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Learn to play fast - part two: Step 1 Tempo

The fundamentals are nothing new...if you want to play fast, you have to start slow. Everybody knows that! Still my students love to work with me on this, because they discover that there’s a certain way to tackle this old adagium that gets them just that bit further. That’s why I love to share it with you here!

The goal is to play EVERYTHING fast COMFORTABLY.

Everything means: Notes, rhythm, articulation, dynamics, phrasing and character. Comfortably means: You enjoy a relatively relaxed approach to the passage both physically and mentally.

This is totally achievable if you apply these instructions to your passage of choice:

  1. Set the metronome at a ridiculously slow tempo. Let’s say 48 per quarter note, for a passage in 16th notes. At this tempo you can feel what every part of your body is doing when you play.

  2. Play the passage, and concentrate on your hands: are they active, but not tense? Are your fingers curved, and hands in line with your wrists? Focus your state of mind: Feel every single note in every single finger.

  3. Choose the best fingerings at this stage. The ones you choose now, are the ones you’ll be stuck with, so try out different fingerings to choose wisely. Ground rule for choosing fingerings: whatever makes you feel happy is good. If perhaps you’re not familiar with alternative fingerings it’s always good to check out some possibilities and practice them until you are familiar with them. That gives you the opportunity to choose objectively.

  4. Now concentrate on your arms, shoulders and neck: Active, not tense. Shoulders relaxed, down (not lifted towards your ears), neck long, the back of your head in line with your back, stretch the spine. Upper arms next to the body, not lifted outward, or moving about all the time. Wrists flexible, able to move so that the arms can stay in place. This is best checked in the mirror, or if you’re feeling particularly masochistic today, film yourself.

  5. Now play it again and concentrate on your airflow: Steady, high speed, no stops or bumps or fluctuation. If you’re not sure that your airflow is fast, imagine blowing air through a thin straw. That takes a little effort and helps you sense the abdominal muscles that support your air. Or imagine producing cold air as opposed to warm air - you can feel that when you blow air on the back of your hand for instance. The air speed is incredibly important

    1. It sustains all muscular movements, it makes you stronger

    2. It keeps the sound going and flowing

    3. It makes your sound attractive - if you play fast but with an ugly sound, that’s still no good ;-p

    4. It gives direction to the passage that you play

  6. If you haven’t already, start paying attention to all the musical details: articulation - dynamics - phrasing - expression - character - theatrics if you will. Still playing at this ridiculously slow tempo gives you ample time to get a sense of all this at the same time. Enjoy playing around, see what happens when you over-articulate, or exaggerate all dynamics. Try out all different characters you can pry out of this passage - play the diva, the drill instructor, sing a lullaby and yell a cheer.

  7. Now don’t forget to celebrate your success: Just in case you didn’t have now repeated the passage at least 6 times, and you’re already getting better at it.

Finally it’s time to rev it up: Speed up that metronome setting by 4, so from 48 to 52, to 56, to 60 and so on. You’ll notice that some settings require you only play the passage once - everything works, steps 2-6 fall into place at once. But some settings require that you repeat steps 2-6, in order to keep all ducks in a row. And then finally, you reach your ceiling of the day, impossible to speed it up further. Time to stop and congratulate yourself on having done an outstanding job!

Tomorrow is another day, start again at a metronome setting that allows you to play EVERYTHING fast COMFORTABLY, and continue the good work.

I hope you’ll enjoy working this way! And if you’re a little confused about all the instructions on posture...sorry about that...I’m filming a series of tutorials on this same topic, I think filming this makes it so much clearer! So subscribe to my YouTube channel and you’ll receive a notification when my tutorials are published!

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