The paradox of practice: it's harder to go slow than go fast

Recently, by coincidence, I’ve seen a lot of articles about the benefits of slow practice of a skill, whether in music or martial arts. Some good links that really apply to all physical skills:

We live in an era of speed. It’s gotten to the point that there have arisen some movements against speed, for slow.

I have a confession to make: it’s really hard for me to practice music slowly. I myself am guilty of often practicing music too quickly, not making the most of my practice. For a while, when I was starting to play music again after an absence of three decades, I was pushing myself with a metronome. That was useful for a while, but eventually I realized I had to slow down.

I am now actually trying to apply the advice in the articles mentioned and really slow down in music. Because I know in my heart that slowing down works.

When I think about it, I have successfully used slow practice in many fields in the past, from ballroom dance to running to chess. I’d like to give examples of what slow practice actually means in each of these and how I attribute my success to it.

Ballroom dance

When I was learning ballroom dance over a decade ago, I started out as a very uncoordinated, clumsy, confused beginner in the Carnegie Mellon University Ballroom Dance Club. I was very lucky that I stumbled around only about a month before I started getting quality professional instruction in a small group setting (a benefit of the club) supplementing the large group classes (which I had found barely helpful, frankly).

Rumba to cha cha

I will never forget the Latin (International style) dance technique lessons of Rozana Sweeney. She basically treated us as she would little kids intending to become professional ballroom dancers. Unlike in the group classes at CMU, where we were just shown steps and patterns and told to go do them, we were shown a very limited repertoire of movements that were broken down to atomic components (so much as that is possible for a continuous art form) and practiced very slowly. We were not allowed to move on until we had at least some rudimentary “mastery” of the “basics”. I’d never had any dance experience before, so it was quite eye-opening how effective this stern approach to instruction was.

We started off practicing the International rumba basics. We were taught about straight legs, bent legs, foot turnout, hip rotation, contrary motion of body and arms, etc. We went through the movements so slowly (to beats or music much slower than the actual standardized-tempo dance music) that many of us lost balance and tripped over ourselves. It is harder to move slow than fast. Balance is important. If you go fast, you cheat because you can move without full balance.

Eventually we moved on to cha cha, which is a rather faster dance, but similar to a sped-up rumba with a very fast extra three “cha cha cha” steps. I couldn’t help noticing how my cha cha “magically” improved, without ever practicing cha cha, just from practicing rumba so much. The reason was clear: making the slow precise is the key to making the fast precise. If the slow is not efficient and exact, then going fast will only result in a magnification of inefficiency and sloppiness. I believe nobody can dance a good cha cha who can’t also dance a good rumba. That’s just how it works.

Slow waltz and foxtrot to quickstep and Viennese waltz

Focusing on the slow was also true of our International standard dance instruction, which came from some other instructors.

We started off with slow waltz and foxtrot, working on the technique in slow motion, before dancing the fast quickstep and Viennese waltz. The fast dances are quite strenuous (as a runner, I compare dancing them with a partner to be as tiring as running) and things fall apart if you haven’t figured out how to move efficiently and together slowly first.


I improved very quickly in ballroom dance once I started having the serious technique lessons and worked on basic movements by myself outside of class, repeatedly. I still feel I had a lot of potential improvement still in me, because of the foundational slow practice, at the time when I quit competitive ballroom dancing.


When I started running, I was 29 years old and had been sedentary all my life. I didn’t know what I was doing when I first started running. I would just go out and run hard, get out of breath very quickly, stop, and go on. I got sore this way, and also did not actually improve my speed much during my first sloppy year of running. I only got much faster when I learned the science of how to run slowly. I got much faster than friends I was running with who were still running the unsystematic way, at a faster training pace than me.

It is possible to run too slowly for benefit. But the trick is to run slowly enough in order to be relaxed, observe one’s form, correct it, and put in the time to slowly build up endurance. Running too fast only led me to go for a shorter period of time, execute with poor form, and get injured.

It is not actually easy to run slowly, properly. It is trivial to run slowly sloppily. Many people you see on the roads or in the parks who are “jogging” are going slowly and sloppily. Stomping loudly into the ground, head tilted back, slow long strides: that’s not a good way to run slowly. If you want to run slowly, the right way to do it is to adopt a good upright, balanced posture, be aware of landing under the hip, using the glutes and not the knees, and most important, making sure the cadence is not too slow. In other words, slow doesn’t mean everything is slow; it means slowing down some variables but maintaining structural and dynamic integrity of the whole. Taking a super long stride slowly violates the physics of how to move.

Needless to say, for optimal training one must also run fast. Again, here the principle of adjusting variables applies, however. Running very fast for a long time is not the most effective way to train. The most effective way to train is known to be interval training, in which you run fast but for a short period of time, then rest, then continue. In a sense, here the “slow” variable is distance covered while not resting. In slow running, the “slow” variable is the speed, not the distance.


After a couple of years, upon finding good running technique books and Web sites, and applying them, I went from nothing to winning age-group medals and trophies in local races in Pittsburgh (admittedly not so competitive in my age group). I am a believer in the importance of having learned to run sufficiently slowly when the training situation calls for it.


Most chess players, myself included, enjoying playing fast chess. Five-minute games are exciting and fun because you can play so many of them in a given time and there is little time to think. But we all know that playing too much blitz chess can harm one’s “serious” slow chess games, games in which you may get two hours of time on your clock rather than five minutes. The problem, of course, is that getting used to making moves without thinking much does not train you to know how to think more deeply when you have much more time to use.

Learning to play chess slowly is a challenge. I was never very good at playing slowly as a child, because I was impatient, and did not have a chess teacher to discipline me. When I returned to playing serious tournament chess, twenty years after not playing a single game, I suffered tremendously, because I had no idea how to make use of time during slow games. But with practice, analyzing games at home slowly in order to simulate the process, I learned how to look more deeply in the tree of possible game continuations. I would give myself three minutes, say, to do an analysis, and then computer-check it.

I noticed that getting better at playing slowly actually helped me get better at playing quickly too (to some extent). There is a statistical correlation, indeed, between the regular strength of a chess player (as measured by an official rating) and his or her speed strength (as measured by an official speed rating). This should not be surprising: in distance running, there is a correlation between speed at running a mile and speed at running a marathon. The mile and marathon are very different distances, but a certain kind of fundamental efficiency is involved in both.


Just over a year after I started playing chess again, initially poorly, my practice in playing slow chess at Tuesday night Pittsburgh Chess Club tournaments (at two hours per game for each player) in combination with some (but not too much) casual fast chess at the club resulted in my surprising excellence at “slow fast” chess: I won the 2006 Pennsylvania State Game/29 Championship with a perfect score, and also won the 2006 Pennsylvania State Action Chess Championship with a perfect score (at time controls of 29 minutes per game and 30 minutes per game, respectively). Doing well at two-hour games made me even better at 29-minute games.


Slow practice works. It has worked for me in different fields. I want to make it work for music.

Slow practice requires much discipline, patience, and metacognitive awareness It is easy to take shortcuts unless one has bootstrapped a skill enough in order to be able to know oneself and to recognize one’s weaknesses and deliberately work on correcting them. Wonderful Web sites and books and videos on technique do exist that can help these days, even without a personal instructor.

comments powered by Disqus