BachScholar's Unique "Super Slow" Tutorials
In 2014, Dr. Hall developed a unique type of tutorial called “Super Slow,” which became incredibly popular on the BachScholar® YouTube Channel. Dr. Hall’s “Super Slow” tutorials have since been discontinued on YouTube, but are thriving on The Well-Rounded Pianist, which includes “Super Slow” performances from many composers and all style periods. This article explains “Super Slow” tutorials and explains why they are so beneficial for pianists.
BachScholar’s Beneficial “Super Slow” Videos
Most piano teachers and students are well aware of the value of practicing slowly. Moreover, countless high-profile pianists and instrumentalists have espoused the value of slow practice. The great pianist John Browning advocated that the best and most efficient practice speed is a slow tempo that is neither too slow nor too fast, but a “moderate” tempo that allows for total control and intelligible phrasing. We all know that slow practice is good and admit that pianists should do more of it, but this is easier said than done. How slow is “slow”? What exactly is this “moderate” tempo to which Browning refers? Can slow practice be systematized in some “scientific” way to make it less generalized and more specific? Is it possible to make slow practice musical and not sound so mechanical? The answer to all these questions is a big “yes” and BachScholar’s “Super Slow” video tutorials provide the solution.
In 2014 I developed a unique and original kind of tutorial which I coined “Super Slow.” At the time, it was the first teaching approach of its kind on YouTube. There were (and still are) many “slow” tutorials on YouTube that basically “spoon feed” notes and rhythms to pianists, most notably the videos of “Jane.” Virtually all of Jane’s highly popular YouTube videos take the “spoon feeding” approach to teaching, which is highly limiting and one-dimensional. Basically, Jane plays with an overhead camera view the notes and rhythms of works in the piano literature at a snail’s pace with shoddy technique, bad fingering, no pedaling, with virtually no attention given to anything other than notes and rhythms. This kind of slow practice may be beneficial for the “notes and rhythms” learning stage; however, is musically detrimental thereafter. There comes a time when a pianist needs to graduate from playing just notes and rhythms. Jane’s type of slow-speed tutorials is analogous to an orator who practices speeches by breaking up words into syllables that do not hang together with any sense of coherence. A pianist can play notes and rhythms for only so long until playing nothing other than notes and rhythms causes musical regression. I remember the great late pianist Jose Feghali saying in a master class I observed, “All slow practice should be musical and not just mechanically playing notes and rhythms.” I could not agree with him more. In developing my “Super Slow” videos, I basically took Brownings and Feghali’s advice and systematized slow practice to a scientific and intelligible system that benefits students and teachers in the most efficient and practical way possible. BachScholar’s “Super Slow” tutorials are arguably the most efficient and beneficial of all types of tutorials, since they encapsulate all the technical and musical elements into one coherent performance with no talking and thus expend virtually no wasted energy. If it is true that “a picture is worth a thousand words,” then “Super Slow” videos are worth “ten thousand words.” There is currently an ever-growing, huge library of “Super Slow” videos on The Well-Rounded Pianist. This series has been discontinued on YouTube, so if students an teachers want access to this constantly expanding library of some of the most effective tools for learning classical and ragtime piano works, The Well-Rounded Pianist is the place to be! Here is a summary of “Super Slow” main features and list of benefits accompanied with explanations and commentary:
A “Super Slow” performance cannot be imitated by taking a true performance and adjusting the speed control to 50%. The whole point of being able to play a work at 50% speed with all the musical details is just that — being able to “play” the work at half speed. This does not include the ability to “observe” others’ performance at half speed using the speed control feature on YouTube. Furthermore, this feature leads to distortion and is not very pleasing to listen to. In my “Super Slow” videos, I am not merely spoon feeding notes to students, but rather, setting an example as to how the work should be practiced in an ideal practice session. If one is unable to attain an accurate 50% speed performance after several months of practice, then it is likely the work is too difficult and should be discontinued. For example, in this “YouTube age” it seems that every Grade 3 student wants to play the third movement of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata (which is about Grade 10); however, they will never be able to play the whole movement at 50% speed, or even 25% speed for that matter. Students should only spend time on music in which they can play at least 50% speed after a few months of practice.
