How do we go from fumbling through a passage to spewing sonic poetry in as little time as possible? With efficient practice and the right tools.

Slow is Smooth, Smooth is Fast

Do you ever wonder why some players seem so fast with such little effort? "Slow is smooth, smooth is fast" is the key to efficient practice and ripping through blazing solos. It may sound a little counterintuitive, but that's why it's still the secret to mastering your instrument. Some of you may recognize this saying if you've had any firearms training. In fact, I got this brilliant little phrase from a former student and Illinois State Trooper. He simplified our day's lesson with this expression usually reserved for handling yourself in an intense shootout. Thankfully we will only be using it to sharpen our musical axes today.

When we practice, we are building our muscle memory. If we train our hands properly, we won't have to think about our fingers or patterns. Our hands will do all the heavy lifting so that we're free to pay more attention to the emotion of the song or how well we're grooving with the drummer. In order to absorb information into our hands quickly, we must practice slowly.

Why Slow Practice Works

Executing an amazing piece of music is all about developing muscle memory, and muscle memory is all about repetition. Our fingers remember whatever we've done the most amount of times, so if we want to master a technique, we must repeat it over and over again exactly how we want it to go, and our hands will do the work for us.

This also means if we continue to make the same mistake, our fingers remember that mistake. Fingers have no judgement of right and wrong; they only know repetition. The only way to minimize mistakes is to maximize proper execution. The only way to assure we're playing the passage perfectly is to play it SLOW enough that we have no doubt that every detail is right on, that way our fingers will remember properly. For every time we play a passage incorrectly once, we must play the same passage properly twice, otherwise our fingers remember that mistake. Once our fingers know the technique properly, playing fast comes more naturally.

The key to playing fast is to play relaxed and smooth. What limits our ability to play a passage quickly is not a lack of effort, but too much tension in our hands. If you push your hands to play faster, that applies more tension, which limits your ability to move fluidly, and fluidity is what translates to speed. Playing a passage as smooth as possible trains your fingers to remember to play it relaxed, so when you have to play the same passage quickly, the muscle memory allows your fingers to whip through the notes with very little effort. Once you have the physical ability to play fast, it no longer feels fast and your fingers just seem to go where they're supposed to.

Remember: Play everything as slow as you need to in order to play it right. Take a deep breath, take your time, and your fingers will learn much faster

Put it to Use

Pick a scale and set your metronome to 60bpm. For beginners, try playing a note every four clicks. This gives you time to be sure what's coming up next without feeling rushed. For more advanced players you might play one or two notes per click. This will seem fast to some, and very slow to others. The key is to find a pace that is absolutely comfortable. We are not pushing our limits just yet.

Play your scale five times in a row. If you execute the scale perfectly each time, bump the metronome up by 5bpm. If you make a mistake, try again. If you keep making mistakes, try knocking the metronome back by 5bpm and try again, and continue to adjust until you find your pace. Once you find the tempo that allows you to play the passage perfectly with very little effort and maximum fluidity, bump up your metronome by another 5bpm.

This can be more difficult than it sounds. Keep your ego in check and let your fingers lead the way. If you get frustrated, take a break, take a deep breath, and start over. Your goal is smooth. Fast is how it happens when you're relaxed.