On smoothness

The most important thing an instrumentalist needs to be able to play difficult music perfectly is of course a great deal of practice.

But I believe that the idea of practicing for smoothness makes your instrumental practice more effective and more entertaining.

Smoothness is the even flow over time of intensity, pitch and timbre.

Perfect uniformity is a form of smoothness, but a drum machine has perfect uniformity yet is also sterile and eventually uneventful.

Smoothness can be uniformity but is also smooth change — speeding up, slowing down, becoming more or less intense or shifting in timbre.

The idea of smoothness is neither new nor a secret — I first read of it without understanding it in my early teens, when my teacher gave me “Klosé’s Celebrated Method for the Clarinet”, a text I now discover was originally written in 1843.

What I realized much later from that book and other sources is that to learn to play a complex passage fast, you need to learn it absolutely perfectly smoothly at the slowest possible speed, and then gradually crank up the speed while keeping that perfect smoothness.

If I’m trying to learn to play a new piece of music, I often start with the very smallest unit that makes sense — four bars, two bars, perhaps one, perhaps even less, perhaps just a few notes.

And I learn that little “unit of song” quite slowly. I have a lot of fun with this period because I have low expectations and no specific time budget.

I usually start with just the first note to get warmed up, and quickly bring in the second and get a fully repetitive groove going between two notes, or sometimes three or four or maybe a couple more, but making sure to keep the rhythm as exactly as possible.

In other words, I’m playing an opening section of the piece of music I’m learning — and I loop it over and over and over and over.

Once I have this loop going, I then mentally detach while keeping it playing as best as I can — and look at what’s going on.

Are my hands relaxed? Could the position of any fingers be improved? Am I producing the notes properly so each note rings out clearly and individually? Is the rhythm correct? Am I unintentionally speeding up or slowing down?

A metronome is often really helpful early on here, but I think too much metronome or drum machine is bad for your natural sense of flow overall. A sense of time must at some point come naturally from within, and in order to do that you must learn to listen to your internal time clock.

Don’t think this goes as quickly as I write it out. Still too often in the early phases of something I am caught by the centipede’s dilemma (“How exactly do all those legs work anyway?”) and fumble over and over. Sometimes hours go by and I do not master anything.

But at least I have something to do then — I slow down until I can get it perfectly. If I keep failing, I slow down to ridiculous levels and treat it as a meditational exercise. There is always some speed where I can get it every single time.

I do this for a while and at a certain point, this pattern falls completely under my fingers. I am at my instrument, I need this pattern, I wiggle my fingers, and it comes right out without my really thinking about it.

Once you are there with the unit under your fingers, or close to there — then go on! Go to the next part of your song, and repeat. Build up the sections you know how to play.

Don’t follow this exact method slavishly — each piece of music is its own thing and need to be explored on its own terms — but the idea of first mastering tiny sections at a slow speed will probably be at the base of all your practicing of difficult pieces.

Now, it sounds impossibly long that way. And for the first several pieces, it’s a very long process.

But you quickly realize that each piece of music only has a fairly small number of patterns in it, as the composer repeats and develops specific ideas. It make take you eight hours to master the first two bars, but then it might take you two hours to master the last 16 bars, because it’s all patterns you already know from previous bars.

And there are only so many patterns that you fingers can be asked to do. After not-so-many pieces, you find that that the eight hours to master the first two bars might become two hours to master the first eight.

(I should note that there are many varieties of music that are jerky — music that is in some sense “not smooth” — music that has sudden percussive jumps in intensity or timbre or time. But the same learning technique still applies — smoothness is at its base about fine-level control of time, intensity and timbre, and that control can be used to make jerky music as well as anything else.)

I echo ten thousand great teachers of the past when I tell you that there’s no royal road to instrumental mastery which bypasses a huge amount of practice time: but practicing for smoothness will make better use of your practice time, and even better, make that time more amusing for you.

(At this point I suppose I should put up or shut up, so as an example of smoothness I’d offer this composition of mine where I am playing all the parts…)