The very first thing that should be determined is the normal, full-speed tempo of the work in an ideal performance. I always tell students that the best way to determine the “ideal” tempo for any given work is to choose the tempo they would play if they were performing for God, the King of the Universe, or in Carnegie Hall for a packed house. Of course, this is all subjective and there really is no “scientific method” for determining the ideal tempo for any work; however, the tempo has to be “something” and this “something” can be measured with a metronome. I happen to have my own tempo system derived from my many years of Bach tempo research (which would be far beyond the scope of this article), but for all practical purposes the student needs to just cast all analysis aside and simply experiment with the metronome a bit and decide on the ideal tempo in an ideal performance. The student does not be able to “play” this tempo at this stage, but rather, be able to sing or conduct or imagine the ideal performance tempo after, say, six months of practice. For example, my ideal tempo for the third movement of Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 14, No. 1 is 132 bpm per quarter note which equals 66 bpm per half note. I am well aware that most pianists play this movement faster than this (probably closer to 160 bpm), but this decision is mine and mine only.
The next thing that should be determined is the performance time in minutes and seconds when played at the ideal tempo. Your imaginary audience (like God, a King, or a Carnegie Hall audience) will not care about this step, however, I include it just to be extra-sure about the ideal tempo chosen. The way to calculate this is simple — just take the number of bars of the work (131 for the third movement of Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 14, No. 1), multiply this by the number of beats per bar (2 half note beats per bar), and divide this by the ideal tempo chosen per beat (66 bpm per half note). Thus, 131 times 2 divided by 166 equals 3.96. This means that if played at 66 bpm per half note, the resulting duration will be 3.96 minutes which is just under four minutes. Give or take about 10 seconds in either direction to allow for “human-ness” (after all, we are not robots), played at my chosen ideal tempo of 66 bpm per half note, the performance should last an average of four minutes. Many readers may start thinking at this point all this has become too mathematical and impractical; however, I would like to point out that my performance of the Beethoven (video below) was indeed almost four minutes precisely, and I do not play it mechanically or like a “robot”. I simply play it at my ideal tempo from beginning to end and this results in a duration of about four minutes.
“Super Slow” means as close as possible to half or 50% of the “normal” performance tempo. I often get asked why I choose 50% speed and not other random speeds like 25%, 30%, 60% or 75%. The reasons for this are rather simple and unscientific. Through my many years’ experience as a pianist and teacher I have discovered that when played at half speed, at least for pieces that are not slow already like Andantes and Adagios, the resulting tempo seems slow enough to allow for the most precision and clarity yet fast enough to play and hear intelligible phrasing. In the initial stages of learning a work (the “notes and rhythms” stage), most students will find 50% speed too fast in which case anything under this is permissible. After all, one can only play as fast as one can play. After the mechanics have been worked out, there comes a time when all these elements need to be integrated into one complete performance, which for all practical purposes is best at half speed. I believe the “moderate” tempo Browning referred to was most likely closer to 75%, which should be the next goal after 50%. Then, after 75% speed is mastered, the goal should be full speed. let us now apply this to the Beethoven movement previously discussed. If my ideal full-speed performance is 66 bpm per half note and this results in a duration of about four minutes, then logically, a performance at half speed or 50% should be 66 bpm per quarter note and this should result in a duration of about eight minutes. Now, watch and listen to the video below and notice that its duration is very close to eight minutes (just a few seconds off). This is proof that I managed to practice what I preach and that I was able to play it at exactly half speed. Of course, not all my “Super Slow” performances are as mathematically precise as this. I am using the Beethoven example because it happens to be a nice work that demonstrates the “Super Slow” system most ideally.
