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How Slow is Slow? Part 5
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How Slow is Slow? Part 5

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Practicing slowly is a means to an end. It is the foundation of good musicianship and is recognized by many musical disciplines as a technique that you can use to develop your musical skills. By practicing slowly, you give yourself time to execute each melody note and embellishment accurately and evenly.

In part 4 of this series (see part 1; part 2; part 3), we examined the “Learning Phase,” of the Next Level Blueprint and determined than an intermediate piper would practice a 2/4 March at 45% to 50% of the target tempo. With a target tempo of 65 BPM, we would practice at 29 BPM to start out working our way up to 35 BPM. The advantage of the Blueprint is that it provides us with concrete examples that we can use to create a plan. But practicing at 29 BPM give us pause. That is slow.

Consider Andrew’s lesson on "Catlodge". In this lesson, Andrew discusses ALAP/ASAP and the notion of waiting for the dotted note in the Strathspeys. He uses metronome magnification, four clicks per beat at 100 BPM, to illustrate the concept. Doing the math, that converts to 25 BPM. That is slow. But, at that tempo, you have the time not only to accurately and evenly execute the melody notes and embellishments; you also have time to focus on expression. This is an important lesson. On the bagpipe, we do not have control over the volume to express dynamics. We have one volume, fortissimo. But we can express and imply dynamics through finger control. Andrew illustrates this deftly and gives us additional motivation for moving the tempo down the ladder. By practicing slowly, we can learn the appropriate finger control to imply dynamics.

The jig "Banjo Breakdown" is one of the most pleasing tunes to listen to. It is not only popular amongst pipers; it is also a fan favorite. It is a tune that always gets the audience’s feet moving whether you play it at 100 BPM or at a faster tempo. In this lesson, Andrew demonstrates the tune building process, building "Banjo Breakdown" up two bars at a time. In this lesson, Andrew works through the tune at 1/2 speed, a little over 60 BPM. While the tempo in this lesson is accelerated in comparison to 25 BPM, the tune is still executed slowly.

Here is a video of Graham Fitch practicing the Bouree from the Bach’s "Fifth French Suite" at 50 BPM (half speed) and 30 BPM (quarter speed). Fitch’s general guidelines are half and quarter speed for practicing slowly. He also introduces an interesting concept, practicing a slow piece at a faster tempo.

Here, we have three examples of world-class musicians practicing at pedestrian tempos. If you have concerns about practicing slowly, stop and watch these videos. Remember, the most important point is to develop finger control.

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Mark Olson

Mark Olson is a software engineer in Omaha, NE. Over the years, he has played numerous musical instruments including the bagpipes, guitar, piano, flute, and saxophone. As a young man, Mark competed as a solo piper. Due to the demands of raising a family, Mark had to forgo his musical pursuits. While he regrets the fact he gave up the bagpipes, he is proud of the fact that both of his sons have grown to be fine young men. With the nest now empty, he has picked up the pipes once again. If he gets his chops, and his groove, back, he plans to compete again as a solo piper.

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