Slower is faster (whether swimming or getting shot at)

I believe very strongly that the principles which make you successful in one area can and will apply to other disciplines. This makes teaching music lessons very satisfying, because I'm sharing strategies and habits of mind that are useful beyond the instrument.

One example of a skill that is relevant in every aspect of life is learning to slow down. Slowing down leads you to reconsider saying things you'll regret in an argument. It helps you prevent injury in athletic training. Slowing down reduces your risk of death on the highway. It prevents you from spilling your coffee all over your laptop. You'll also trim the time it takes to learn a new piece of music. Slower is actually faster in the long run.

When practicing music, a slower pace/speed/tempo gives you the mental space to work on technique, expression, fingering, rhythm, and melodic accuracy all at the same time.

The right "slow" is different for everyone and might change day-to-day, regardless of what the metronome or clock says. However, using an external means of marking time can help you to slow down if you use it to pace yourself rather than push yourself.

A brutal rule of thumb: If you're still messing up, you're still going too fast. You'll know when you're going slow enough because you'll feel totally in control of everything your body is doing. It's like that scene in the Matrix where Neo can see the bullets coming at him and thus, avoid them. True slowness is mental, not necessarily physical.

For some people (regardless of age) it takes many failed attempts at a specific task before they are willing or able to dial down the tempo to what is truly comfortable. Heart rate, stress level, room temperature, distractions, and good old ego can get in the way. Slow is a feeling, and it takes practice to go inside yourself and find that quiet, calm place.

I recently took up swimming again after over a decade away from the sport. I'm in pretty good shape from walking and running, but lap swimming is a totally different physical experience. I assumed I wouldn't be very good at it at first, and I was right. But I thought if I took things slowly, I would succeed.

The first time out, at the Piedmont Park pool on Monday, I swam one lap of the crawl and then found myself huffing and puffing at the side of the pool. Another lap, and more huffing and puffing. Another lap, and I was done. I was going slowly in the macro sense - I didn't try to push myself past the point of fatigue, because there's always tomorrow. However, in the micro sense, I was basically sprinting across the pool and didn't know how to slow down.

I consulted my favorite coach, the Internet, and learned why I was having this problem: the crawl is the fastest swim stroke! Paradoxically, if I want to learn to swim faster and better, I cannot do the crawl because it will exhaust me too quickly. I reasoned that working on slower strokes will allow me to build up endurance over the course of a few weeks, and then the crawl will not be as intense.

So, this morning I took the bus to the MLK Natatorium before dawn. I dropped into the water and swam ten laps doing the breaststroke, backstroke, and elementary backstroke. No clinging to the side huffing and puffing - I built the recovery into the swim, and it worked! Twenty minutes of continuous swimming, and, most importantly, enough mental and physical energy left to come back tomorrow and do it again.

Culturally, we are all speeded up: kids in a million activities, quick cuts in advertisements, blah blah blah. Playing music goes against that trend. It takes awhile to learn an instrument, it takes awhile to learn a given piece of music, and it takes awhile to sit in that chair and slow yourself down enough to string two notes together correctly. It is worth it. There are benefits that come from learning to slow down instead of muscling through, and they show up in unexpected places: the track, the pool, an urban roof-top showdown.

The Metronome Game

Okay, it’s not really a game. But it is a way to make something that could be really boring a bit more interesting and engaging. And it will help you to get to the fun stuff faster.

The Concept
The goal is to switch between chords precisely as required by the music, rather than when your fingers get around to it. What is happening right now is that you are hesitating when moving from chord to chord. We are going to slow the music down to the point at which you no longer will appear to hesitate, because the time between beats will take so long that you can’t help but get to the next chord on time. Then, we will make that gap between the beats smaller, so gradually that it will be almost imperceptible.

For our example, we will imagine that you are working on switching back and forth between G and D, although you can play the game with any other chords.

Step One

Set your metronome to 60 beats per minute. Once you are used to that tempo, play this:

G (click click click click), D (click click click), G (click click click)…

In other words, you will play G on beat one, strumming it only once. You will then spend beats two, three, and four switching as quickly as possible to D, then spend beats two three and four of the next measure switching as quickly as possible back to G, and so on. Remember, you are not playing whole notes – just a quick “brrringgggg!” and then get out of there.

The goal is to be precise and clean, strumming exactly on each downbeat, neither late nor early. Aim to place all of your fingers down at once, and do not strum until all fingers are in place.

How many times do you switch back and forth? That will be different for each person. As you play, rate your comfort level on a scale from one to ten (one being “I am desperately scrambling from chord to chord like a drowning person trying to stay afloat with various small pieces of driftwood” and ten being, “G and D chords alike bow down before the magnificence of my chord switching prowess.” If your score is seven or below, keep working; if your score is eight or nine, stop and move the metronome a notch higher (or two beats-per-minute faster if you’re using a digital metronome). Keep going! Don’t try to get to ten or you will go mad and begin to see visions of animated, human-sized metronomes laughing and jeering at you like something out of a scary out-take from Walt Disney’s Fantasia. You’ve been warned.

Step Two
Continue the process of gradually getting faster until you reach 120 bpm. This may take you more than one session, more than one day, or even more than one week. If it makes you feel better, track your progress in your music journal. Suppose you get to 90 bpm in one day – the next day, try starting at 75 bpm. Say you get to 110 bpm that day; the next day, start around 90. In other words, don’t feel like you have to keep pushing forward all the time. You might find that you’ve got to stay at one tempo for awhile. That’s okay! All the time, you’re training your fingers.

Once you get to 120 bpm, drop back to 60 bpm. Then play this:

G, click, D, click, G, click, D, click….

You may notice that this is exactly the same tempo you were just doing, except that now you are only allowing two clicks per chord. Continue until you can do 120 comfortably. What happens next?

Step Three

If you guessed “one click per chord,” you are right! Go back to 60, and play this:

G D G D G D…

You are now switching a chord every second, which is pretty fast. If you were playing a song that has a tempo of 60 bpm, you would be able to switch from G to D and back again, right in time.

Continue to play and get gradually faster until you reach 120. You are now switching to a new chord every half-second. Congratulations - you have won the game!

By the way…

You won’t have to go through this game with every chord there is. You have now trained yourself to move faster on everything that you play, as long as you know where your fingers are going. If you do decide to do the game with two new chords, you will get through the whole process much more quickly.