Learn to Play Fast by Practicing Slowly

Posted by Kelsey Holt on


Posted by Paul Mehling

Excerpted from the March 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar

When I was studying violin in my 20s, I had an eccentric teacher who taught me how to focus my tone. His lesson was really quite simple: don’t play badly—and listen to yourself. After I demonstrated that I was capable of playing with a beautiful tone, he said, “Play ‘Twinkle, Twinkle’ like Itzhak Perlman.” I replied, “I can’t play like Itzhak Perlman,” and he quipped, “How hard can it be? It’s just ‘Twinkle, Twinkle.’”

I want you to keep that in mind forever and to play every note with 100 percent perfection and intention. It’s all basically “Twinkle, Twinkle” (Example 1) when you get down to it. In other words, everything you play is “easy” if you play it slowly enough. Try to avoid getting caught up in thinking you should be playing faster, because speed is only earned by flawless repetition.


Apply the concept to the nuts and bolts

Perfection should be the goal, even if that means subjecting your ego to the fact that your music needs improvement. You will play better when you can feel the strength of playing with confidence. So, you may need to build upon your skills instead of forcing yourself to play far above your skill level.

If you can think of practicing beyond just playing the notes—i.e., putting your fingers in the right places—and look at your practicing as an opportunity to track down and replace ineffective movements in your hands, then you’ll be on the right track. Consider untangling a knot: whether on earbuds, shoelaces, or a guitar cable, it’s a slow process of studying the mess and creating a plan to undo the problem.

When practicing scales and arpeggios, like the ones here in C (Examples 2 and 3), you can start applying these untangling techniques by beginning with simply listening deeply to what you’re playing. Does it sound clear? Are all the notes equal in volume and tone and duration? If not, slow down and play them again while listening to each note and comparing them all. In most cases, this should be enough to illuminate a spot or two that needs work—perhaps you have a finger that doesn’t press the string all the way down, for example. Fix it.


Excerpted from a lesson by Paul Mehling in the March 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar:

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