Slow Practice, Fast Progress!

Maintaining improvement and making a skill permanent require slow steady work that probably forms new connections.

– Norman Doidge


Sergei Rachmaninoff said, “The most efficient manner in learning to memorise a piece seems to be the one which proceeds in an error-free manner.” He believed that if musicians avoid mistakes during practice, chances are that they will avoid them in performance. Rachmaninoff was known for his excruciatingly slow practice. He used a metronome on the slowest tempo and moved it in small increments for successive repetitions.

The concept of slow practice can be difficult for children to grasp. Interpretation of ‘slow’ varies considerably, and children’s interpretation, as a whole, is definitely faster than that of adults. For many children the ultimate aim is to play music quickly. In their minds increasing the tempo indicates progress, so it seems a retrograde step to slow it down.

Teachers must explain why slow practice is effective and necessary. Then they should model what a slow tempo sounds like and have their students copy them at that tempo. Simply telling students to “practise this slowly at home” is ineffective. Gary McPherson says, “Teachers rarely provide demonstrations of how to use a strategy, perhaps because they assume that their pupils will learn strategies merely on the basis of verbal instruction”.

Tell me and I forget.

Show me and I remember.

Let me do and I understand.

– Confucius

Slow practice is crucial even if we can play accurately at faster tempos, because the brain prefers slow learning to strengthen and myelinate neural connections. Daniel Coyle says, “Neural circuits do not care how fast you go. What matters is that they fire consistently and accurately.” Coyle cites an example of the Meadowmount School of Music in New York State where a teacher tells students, “If your practice is recognisable to a listener then you are playing it too quickly”. Meadowmount School aims for a 500 percent increase in learning speed and a central precept in achieving this is slow practice.

Mozart used a practice routine that combined chunking, repetition, and slow playing. In the form of a game he placed ten dried peas in his left coat pocket. After each successful attempt at mastering a phrase he shifted a pea to his right coat pocket. After ten successful repetitions Mozart allowed himself to proceed to the next phrase, but if he made a mistake he had to start all over again. You can imagine the slowing down and the attention to detail as his repetitions progressed.


As unlearning is more difficult than learning it is best to play a piece correctly early before flawed habits lodge themselves in the brain. A quality process will deliver a quality result. This is the QIQO principle—quality in, quality out. Learning something new requires building a neural circuit, and this is best done slowly. As the English proverb states, “An ounce of prevention saves a pound of cure.” Hungarian composer and pianist Stephen Heller said, “Practise very slowly, progress very fast.” Practise slowly to get things right as soon as possible.

from ‘Learning Strategies for Musical Success’ by Michael Griffin

“Terrific…eminently practical…excellent discussion…I came away inspired and excited, and I heartily recommend it.” – Inge Southcott, The Music Trust, Australia.

“This book really does deliver…a great resource on a piano pedagogy list…wonderful support for the teacher.” – Dr L. Scott Donald for American Music Teacher.

“A deeply impressive work, the breadth of research is fascinating! It is Griffin’s combination of his many years of practical experience as a music educator and consultant, with his broad overview of research and primary sources that makes this book so valuable and unique. A combination of big-picture theories and ideas with immediately practical strategies and examples.”

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“Learning Strategies for Musical Success’ brings together recent developments in learning psychology and cognitive neuroscience and presents them in a very readable and engaging format. The strength of Griffin’s discussion lies in his clear explanations of the terminology as well as practical ways in which teachers can foster highly motivated, self-driven learners in both the classroom and private studio. This is a fascinating book, deserving of a wide readership. It provides clearly written explanations of a number of important developments in psychology and neuroscience, and articulates the benefits of music learning with convincing clarity. It’s a book to share with parents and senior students for the insights it provides on the benefits of sustained effort and perseverance –a message that can’t be heard often enough in our fast-paced, distracted, sound-byte-driven, contemporary society. Highly recommended.” – Dianne James, October, 2014 for Ritmico, New Zealand.

“Rarely do I come away feeling so inspired. Incredibly beneficial.” – Music Matters Blog

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Also by Michael Griffin


Music and Keyboard in the Classroom: Fundamentals of Notation is a unit of work for general music middle school classes. Designed around the mastering of practical skills, it integrates theory, aural and history, and allows students to progress at their own rate. View Table of Contents.  “This has been a great buy; the books are just superb! Interesting topics with a wide range of pieces. Great content with clear progression of learning. Fascinating teaching philosophy! BRAVO!” -The Grieg Academy, London. Available at

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Music and Keyboard in the Classroom: Let’s Get Creative! is the fun and creative extension to ‘Fundamentals of Notation’.

View Table of Contents. “We have been using your keyboard course and the results have been amazing!”  – St George College, Australia

Available at

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‘Bumblebee: Rounds & Warm-ups for Choirs’

Second edition. Bumblebee! is more than just a collection of 129 choir exercises and rounds. The author shares timeless wisdom to help you get your choir – primary or secondary – into shape.
View Table of Contents.

“Will prove useful for almost everyone”- Rhinegold Music Teacher Magazine.

“This is a great resource to add to one’s library of rehearsal tricks.”- Anacrusis, ACCC, Canada

harmony bk cover

Modern Harmony Method: Fundamentals of Jazz and Popular Harmony (Third Edition, 2013) is a clear and well organised text suitable for students of arranging and composition, and for classically trained musicians wishing to grasp the beautiful logic of jazz harmony. Essential understandings include chord selection, voicing, symbols, circle of 4th progressions, extensions, suspensions and alterations. Included in the 107 pages are explanations, examples, exercises and solutions. The course can be started with students in year 9 and worked through to year 12 musicianship, composing and arranging.  Available at


Public speaker, music education trainer, conductor and pianist. Author of 'Learning Strategies for Musical Success', 'Bumblebee: Rounds & Warm-ups for Choirs', and 'Modern Harmony Method'.

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Posted in Music Education

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