Really freaking slow practise


Any readers can breath a sigh of relief, I successfully managed about an hour and a half’s good practise yesterday, and yes it sounded pretty bad to start and yes my fingers were uncommonly stiff and there was some unidentifiable tension in my jaw and progress was so slow as to frustrate a sloth, but hey I played some scales and the tone was bearable by the end.

After all that, Liam suggested we listen through a couple of recordings of Dean’s Demons together. This was an excellent idea – especially when listening to works I am preparing, I find it extremely hard to break into anything other than ‘auditioning’, while Liam, as a composer, listens for other things. I sit there thinking “oh goodness, I didn’t like what she (Sharon Bezaly, in this case) did just there” or “every time she hits that G she’s sharp” or “I wish I could dare to hope my legato might someday be that good”, and Liam says “ha, this isn’t about Ds at all, it’s about variations on the return to the D”. So here I might want to rest a little longer on the F# and here I can make the glissando almost uncomfortably long. And this bit is a military rondo, Mahler-style (at least in the major theme), and it’s worth remembering that Dean is a Romantic, and how the hell does he expect you to “hold the tension” when you end on the 5th?

Probably this makes very little sense, but it was most useful for me. This morning we listened to Hurel’s Loops in the same way – first Juliette Hurel’s (wife of the composer) recording, and then this Russian flautist (Svetlana Mitryaykina) on YouTube:

So it’s a terribly virtuosic work, both in terms of composition and performance. Really it’s a study (once again on both counts). We listened, we spoke about the balance between the mechanical demands of the score – the performer as executor, as instrument – and the “body” of the performer – the performer as subject. Juliette plays the piece as mechanically as possible, Svetlana plays much more expressively. I bashed my way through a few lines and slipped into a little glumness about my abilities, would I ever be able to quite get on top of this? So. Many. Notes.

I got out of the house (another lovely day! I love Brisbane in winter) and caught the bus to UQ. Practise rooms were pretty full up so I browsed the library for a little while, flipping through my favourite sections even though I know I’ve pretty much exhausted the worthwhile texts there. There was nothing new that caught my eye, but I pulled out one of the many books that had sat in my cupboard at home, accruing library fines, one of those I’d barely even opened. I knew there was a chapter in Barry Green’s Mastery of Music (yes, the guy that wrote the Inner Game of Music books, which to be honest I don’t have a lot of time for – too much mysticism) on “Discipline”. I wondered whether there might be something on simply getting to the practise room.

Turns out there is. It’s fairly vague advice, but forward a few more pages there’s a little section with the subheading “Practise Slow”.

I’ve always thought of slow practise as being that slap over the wrist – play it at the speed you can get every note correct, don’t be impatient, don’t try to take it faster – which I’ve found pretty damaging, feeding in on the belief that I am pretty devoid of discipline. The only way I can make myself stay slow is with a metronome, so I’d thought my “clocking-up” technique pretty much constituted slow practise. But this was talking about something else altogether.

When Edgar [Meyer] plays a Bach cello suite on the bass, it can take him hours just to get through the first prelude. He demonstrated the first few notes for me, holding on to each note for at least eight seconds, and making a seamless connection to the next note […] it was most important to eliminate the garbage between the notes so there is no noise. Paul [McCandless] says he uses legato as a doorway to velocity. Think about it. When you increase your tempo, you may find you’re speeding up the notes themselves, but not necessarily the transitions between them – or at least, not to the same extent. This means that any lack of clarity in your transitions is occupying a greater and greater percentage of the total playing time – and as computer scientists would say, your signal-to-noise ratio is going way down.

So, cool, playing the first movement of the Hurel ultra-ultra-slow is a novel concept, and as far as practise goes, pretty non-threatening (except for revealing all the glitches…). I locked myself in a room and gave it a go. For 20mins. Then after I ate some lunch I went for another hour. Because I don’t have the self-control to resist, I played through the first half of the movement as close to tempo as I could manage. Still plenty of mistakes, but it was better, much better – to get a similar improvement by clocking I’d have had to spend just as long and I’d probably be all tense in my wrist and nowhere near so fluid. It really did sound much more legato, and that really did seem to make a big difference.

And as I’m trying to get going from a virtual standstill, once again, starting slow makes a lot of sense.


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