how we use our bodies to play guitar. We can experiment with subtle changes that would not be possible when playing faster.

And we’re forced to engage with the music (and our bodies) instead of “going on autopilot”. As a result, we learn the music more completely and become better musicians.

“Anything worth doing is worth doing slowly.” – Mae West

The Road to Better

Speed is a worthy goal. But a better goal is to constantly become a better overall musician and technician.

By becoming a better musician, you understand how music works. You’ve had experiences with music that you can draw from to solve problems and create compelling phrasing. You can advance to more complex music, and make mature musical decisions based on experience, experimentation, and higher expectations (musical standards).

When you become a better technician on the guitar, your hands and body can move with more grace, precision, and speed. Whatever challenges your creative musicianship poses, your technical prowess is up for the task. You can play more advanced music, and not be limited by your physical abilities.

Speed creates the illusion of perfection.

Conversely, if you only practice at high speed, your playing will probably be riddled with small mistakes, excess tension, and shallow musical ideas. You may not notice, but your listeners will. (Again, speed creates the illusion of perfection.)

Slow is Smooth, and Smooth is Fast

“Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.” This phrase is a Navy Seal slogan, and is also frequently quoted in martial arts circles.  It’s equally fitting for classical guitar.

Here’s an observation :

  • Many beginning guitarists want to be “good”.
  • But as a beginning guitarist, they don’t know what “good” is or how to attain it.
  • So they fixate on the most obvious deficiency: speed.

What they don’t recognize, and don’t hear, is that truly beautiful music is more than just fast–it’s also smooth. It’s well-phrased. It’s clean. It’s rhythmically precise. But we don’t know what we don’t know until we know it.

Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.

When we practice at slow tempos, we can create smoothness (increased awareness + musical intention). When we can play smoothly, we can then speed up more easily.

So How Slow Should You Practice?

If you have a piece of music memorized, try playing it at 75% of the performance tempo. This should be slow enough to disengage your muscle memory and force you to use your brain.

If that seems too fast, slow down even more. If you notice excess tension, slow down to the point where you can maintain appropriate tension.

If you’re in the process of learning a piece, only go as fast as you can play without mistakes. Let mistakes in either hand be the “red flag” that tells you to slow down.

Lastly, don’t assume a mistake was just a one-time affair. You’ll likely have the exact same mistake at performance tempo unless you slow down and figure out exactly where and why the confusion arose.

Use the Metronome if You Need To

While a metronome is not required for slow practice, it can be helpful.

Metronomes can keep you from speeding up unknowingly. And like a mirror, they can tell you when your rhythm is out of alignment.

On the other hand, metronomes are not inherently musical.

You’ll have to decide the main goal of your current practice, and choose the best methods to achieve it.

Start Today!

If you don’t already practice slowly, with intention and highly focused awareness, then today is the day to start.

You could read this article, take it as information, and then proceed as you did before.  But that’s silly.

Instead, take one of your best pieces, a scale, an exercise, or anything with which you feel comfortable, and practice it slowly. Use your full attention and notice everything you can about the music, your body, and your playing.

If it seems easy, slow down even more (“Hello, inner masochist…”).

Let your curiosity guide you, and seek your best qualities of movement, attention, and tone in every moment.

Leave a comment below and let us know how it goes. Good luck!

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29 Responses to How to Use Slow Practice For Classical Guitar

  1. Jac Greenlee June 26, 2018 at 11:53 am #

    Allen, great article. Speed is my nemeses. I have been working to practice slower to find the tension spots and then analyze why there is tension. Your article should be read daily before the practice as a reminder to the art of a great practice.

    • Allen June 26, 2018 at 11:58 am #

      Thanks, Jac!

