Slow Piano

This article on the Piano Addict blog interested me, not least because I feel we spend far too much of our lives these days trying to do things at high speed, without allowing ourselves time to stand still and think, or to look up occasionally to admire a beautiful sunset or starlit sky, or to listen – to the birds singing in the garden, or the beauty and intricacy of a Bach Chorale. Or to just sit quietly and do nothing, even for just a few moments

As a foodie as well as a pianist, I have an interest in the Slow Food Movement and concur with many of  its values. And like the author of the Piano Addict article, I think similar values could be applied to the way we play the piano, teach the piano, and study and listen to music.

Many, many teachers, practitioners, mentors and students advocate “slow practice”, playing a piece at half-tempo, or slower, to allow one time to examine all its elements, and to consider and learn them properly. When I’m teaching – and the majority of my students are quite young children – I find that students want to rush headlong into pieces, and to be able to play everything that is put before them very fast and (too often!) very loud. Children (and some adults) often do not have the patience or the understanding to take time to acquaint themselves properly with the way the music is constructed, to look for the composer’s signposts, and to consider, before playing a single note, the kind of sound, mood and character that the music requires.

Lately, I have been trying to apply my own admittedly rather cerebral approach to music to my students, and the first thing we do on encountering a new piece, is to study it. “Have a look through this and tell me if there is anything in there you don’t understand, don’t like the look of, or want to ask me about….” is usually how we start. This very basic analysis will, I hope, set my students on a learning path that will ensure they take time to study the music before actually putting their fingers and hands on the keyboard. It allows important “thinking time” and, for the more advanced musician, is an essential part of the process of learning new work. As an aside, I also do a lot of contextual reading and listening, especially if I am embarking on a piece by a composer whose oeuvre is relatively new or unknown to me (such as Olivier Messiaen).

Slow practice is often the only way to tackle tricky or rapid passage work, awkward chord progressions, or uncomfortable fingering; it is also the best way to become really intimate with a piece of music, to understand the composer’s intentions and to examine all the interior architecture of the work. Listen to Perahia or Gould playing Bach, and you can hear from the way the music is played that these pianists (and they are not alone) have taken the time to understand the interior structures, textures and colours of the music.

During my lesson this week, my teacher suggested practising the trickier parts of the Bach Toccata (BWV 830 from the 6th Partita) I am learning “in the manner of a Chopin Nocturne”. I was amazed at the difference this made, not just to the sound but also to the feel of the music under the fingers: my hands and arms were instantly more relaxed, more languid (but no less alert), as Bach’s Baroque arabesques were transposed to a 19th-century Parisian salon. Bach is always beautiful, but played like this, it was really beautiful (especially played on my teacher’s lovely antique Bechstein). Practising the piece at home yesterday, the effect was the same (despite the noise of a drill outside). In the end, I played the entire piece in this way, and I will continue to practise it like this until all the awkward passages are secure, and I can play them accurately and in a more relaxed manner.

I was struck by the need for Slow Piano techniques in my studio, not just for myself, but also for my students, when a parent asked me recently if it would be possible to “fast-track” her child to Grade 4 by the time applications have to be made to senior school (in eighteen month’s time; apparently, this may secure a music scholarship to a local private school). It reminded me of my own learning, at roughly the same age as the child in question, when I was on an “exam treadmill”. As soon as one grade was passed, I would embark on the syllabus for the next one. What I should have been doing was playing and enjoying repertoire to bridge the gap between grades for a few months, something I have been doing with a number of students who have recently passed Grades 1 and 2.

So, maybe Slow Piano is all about taking time to enjoy and savour the music we are studying, playing for pleasure, and listening to, and encouraging others to do the same. And the only competition is with oneself, to achieve perfection, through slow, meticulous and thoughtful practise. It’s a big ask, but one that is definitely worth pursuing.

With that in mind, I’m off for some slow piano practise of my Bach Toccata……………that is, when I’ve fed the cats, made a cake, and prepared dinner for tonight, had my hair cut and written out some music for lessons later…..

Sviatoslav Richter demonstrating “Slow Piano”  techniques in Schubert’s Sonata D894 – one of the most thoughtful readings of this sonata I know. The opening movement is marked molto moderato….

1 Comment

  1. Yes- taking time to savor the music is very ‘Slow’. Even those whose learning preferences lean toward getting the big picture first and getting in there and getting their hands dirty, need to know when to stop and get out what Anne Lamott calls the 1 inch picture frame.
    Glad you liked my tag line:)

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