Slow is Fast: A Practice Rule to Live By

Slow is Fast: A Practice Rule to Live By
Photo: Bands of America
During the past 20 years, one simple technique helped me become a better player fast: going slow.

The phrase "slow is fast" actually originated from the U.S. military. This method helps ensure good technique habits, even when under extreme stress.

For example, when a special forces team enters a room for combat, the setting seems fast, chaotic, and extremely dangerous. But as a result of progressing through slow repetition, these complex muscle movements and split-second decisions are second nature. 

They can execute difficult movements while observing and reacting to their surroundings because they practiced over and over again... slowly. Once they committed the CORRECT movements to muscle memory, they could begin to use the rest of their brain power to focus on their surroundings.

The same principles apply to marching. Whether you are just beginning or are an advanced musician, it's always helpful to break routines down slowly to first learn to perform them correctly with good technique. Building muscle-memory movements, like playing an instrument and marching, takes time to build the neurological pathways you need to allow your brain to send information to your body quickly. And the key is slow repetition.


Once the correct neurological pathways are built, your subconscious mind takes over. You can then devote your conscious to questions in your listening environment, such as whether the tempo is pushing or pulling, or if the person you're guiding isn't going to make it. Advanced performers' minds slow down while their bodies are in action, similar to those military commandos.

While the show can be chaotic and the drills can be fast-paced, the minds of elite performers move slowly and under control, because they build the correct neurological pathways. Michael Merzenich's book, "The Brain That Changes Itself," says practicing a new habit under the right conditions can change hundreds of millions and possibly billions of the connections between the nerve cells in our neural pathways.

But repetition alone won't help you become an elite performer -- you need to build the correct neurological pathways. If you practice with poor technique, sound quality, or tempo control, it constructs bad pathways, which manifest as bad habits. Once those pathways are built, it's much more difficult to deconstruct those and rebuild the right ones.

So practice slowly. If you are learning a new technique, bust out your metronome and turn the tempo down. Learn to play it with perfect technique, sound quality, and tempo control. Play it at that speed until you've built those good pathways.

Then, slowly, crank up the tempo in small increments. Back off if you bump up the tempo and start to hit a point where you feel like you are sacrificing technique or sound quality. Turn the tempo down just to point where you regain control and work some more. Then, push that boundary again. Expand it. But don't sacrifice form. It will take time and lots of good, correct practice.

Always remember... slow is fast.

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