Sam Newsome

Sam Newsome
"The potential for the saxophone is unlimited." - Steve Lacy

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Benefits of Slow Practice

The (3) three best ways to practice the soprano are slow, slowly, and slower.  Practicing slow is the aural equivalent of zooming in. It enables you to examine things from a more microscopic perspective. You are able to better access important components of your playing such as sound, embouchure, and rhythm a lot more carefully.

Slow practice is something that I do when I'm trying to get back to the basics--particularly with regards to the aforementioned things. This approach works similarly to the principle of opposites, which states that you that if you want to be able to play fast, then practice everything slowly. If you’ re trying to produce a robust, warm sound, then practice playing soft. It's a more disciplined form of practice and its benefits extend far beyond playing fast and a getting a big and warm sound of your instrument.

Speaking of musical benefits to be gained, here are some that come to mind:

1. Sound becomes more focused
2. Fingers become loose
3. Ideas becomes more thoroughly learned
4. Time feel becomes more metronomic ally sound
5. Better breath control
6. Practice from a calm and peaceful place
7. You develop more patience while playing your instrument

Now it's impossible to broach this topic without discussing tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin, probably one of the cleanest and fastest musicians ever to play the saxophone--coming in second, maybe to John Coltrane. I'll take it a step further and say that Johnny Griffin had uniformity throughout all registers of the instrument that I'm not sure John Coltrane even had. His level of instrumental control and improvisational clarity can be heard on Griffin’s 1957 release, A Blowin Session, on which he shared the front line with notables of the time like Lee Morgan, Hank Mobley and John Coltrane. I’m not making this claim as a Johnny Griffin enthusiast, but it’s pretty obvious that he has a different level of instrumental command in comparison to his contemporaries; hence, why he earned the nickname, "The Fastest Gun in the West."

I'm mentioning Mr. Griffin because he was known for his very slow practice regimen--which isn't surprising. I've heard from numerous sources that he used to practice everything at a quarter note = 60, which is difficult to do over an extended period. To begin your practice playing everything at this metronome marking is no so difficult; however, to end your practice at the same tempo takes a different level or concentration and determination. And frankly, it would be difficult to play with the kind of precision for which Mr. Griffin was known without being extremely meticulous about every aspect of one's playing; I'm speaking of things such as his pitch, articulation, timbre, and harmonic acuity.

Getting away from saxophone oriented things for a for moment, one of the things I enjoy about slow practicing is how it slows down the mind--something I alluded to in #6. Back in my macro-shedding days, I often overloaded my brain with too much material. In non-musical occupations like being a lawyer or a college professor, having an abundance of information ready for immediate dispersion is a good thing. When playing jazz, however, being able to shut off the analytical side of your brain often makes you a more effective improviser.  And don't think that I'm subscribing to the noble savage syndrome. Ignorance is not a virtue. However, to be an improviser with any kind of depth, you have to surrender to the natural forces and go with what is, and not with what you desperately want it to be.

So no matter which instrument you play, the tranquil effects of slow practice will leave your mind uncluttered, even after several hours of non-stop shedding. And more importantly, things that you're practicing actually get absorbed more deeply. It's the best of both worlds.

Give it a try!

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