People say to you – “don’t try to play too fast”. Maybe your piano or violin or clarinet teacher told you this when you were a kid learning. But you don’t really want to hear that. You like to play fast. I do !! But when it comes to practising, this does make sense.

A clarinet teacher once said to me “practise perfect”. i.e. don’t fudge anything, play every note exactly as it should be when practising. And so, if you want to practise  with total accuracy, you’ll very often have to slow down, so you don’t play mistakes on those harder passages.

Later I found out why when I read a book on brain plasticity. Whenever we take on a new skill or task, our brain has to lay down a neural pathway for all the signals which it must make to  transform an intention/thought into the body movements required for that task. So every new tune we learn has a different sequence of brain signals. It takes a while before all these become ‘imprinted’ on our brain’s cortex and the signals start to join automatically, so that a tune flows smoothly. It just takes the brain time to lay down the pathway, and time to ‘cement’ it so that the sequence of signals happens at the right speed ( e.g. session speed).

Whatever you teach your brain to encode into a neural pathway, will be repeated. If you practise with mistakes, the brain will establish a pathway with mistakes, and that’s what will come out, despite all your most gritty determination NOT to get that dreaded bit wrong again !

So we have to practise perfect ( and mostly that means slower than performance pace) to lay down the exact, correct sequence. And we have to give the brain time to establish this sequence. This might take an hour, a day, a week. If you decide to play a nursery rhyme it’ll take just a minute, because part of the pathway is already there from your childhood.

Once you’ve established the neural pathway in your brain and then not practised it for say a few days, so as to give the brain down-time to process it, you’ll find the tune flowing out of your fingers faster when you return to it. Like magic ! So be patient and practise hard tunes slowly. The speed will come naturally.

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