The Practice of “Slow Practice”

turtle_clipartA friend pointed me to a site called  The Bulletproof Musician that I was reading through when I came upon some interesting that I thought was relevant to leaders.  The content I’m referring to is here.

Here is an excerpt:

Slow practice in the martial arts

I began dabbling a bit in the martial arts when I went to college. My karate sensei would often make us practice our techniques in super slow motion to ensure we were using proper form and really developing an understanding of the nuances of each movement.

Of course, it took me a while to understand why we were doing this. At first, as in music, I thought it was a waste of time. But then I realized how much more difficult it was to punch or kick in slow motion. It required a much deeper understanding of what each movement actually required. Slowly (ha, ha), I came to understand where I had missed the boat all these years.

The point is not whether the punch or kick hits the target (or whether you nail the shift or get the note in tune), but whether you do everything correctly along the way. Meaning, are you keeping your key muscles loose? Are you moving all of your muscles in the most effective way? Are you maximizing accuracy and efficiency? Are you nailing every single tiny little detail?

Slow practice in music

I had forgotten all about this until very recently, when I had the pleasure of interviewing Philadelphia Orchestra concertmaster David Kim. He revealed that one of the keys to his success (and building confidence as well) is super slow practice. A process of practicing in slow motion – while being fully mindful, highly engaged, and thinking deeply in real-time about what he is doing. Incidentally, this is not a painful torturous process, but often an engrossing and gratifying one.  A way in which to open up the door to many satisfying micro-discoveries that could ultimately be the key to getting a phrase to sound just so, and communicating exactly what it is that you intend.

Two misunderstandings

So why don’t we do more slow practice? It’s not because we’re lazy; I think it’s just a big misunderstanding.

1. We are too concerned with the outcome, not the process

Meaning, we forget that how we get there is just as important as whether or not we do.  The point of slow practice is not just to slow things down in order to play it perfectly. It’s about fine-tuning the execution, and looking for additional ways to play it even better while we are playing slowly enough to monitor and think about the little details.  Are you cultivating the right habits, so that when the tempo increases, you are still playing it the right way? Or are there lots of inefficiencies, or bad habits that will lead to breakdowns when you increase the tempo?

2. We don’t practice slowly enough.

Since the whole point is to be able to think, monitor, and analyze our technique as we are playing, practicing at a moderate tempo defeats the purpose. It’s too fast for us to observe, fully process, and tweak all the little details.  The idea is to utilize super slow practice so that we can pay attention to all the subtle nuances of our mechanics, increase our awareness of what is actually happening, and find ways to make things better. So it might be more accurate to think of this as slow-motion practice or super-slow practice, rather than regular old slow practice, which tends to lead to mindless play-throughs of a passage at a moderately slow tempo.

Managers live in a fast paced high pressure world forced to meet deadlines and quotas.  This all means “fast”.  Though we often speak of quality, we don’t often slow down enough to see the actual mechanics of our organizational processes well enough to “fine tune” them.  But we can’t run until we learn to walk, and we can’t do the heavy lifting for our organization until we learn the proper form.  If you’re a manager, slow things down every once in a while.  Take some time to break down an activity and run through it “super slow motion” with your people.  Try and understand the intricacies of the activity more precisely.  Identify which tasks are critical for quality and which are not.  Do this “off-line” when failure does not cost you anything but a little bit of time.  And for goodness sake, have some fun while you at it.  It’s not punishment, it’s practice.


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