I took jazz guitar lessons with the late Sal Salvador for about three years. He taught me an extremely valuable practice technique that I call “Slow Fast Slow Faster.”
Step One: Pick out about four to eight bars from a song you’re working on
Your target should fall into one of the following categories:
- A difficult transition
- A part where your fingers get all tangled up
- A rhythmic hairball
- A difficult run with weird notes
- Lots of chords changing quickly
If the part of the music you want to practice is too long this exercise will only be discouraging, so choose short sections. Even then, you might need to work on the same section over several days.
Step Two: Using a metronome, figure out what tempo you can play to without error
Learn how to play the section slowly and without any errors. This may take some doing, and you may need to practice it without a metronome before starting this step. But it’s important to know that it doesn’t matter HOW SLOW it has to be.
Once you can play it slowly and without error, determine your starting tempo. You might have to set the click to the eighth note or even the sixteenth note. Let’s say your chosen tempo is = 60, and your goal tempo is = 132. (If you don’t have a metronome or don’t know how to use one, see Ted Ervin’s post on How To Use the ProMetronome App by EUMLab.)
Step Three: Play through the target measures at least three times to the slow tempo without error
This is for testing purposes before moving on to step four. For this to work, you must be able to play to a metronome without error. If you’re not ready for that, practice the target measures without a metronome until you’re ready to play with the metronome.
Step Four: Increase the metronome speed by one increment, and play again
Step Five: Turn the the metronome back to the first tempo, and play again
Step Six: Play to Faster & Faster Tempos Always Going Back to the Original Slow Tempo
So your first practice session could go something like this:
1. = 60
2. = 63
3. = 60
4. = 66
5. = 60
6. = 69
7. = 60
8. = 72
9. = 60
10. = 74
11. = 60
12. = 76
13. = 60
14. = 78
15. = 60
16. = 80
Step Seven: Carry On In the Same Manner Until You Reach the Magic Moment
Depending on how long your target section is and how much patience you have, you could carry on in this same manner until you reach = 120. At this point, you can now leave the click at 60 and go between = 60 and = 60. The passage will feel different when you move from feeling eighth beats to feeling quarter beats, and you will be happy!
Step Eight: Use Your Skill Level to Decide How Many More Sessions You’ll Need
Depending on your skill level and and on how big of chunk of music you’re learning, you might be able to achieve the results you’re looking for within one session. If it’s a little beyond your skill level, you might get the results you’re looking for in the first session, but you should revisit it over the next few days. If it’s a big jump from your current skill level, you may need several days (or longer) to get to tempo. If that’s the case, see if you can start with a faster beginning than the day before. In this example, on the second day, perhaps your slow tempo could be = 100. Just remember you should start with a slow tempo where you are able to play it without error.
Step Nine: Test the Results in Performance
Once you’ve properly completed the other steps, you should be able to play or sing the target measures perfectly at the goal tempo, at least in private practice, or, as we like to say, in your woodshed. Now take the piece out and play it for at least one person. Playing with distraction will probably take you back a few notches. Be encouraged! It happens to the best of the best. You will probably have to perform it a few times before you feel like you’ve completely mastered it.