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!

Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.

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