  2. Jude January 27, 2018 at 12:21 pm #

    When I got my guitar I was so afraid of breaking it that I left it sitting on its stand while I simply got used to the idea of its existence. In order to stall getting started a little while longer I ordered The Principles of Correct Practice for Guitar and read it through (twice) – in Zero Guitar it’s referred to as “the underground classic,” but I didn’t know that or anything else about guitar at the time. The book goes heavy on s-l-o-o-w practice, starting with “no-tempo” playing, just concentrating on working out finger placement and moving from one position to the next, and then moving on to playing everything as whole notes at 60 bpm, and then speeding up at some torturously slow rate to the given tempo with your trusty metronome while remaining relaxed and tension-free at every step. I also stalled on getting restarted after a number of years by rereading the book and adding reminders to the practice log. Most of which I periodically forget about, of course, but the slow practice with the metronome at least was firmly embedded somewhere in the brain. I’m not sure I could stand to start with it if I’d been playing fairly successfully following some other method in the past.

  3. Robert January 16, 2018 at 5:14 am #


    AT 60 years old, I am coming back to the instrument. As a youth, I “played” guitar! Four years ago, I decided to play again. As soon as I picked the instrument up, literally all of the muscle memory errors that initially caused me to put it down came rushing back. I put it down again with a new resolve.
    Four years have passed. I am beginning again, hopefully with a fresh, unencumbered approach. I have actually only picked it up once this week. The rest of my practice time has been spent working on the practice space, the schedule, and doing hand and finger exercises. My goal is to pick up the guitar again next week, but in an entirely different way.

    Thank You for these videos. I do understand the commitment now. We have a long road ahead.


    • Allen January 16, 2018 at 12:16 pm #

      Thanks for the note, Robert.
      Best of luck with all your practice! It’s day by day for us all.

      Thanks again,

  4. Ed T. March 12, 2017 at 12:48 pm #

    Hi Allen. Great article. I want to say that the metronome is our friend. At one point I was learning to play Bass and finally started using a metronome. One important role of Bass players is as time keeper. It took some time but I finally got used to using the metronome. When I went back to CG I used the metronome from the beginning. As you said, slow playing helps me with left hand fingerings for fluid and logical chord changes. The metronome will not turn you into a robotic player.

    • Allen March 13, 2017 at 5:38 pm #

      Thanks, Ed. I agree wholeheartedly.

  5. Pete September 22, 2016 at 9:07 am #

    This does something very special.
    For years I have laboured to make progress. I thought I was doing slow practice but improvements were rare and I became more and more frustrated. I realise now what I was actually doing was slowly practising my mistakes. I have started isolating tiny elements even single notes and observing get precisely what I am doing in terms of placement tension and fingerings and I can see disproportionate results. My paying is beginning to sound the way I’ve always wanted it to. I even dared a performance the other night and was complimented on clean and eat playing.And today I found self actually composing because I had really listened to my playing games and it just lead me there.
    When I went back to other music I hadn’t practised in this way I could feel an enormous difference.So a massive thank you is in order.

    • Allen September 23, 2016 at 11:45 am #

      Thanks for the comment, Pete.
      I realise now what I was actually doing was slowly practising my mistakes.” – what a great observation. This is very common.

      Thanks again, it’s wonderful to hear you’re breaking through into new territory!

  6. Cadie September 20, 2016 at 1:33 pm #

    Wow Allen, this article is a revelation to me… I am playing guitar for 50 years now and, now you make me realise a lot of things and answer a big lot of questions I’ve been asking to me since the begining of my guitar quest… in my early guitar learning, the point of all the class was let say learn choros no.1 from Heitor Villa Lobos and play it as fast as possible just triing to play it like him. It use to be the target to get to. I am still playing this tune and still have consistency issues with it. Just now, I understand what is going on… Thank’s to you. So, now I will put this article in context in my practice and try to get rid of at least a few of my bad habits…

    Thank’s again,


    • Allen September 21, 2016 at 9:43 am #

      Hi Cadie, That’s great to hear!
      The Villa-Lobos is a goldmine for slow practice.

      Good luck!

  7. Richard Trubey August 24, 2016 at 9:16 am #

    You make the case so well. I will be slowing down. I will need to recall your article and numerous benefits to resist the temptation to speed away. Enjoy Iceland.

