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How to practise slowing

Thursday, 13 April 2017 by Peter Shixiang Zhang, translated by Yan Tong, Carolyn Chen

Prof Zhang and student Sophia

Dear Ms Lv,

We quite often put great emphasis on slow practice.  However, what is slow practice? The main issue is not that the students do not want to practise slowly, but that they do not know how to.  Thus research is required to help students to understand what the slow practice is and how it is done. Only telling students in words to practice slowly is not enough.  For this purpose, I have made segmented videos performed slowly with metronomes to demonstrate the correct way of slow practice.

I recently taught the Mendelsohn Violin Concerto to a young student of mine.  This is a well-known work and the student was very eager to perform to me without much slow practice.  Afterwards, I felt furious after his performance because the student was eager to show-off, and had overlooked the process of slow practice and made many mistakes in the performance.  It has been hard to keep my temper, especially when it comes to students trying to cut through the process of practice and to make achievements without enough work.

Later I put a lot of thoughts into this situation. The student was familiar with the concerto and he also liked the work. To him this was the reason why he was so eager to perform the music, neglecting slow practice. This situation reflects a fact that most students do not have a clear understanding of how to practice and when it is poorly performed in the lesson, often parents would comment “He did not practice carefully at home!” In my opinion, it is not that the students do not want to practice carefully, rather they do not know how to practice correctly.  Therefore, as a teacher, we should help the students to solve this problem, give them clear strategy and order on how the right practice should be done.  I think I need to set up a concrete method for students to practice slowly. For this purpose, I segmented this concerto into 24 sections, filmed it with half of its full speed and uploaded on the website so that students can practice along with the recording at home. I think with this way students can learn this concerto well. I believe in the talents and abilities of my students. To them, the difficulty is they do not know how to translate the signs on the score into correct action. The 24 video clips I made for this Concerto focuses on helping them play the correct notes first.

I also tell my students, “when you make a mistake while practising, you must correct it straight away.” I think it is not enough to just tell them so. We should practice with them during our lessons. In this way, e could help our students develop the habit of correcting their mistakes straight away in their own practice.  Performing the music is the second step of practising. I want our students to understand:  the purpose of practice is to discover the correct performing actions of playing therefore the process must be slow, in short sections and repeated.  At this point in time, our focus will be on the actions rather than the music. Without the correct actions, the sound will not be correct hence we would not be able to perform the music. 

I hope you can join me to discover the use of modern technology to help our teaching. Use these 24 video clips to teach our students to play Mendelsohn Violin Concerto. The steps I take in my teaching are as follows:

First, I let the student who is to learn this piece to watch the video of violinist Mintz performing with the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Zubin Mehta. This can help the student develop the feeling of this concerto, appreciate its beauty and to understand that it is not an easy task to learn this piece well. Therefore, in order to learn it well in correct steps, the student will need to have patience and have confidence in themselves to achieve this outcome. 

Then, I help the student to practice following these 24 slow-performing videos. Two issues need to be solved at this stage. The first is to find out the appropriate practice speed, which is the speed that the student can follow the video without making mistakes. The advantage of the VLC software is the function to adjust the playing speed on demand. The second issue is finding out the difficult sections and keep practising them repeatedly. Our goal with this practice is to find the best action of playing, which is not easily fixed in one lesson, so the importance is to ensure student practices in the same way when they are practising at home. 

When this step is achieved, I would start the student on practising slowly with the recorded piano accompaniment. Then finally, once the student is able to play this concerto at a slow tempo with piano accompaniment, we will then start to compare our performances to the great violinist Mintz’s in sections, to learn his method of performance.

Yours Sincerely, 
Shixiang Zhang