As pianists, we often hear about the benefits of practicing written pieces slowly. Perhaps the most famous example is that the Russian composer/pianist Rachmaninoff practices classical pieces such as the Chopin Etudes extremely slowly. Slow practice is a proven way to effectively learn written piano pieces. In fact, I learned all of the Bach 2-Part Inventions by setting the metronome to 40 beats per minute and playing one 16th note per click. As you can imagine, this is extremely slow but I knew that if I could play 16th notes at 40bpm, I could then play them at 42bpm. And so on and so on. I used to practice the Bach Inventions like this for 3 hours at a time, and after a month or so I’d find that I could play them at a fast tempo. It’s a method for guaranteed success.
But did you know that slow practice will also do wonders for your jazz piano playing?
Yes – it’s true! (Although hardly anybody does this.)
I was reminded about this as I prepared to play John Coltrane’s tune “Countdown” for my Journey Through The Real Book video series. (One great thing about going through The Real Book in alphabetical order is that it forces me to confront tunes that I might normally avoid or pass by. By playing each song in the printed order, there’s no escape!!!)
If you’ve ever sat down at your piano and tried to play “Countdown,” you already know what I mean. The chord progression is notoriously difficult to improvise over, and the tempo is light-speed.
But, having no choice, I set out to master the tune once-and-for-all.
I began by playing through the tune a few times, and quickly realized that this wasn’t going to get me to where I needed to go. So I went back to the method that helped me master the Bach Inventions, but this time, I was improvising over the chords to “Countdown.”
Click…….click…….click. Slowly, I began improvising in quarter notes at 40bpm. I listened intently to the underlying chord progression and made sure that I could mentally “hear” each note of my improvised melody. I find this degree of sensitive listening to be extremely satisfying, and because of this, I embraced the very slow tempo. In fact, the listening became an end unto itself. And just like with the Bach Inventions, I reasoned that if I could improvise a melodic line this well in quarter notes at 40bpm, I would then be able to do so at 42bpm. And so on and so on.
After a few weeks, the magic began happening. I found that I could effortlessly spin out improvised lines over the tune’s convoluted chord changes at medium and fast tempos.
For the first time ever, I had fun playing “Countdown!”
If I can do it, you can do it too. And the best way for you to succeed may indeed be the type of slow practice that I did on this chord progression.
Here’s a video in which you can see how I practiced slowly, and then the actual performance itself of John Coltrane’s “Countdown.”
Enjoy the journey, and “let the music flow!”
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