The work needs to be played as perfectly as possible from beginning to end at 50% speed before attempting it at faster tempi. I know through experience that most students are impatient with slow practice and have a difficult time maintaining a consistently slow tempo without speeding up or losing concentration. This, of course, is the entire reason for the exercise. Find a pianist who can play a piece or sub-section of a larger work at no faster and no slower than half speed as perfectly as possible with all the musical elements in place, and you have just found a pianist who has mastered the art of piano practice. At this stage, playing full speed need not even be an issue. Too many students want to play too fast too soon, which almost always results in a train wreck. So much valuable time is wasted when the “50% rule” is not observed. After all, what is the point of attempting to play something at 80% to full speed if one cannot even play it at 50% speed from beginning to end successfully?
All articulation and dynamics are observed. Many students misunderstand the whole point of slow practice, and mistakenly believe it is simply to plunk out the notes like Jane does in her tutorials. Indeed, playing the correct notes and rhythms is to be expected; however, music is conveyed just as much by “how” the notes and rhythms are played as by “what” notes and rhythms are played. This is why it is important that articulation (i.e., all the staccatos, legatos, slurs, etc.) and dynamics are always observed.
All ritardandi and accelerandi are observed. Students should take extra precaution to observe all tempo fluctuations such as slowing down, speeding up, and slight rubati. The pianists’ ability to control slight tempo fluctuations at half speed guarantees that these fluctuations will also be attainable at full speed.
Trills and ornaments should also be played at half speed. Virtually every piano student assumes that trills are to be played as fast as possible, which is, of course, false. Actually, trills and other ornaments should only move as fast as the tempo, which means that if a piece is played at half speed the ornaments and trill should likewise be played at half speed. For example, listen to the final trill in the Beethoven movement below. It is a measured trill played at half speed played with clarity and precision.
The damper pedal is used exactly as it would be used in a full-speed performance. Playing a piece at half speed does not give one permission to sound like a robot and omit pedal. Any time one would use the damper pedal in a full-speed performance, one should also use the pedal in a half-speed performance.
All the rules of economy of motion, and especially thumb placement, are observed. Please read my article on “economy of motion” if you have not already. Extra precaution needs to be taken to observe all the economy of motion rules when a piece is played at half speed. The better these rules rules are observed at half speed, the easier they will be attainable at full speed.
All the fingerings used are exactly as they would be in a full-speed performance. In my article on “fingering” I point out that particular fingerings or finger combinations may vary slightly depending upon the tempo. With this rule in mind, one should work out fingerings at half speed with full knowledge that some fingerings may change slightly when played at full speed. The goal, of course, is to play the fingerings that would be played at full speed.
“Pounding out” notes and rhythms in an unmusical fashion should be avoided at all costs. When playing at half speed, pianists should always be aware of the tone being produced and always strive for a pleasant, singing tone. Playing at half speed does not give one permission to sound like a robot. A pleasant, singing tone can be achieved by channeling the proper amount of arm weight through the fingers, which becomes possible by not tensing up the wrists. This is because the wrist functions as a conduit leading from the arms to the fingers, and if this conduit is cut off the flow of weight and energy through the arms to the fingers is obstructed.
“Super Slow” Example: Sonata Op. 14 No. 1 (third movement) by Beethoven
The two videos below demonstrate all the tenets of an ideal “Super Slow” performance. The first video features a full-speed performance of the Beethoven. Yes, I realize that it is a bit slower than most play it; however, this is “my” performance and nobody else’s. “Allegro commodo” means at a relaxed allegro, not as fast as possible. Thus, in my opinion most pianists play this movement too fast. Putting this issue aside, however, my performance at about 66 bpm per half note results in a duration of precisely four minutes. After listening to the full-speed performance, listen to the “Super Slow” performance in the second video and notice that virtually all aspects of performance, as discussed above, are the same is in the full-speed performance, the only difference being the tempo. Notice how this half-speed performance lasts eight minutes, which is precisely two times longer than the full-speed performance at four minutes. Pianists who are working on this movement need to spend time perfecting it a half speed like in this video before attempting it faster.