Hyperslow: A technique to master fast, difficult passages

Mike Lawson • Archives • September 10, 2009

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All musicians know the importance of paying ones dues to master the scales, technical licks, and complex passages that we are called upon to play, especially when these phrases must be played at rapid tempos. The ability to perform these skills consistently and accurately under pressure, whether for an audience or an audition, is an important quality to students and professionals alike.

Practice techniques that make those hours spent in the woodshed more efficient can be a tremendous advantage. Not only do they help musicians increase their skill, but also improve their chances of giving a successful and artistic performance. Although it seems counterintuitive, practicing slowly and deliberately with a metronome can be a very effective way to master fast technical passages quickly. One of the best methods I have found to use that tactic is the use of “Hyperslow” practice.

Hyperslow practice takes advantage of how the human mind creates connections and stores information. When any task has been repeated a sufficient number of times, the body’s adaptation process is triggered in such a way that the ability to reproduce the motions of that activity is enhanced. Even extremely complex tasks can be repeated rapidly and with a very high degree of accuracy without much conscious thought. Used correctly, this natural process can be employed to increase the speed with which the player is able to perform the action by very gradually increasing the tempo with each repetition.

As a teacher, the greatest benefit that I have seen from my students’ use of hyperslow practice has been in the preparation of the scales that they are often required to play for contests and auditions. In addition to being an effective way of learning scales, having them committed to muscle memory has the secondary advantage of easing the nervous tension that students may feel when performing. Even for those who are not involved in auditions, the ability to play scales with facility and speed is a fundamental skill and mastering them makes everything else we do with the instrument easier.

To understand how hyperslow practice works, think about a student learning the B-flat scale. At first, the student must think in many steps, much like going through the lines of a computer program: “What is the first note? What is the fingering? Okay, now blow. Did it sound right? Okay, what is the next note?” The whole process, when continued for one octave, involves no less than 40 separate mental steps. Once the player has successfully repeated that process many times, however, the mind converts them into a single step that could be described as, “What does it feel like to play a B-flat scale?”

We have all had this sensation at some time or other. A task that we have performed many times becomes so natural that we no longer need to think about doing it. Physiologists refer to it as “brain-motor memory” or “muscle memory.” Once muscle memory has been established, the mind is able to skip over the separate steps to simply and smoothly repeat the now familiar pattern of movements. This natural process can be used as a tool to increase the speed with which the body is able to perform the action by very gradually increasing the tempo with each repetition. Normally the process of developing muscle memory takes weeks, but through a very specific form of methodical repetition, hyperslow practice helps create the beginnings of muscle memory in as little as an hour’s time.

The key to making hyperslow practice work is to understand that while speed may be the goal, the way to achieve the goal is to perform many repetitions and that each repetition must be 100 percent accurate before attempting to increase the tempo. To do that, I recommend going through the following set of steps.

Determine the tempo at which you can already play the passage. It does not matter how slow it might be. A beginning tempo that is less than half of the goal speed works quite well.

Set your digital metronome for that beginning tempo with a subdivision of a 16th note. Playing the passage at this tempo should feel easy. If it does not, set the metronome slower until it does feel easy. This is important, because the secret of hyperslow practice is in the number of times in a row the passage can be successfully performed while very slightly increasing the tempo after each repetition.

After successfully playing the passage at this very slow tempo, raise the metronome setting by one beat per minute. There will be great temptation to increase by more than that. Don’t give in. The purpose of such small increments is to make each step so small that it is not noticed.

Play the passage again, increasing the metronome setting by one after each repetition. Keep repeating the process until you reach either your goal speed or a speed at which you can no longer perform the passage accurately.

Don’t be disappointed if your goal was 120 beats per minute and you only got to 92 before you “hit the wall.” You can come back to it the next day, often finding that you are able to easily start at a tempo close to where you left off and cruise right on up to your goal.

The experience of using the hyperslow practice technique for many years both personally and with my students has also created a set of tips and hints to help maximize the effectiveness of each practice sessions. There are three that I consider especially important.

The first and most important of these is that the methodical repetitions of hyperslow practice are a way of tricking the body into the development of muscle memory a very normal thing at a rate much faster than normal. Attempting to do this with more than one passage on the same day will result in a garbled mess that usually keeps either from being effectively learned.

The second is that the process works both best and fastest if the student can refrain from speaking during the practice session. Even a brief interruption will often cause the need to back up a few steps and restart the process. I am not a medical professional and I do not claim to understand why this is true, but I have seen it happen consistently enough to recognize it and make it a part of how I train my students.

The third tip is that the longer the passage, the less effective the practice session will be. Longer passages should be broken down into segments. The longest that I would recommend is four measures. One of the reasons for this is that once things get rolling, several repetitions can be made per minute. The distraction of tediousness is reduced and muscle memory is achieved much more quickly.

Training students to use the hyperslow tactic quickly reveals that it has one tremendous weakness. It is, quite frankly, not a very “fun” way to practice. Young students are often unwilling to use it until they have been sold on its effectiveness. Understanding how well it works helps them realize that the alternative, while much less tedious, is actually more work and will take longer to accomplish the same goal. To help them build this understanding, I often take a lesson session to sit with them and use the method to practice something that has in the past eluded them.

Encourage even just a few of your students to use the hyperslow practice technique. It will bring with it a new sense of confidence to your band as their peers see how quickly they improve their technical skills. Given time and a little willpower, I am certain that your results will be worth the effort.

Dean Lamp is the 5-12 band instructor and head of the music department at Glidden-Ralston Community School in Glidden, Iowa. Since 2008 he has also served as 7-12 band instructor at Coon Rapids-Bayard Community School in Coon Rapids, Iowa. He is a graduate of Waldorf College and the University of Northern Iowa. Under his leadership, the Glidden-Ralston Community School has received the Exemplary Music Department Award from the Iowa Music Educators Association.

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