Dangers of Slow Play - pitfalls of the intuitive method

Repetitive slow play can be harmful when starting a new piece. We stated in section II.1 that playing slowly, and gradually ramping up the speed, is not an efficient way to practice piano. Let us examine this procedure to see why. We are assuming that the student is just starting the piece and does not yet know how to play it. In that case, the slow play will be very different from the way it should be played at speed. When you start, there is no way of knowing whether the slow play motion you are using is right or wrong; in section IV.3, we show that the probability of playing incorrectly is nearly 100%, because there is almost an infinity of ways to play it incorrectly but only one best way. What is the probability of accidentally hitting that one correct way out of an infinity of possibilities? Practicing this wrong play does not help the student to play correctly or faster. When this wrong motion is speeded up s/he will hit a speed wall, resulting in stress. Assuming that this student succeeded in changing the playing so as to avoid the speed wall and succeeded in increasing the speed in increments as the speed is ramped up, s/he will then need to unlearn the old way and then relearn this new play, etc., and keep repeating these cycles for each incremental increase in speed until s/he reaches the final speed. Finding all these intermediate methods of play by trial and error can take a lot of time. Let's look at a concrete example of how different speeds require different motions. Consider the horse's gait. As the speed is increased, the gait goes through walk, trot, canter, and gallop. Each of these four gaits usually has at least a slow and fast mode. Also, a left turn is different from a right turn (the leading hoof is different). That's a minimum of 16 motions. These are the so-called natural gaits; most horses automatically have them; they can also be taught 3 more gaits: pace, foxtrot, and rack, which likewise have slow, fast, left, and right. All this, with only four legs of relatively simple structure and a comparatively limited brain. We have 10 very complex fingers, much more versatile shoulders, arms, and hands, and an infinitely more capable brain! Our hands are therefore capable of performing many more "gaits" than a horse. Ramping up a slow play in piano is like making a horse run as fast as a gallop by simply speeding up the walk -- it just can't be done because as the speed increases, the momenta of the legs, body, etc., change, requiring the different gaits. Therefore, if the music requires a "gallop", the student ends up having to learn all the intervening "gaits" if you ramp up the speed. You can easily understand why inducing a horse to walk as fast as a gallop would encounter speed walls and induce tremendous stress. But that is exactly what many piano students are trying to do with the intuitive method. What happens in practice is that the student does not end up acquiring the skill to walk as fast as a gallop, but accidentally stumbles on a trot as the walk is accelerated. Now a riding horse does not think, "hey at this speed, I have to canter"; it responds automatically to a rider's signals. Thus you can get a horse to make a left turn canter using right turn footing, and injure the horse. Therefore, it requires the superior intelligence of a human brain to figure out the horse's gait although it is the horse that is executing it. It works the same way with the piano, and the student can easily get her/imself into trouble. Although the human student is more intelligent than a horse, the number of possibilities that s/he faces is staggering. It takes a superior brain to figure out which are the best motions among the almost infinite variety that the human hand can perform. Most students with normal intelligence have little idea of how many motions are possible unless the teacher points this out to them. Two students, left to their own devices and asked to play the same piece, will be guaranteed to end up with different hand motions. This is another reason why it is so important to take lessons from a good teacher when starting piano; such a teacher can quickly weed out the bad motions. The point being made here is that, in the intuitive method, the student is guaranteed to pick up any number of bad habits before getting up to speed. The entire practice procedure ends up as a disastrous experience that actually hinders the student from progressing. This is especially true if the two hands have been locked together by extended HT practice. Trying to un-learn a bad habit is one of the most frustrating, stressful, and time consuming tasks in piano practice. A common mistake is the habit of supporting or lifting the hand. In slow play, the hand can be lifted between notes when the hand weight is not necessary. When speeded up, this "lift" coincides with the next keydrop; these actions cancel, resulting in a missed note. Another common error is the waving of the free fingers -- while playing fingers 1 and 2, the student might be waving fingers 4 and 5 in the air several times. This presents no difficulties until the motion is speeded up so fast that there is no time to wave the fingers. In this situation, the free fingers do not generally stop waving automatically at faster speeds because the motion has been ingrained by hundreds or even thousands of repetitions. Instead, the fingers are asked to do the impossible -- wave several times at speeds they cannot attain -- this creates the speed wall. The trouble here is that most students who use slow practice are generally unaware of these bad habits. If you know how to play fast, it is safe to play slowly, but if you don't know how to play fast, you must be careful not to learn the wrong slow playing habits or to end up wasting tremendous amounts of time. Slow play can waste huge chunks of time because each run-through takes so long. The methods of this book avoid all these pitfalls.