Last week I had a dream. It was the afternoon of a performance with the New Mexico Philharmonic, in which I had to play two concertos. My mother was asking a lot of questions about my dress. The members of Voces8, the British a cappella group, were in my house eating and drinking and making a mess. Suddenly I remembered that on the way to the concert I had to give a TED Talk on “The Life-Changing Magic of Practicing.” I went to get my notes and realized that I had not yet written the talk. Somehow in the midst of this madness, I discovered that I had an appointment with the gynecologist. When I got to the doctor’s office, I ran into my friend in the waiting room. “Laura,” I said, “can I take your appointment so I can get to the concert on time?” “No way, “ she replied, “if I do that I’ll be late to the concert myself.”
What’s really alarming about that dream is that I do, in fact, have every one of those things on my calendar this month. Except the gynecologist appointment. Although I could be wrong about that. I did play two concertos with the New Mexico Philharmonic a couple weeks ago. My mother was indeed worried about my dress. Our dear friends from Voces8 are here this week, and yes, they are often in our house eating and drinking. Saturday I am giving a speech on practicing at a quasi-TED Talk day at the University of New Mexico Prep School. No wonder I am having anxiety dreams.
When life gets too full generally, the harried pace starts to affect the tempo of my waking thoughts and actions from minute to minute, giving me a bad case of ADD. I catch myself interrupting students and beginning my feedback before they have finished playing the last note. My practicing gets scattered and unfocused; I get up and wander aimlessly through the house between musical repetitions without quite realizing what I’m doing. Halfway through returning an email, I find myself randomly watering plants or putting glasses in the dishwasher.
One of the obvious antidotes to this tendency toward ADD behavior is to slow down. Various slow movements—slow living, slow food—have been around for a while now; perhaps it is time for practicing to join the bandwagon. Of course, slow practicing is nothing new; goodness knows that every music teacher on the planet screams, “slow down!” at least ten times a day. That old musician’s standby, the metronome, slows us down to be sure, but often I resist its forced rigidity. After all, sometimes I don’t necessarily simply want slow, I want slow and thoughtful, which doesn’t necessarily mean metronomic. What I really want is slow on steroids, notes and rhythms stretched beyond recognition.
In 1987, John Cage wrote a piece for organ called Organ/ASLSP (As SLow aS Possible). A performance of this piece in Halberstadt, Germany began on September 5, 2001, with a rest lasting 17 months. The whole performance is scheduled to last 639 years, ending in 2640. That’s slow.
Slow practice, or Slo-mo as we call it in the studio, means different things to different students. Usually slo-mo is not really very slow at all, unfortunately, but occasionally a kid will be very taken with the idea. At least for five seconds before he get bored and resumes his previously frantic speed.
Slow Practice is a hard practice and not for the faint of heart. It’s difficult to slow down; our impatience and our busyness rule the day, forcing us into faster and faster modes of thinking and doing. Slow—really slow—is as uncomfortable as it is enlightening, which is probably all the more reason to do it. Taking time, loads of time, many seconds per sound or movement, forces us to really examine what we are doing, builds brain and muscle connections in new ways, blows apart our preconceived expectations. How did I really get from this chord to that one? What happens in between this motive and that one? What is that left hand actually doing during that strange transitional passage? When we slow down and really notice our work, we start to learn the answers to these kinds of questions, changing not just our music or our performances, but our very selves, in subtle and profound ways.