(Note: this post is based on material originally published at Bennett’s Tenets.)
When you make a mistake, slow down. Every time.
I call it The Tortoise Principle. You know: “slow and steady wins the race.”
So, applying this practice technique goes like this: you set your sights on that tricky measure in your solo (or maybe an awesome Kopprasch etude!). You play it through, and it’s kinda messy. What do you do? Slow it down. When you play it again, it’s better than it was, but you still miss a couple notes. What do you do? Slow it down again. The next time through, all the notes are there, but you realize you weren’t really playing the dynamics, or the proper articulations, or whatever. Slow it down again. Finally, you play it perfectly. NOW, you have torn it down to its foundation, and you can begin to build it up correctly. You can speed up the metronome gradually, and keep racking up correct repetitions. If you make a mistake, slow it down again. Even if you know it was just a fluke.
This might seem tedious, and it might feel like a waste of time. But, if most of us would apply this technique diligently, we’d play many fewer mistakes than we normally do in every practice session. I know you’ve heard a million times that you should practice slowly. But I’m convinced that most of us don’t use this tactic as effectively as we could. We don’t trust it. It requires patience and perseverance. Don’t rush the process. Where we really waste time is when we have to overcome the bad habits that have been reinforced through poor practice. By applying The Tortoise Principle, you’re actually saving countless hours of frustration.
I often talk to my students about keeping score mentally while they practice, between “right” and “wrong” repetitions of a passage. After all, every time you play it with mistakes, you’re practicing (i.e. reinforcing) the wrong version. The Tortoise Principle ensures that you will have many more correct repetitions than incorrect ones.