    • Allen August 26, 2016 at 12:00 pm #

      Thanks Richard, Good luck!

  8. Margreet de Brie August 22, 2016 at 2:29 pm #

    Today, the Belgian jazz legend Toots Thielemans died. All of us ‘ Low Countries’ are deeply saddened, but also deeply grateful for his music. Stories abound in the media, but one struck me to the core. A jazz musician wanting to learn the harmonica that Toots is famous for (he was also a virtuoso jazz guitarist), told about a lesson he took with Toots. Toots gave him a lot more than the hour. What struck me to the core was that Toots told him to play a single note for 10 minutes or more ‘ until you become that note’.

  9. Pete Howard August 21, 2016 at 1:22 pm #

    Yep! Like it.

  10. Paulette Hummel August 21, 2016 at 10:42 am #

    Used this technique with your study in C lesson today. I was finally able to focus on correcting my errors, not just identifying them. What a feeling of accomplishment! Thank you for all of your inspirational quotes-I look forward to your newsletters. Have a wonderful time on your vacation.

    • Allen August 21, 2016 at 1:30 pm #

      Wonderful! I love that feeling.
      thanks so much,

  11. cinde August 21, 2016 at 7:10 am #

    As always, your explanation of how we learn music is right on !
    This last month I got very determined to learn a piece that I really want to keep and enjoy forever. I examined each measure – one measure per day ! ( just a small portion of my practice time ). I discovered it was helpful to not start at the beginning measure – I started somewhere else, then joined measures – actually going backwards towards the beginning.
    I feel so confident in playing this piece, that I know I can enjoy it so much more!

    • Allen August 21, 2016 at 1:35 pm #

      Cinde, congratulations!
      I’ve also found it helpful to start later (or at the end) in the piece and work back. The other benefit is that when you perform, you are steadily moving into more familiar territory, which is good for confidence and comfort.

  12. W A Lampley August 20, 2016 at 11:40 am #

    Tai Chi

    I have noted in the past, as a Singer, that slow is less forgiving than fast.

    It is also less rewarding in the moment.

    “Wax On Wax Off”

    I am impatient. I must believe in the future result of “now”.

  13. Marcy August 20, 2016 at 8:17 am #

    Allen, I love your articles, and I can’t wait to start my slow practice. And, on another note (pun intended!), I am looking forward to hearing about your travel. My husband and I are planning our first visit to Iceland soon, and I can’t wait to hear your impression

  14. Michael Milller August 20, 2016 at 7:58 am #

    Best lesson yet!! You nailed it.

    • Allen August 20, 2016 at 8:00 am #

      Thanks Michael!

  15. Gil August 20, 2016 at 7:34 am #

    This is advice I heard in one way or another from several teachers. It’s not easy to really internalize though.

    Your post seems to really hit the nail on the head and I’m glad I read it!

    • Allen August 20, 2016 at 8:02 am #

      You’re right, Gil. It does take a little time to get comfortable and used to slow practice. But it is where solutions are found.

      Thanks much!

  16. Bish Wheeler August 20, 2016 at 7:21 am #

    I am sure you are correct Allen. I am playing Carcassi op 60 23 which is an absolute hoot to play. The problem is it seduces me into playing faster and faster which makes it full of errors. I’m going to take your advice and see if I can’t tame this thing.


    Bish Wheeler

    • Allen August 20, 2016 at 8:00 am #

      Good luck! Speed is quite the seductress….

      • Bish Wheeler August 21, 2016 at 10:24 am #

        Allen, I had time to burn yesterday so devoted about three hours, off and on, to make myself slow down. At one point I swear I was an 50% speed. I did help. Played the piece this morning and it was stitched together much better and the tricky parts were smoother. Not perfect mind you, but noticeably better. Thanks.

        Hope you are enjoying Iceland, beware the Akvavit.!

        • Allen August 21, 2016 at 1:30 pm #

          Thanks Bish,
          That’s great to hear! I’m glad to hear you put in the work and got the results.

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