Varying your tempos when practicing will make you a better pianist

As pianists, we’ve probably all heard the injunction to “practice slowly, and gradually increase the tempo until you can play your piece at the correct speed.”

This might sound good, but it’s actually not the best way to practice. What you want to do is vary the tempo, according to what’s needed at each moment.

I’ve been looking deeply into a recent study about how pianists practice and here’s what some researchers found:

The “tempo of individual performance trials was varied systematically; logically understandable changes in tempo occurred between trials (e.g. slowed things down to get tricky sections correct).”

In plain language, it means that the better pianists practiced fast or slow according to what was needed at each moment. If they kept making mistakes, they slowed down. When their fingers found the right notes, they practiced faster.

Sounds obvious, right? But then why didn’t the majority of university-level pianists in the study practice this way? Most of them played too fast, without correcting wrong notes. And these pianists didn’t learn the piece as well as the ones who did. There are probably many reasons why we get impatient with correcting wrong notes, and we can each think about this on our own.

For now, you and I can both be reminded to vary tempos when practicing. If you’re playing sloppily, slow down. If you’ve “got the piece down,” then by all means, play faster and enjoy the sounds, rhythms, and emotional content of your music!

If you want a break from practicing written music, try one of my free piano improv lessons. Good luck with your piano playing!

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