One of the most common questions asked by readers of this blog is how to play faster. We’re probably all familiar with a scenario in which we’ve laid careful foundations with slow practice only to find that everything falls apart when increasing the tempo beyond a certain point.
Slow practice is excellent for the initial note-learning stages and can also help us as we build up speed. How can we get a piece up to the full speed while retaining the feeling of coordination and control that is possible at slower tempos?
Using a Metronome to Play Faster
A common way to build speed is the incremental metronome method. This works by taking a section of a piece and setting your metronome to a pulse that you can already comfortably manage (this might be very slow). When you can play the passage comfortably, increase the speed of the metronome by an increment of your choice (perhaps 5 bpm, or even less). When you can control your playing at this speed, make another incremental increase on your metronome.
This is a favoured method of many great pianists and clearly has its merits. However, it can also be somewhat time-consuming and tedious, running the risk of becoming mechanical and mindless after a while.
A Better Way to Build Speed
An alternative method, which I find far more efficient in going from a slow note learning tempo to the desired tempo is playing little bits fast, often called “chaining”. This method enables us to build the reflexes for fast playing, and because we limit the length of the chain in each iteration to what is manageable or just outside our grasp, we are able to finesse the sound we are after at full performance speed.
Here’s how it works:
- Without the metronome, play just a few notes at speed, then stop. Think of a sound bite from a full performance, with dynamics, good sound, shaping, etc.
- Evaluate your result as precisely as possible – for example: “The LH was uneven”, or “The hands weren’t together”, or “It felt tight” using the Feedback Loop.
- Mentally rehearse the snippet you played before you repeat it, imagining how it sounds and feels to play evenly, with the hands precisely together, freely, etc. See, hear and feel in your imagination. It is most important to go through this stage before diving into the keyboard again.
- Repeat the previous 2 steps until you are happy.
- Add another note, or group of notes and repeat the process, now with this longer chain.
- Start a new chain from the note(s) you ended on, and work in the same way.
- Now you have two short chains. Join them together until you have one longer one.
- RESIST the temptation to go over things slowly and comfortably – we’re building new reflexes and this will be challenging!
In this clip from a recent online workshop, I show how to apply chaining techniques to the Allegro of the first movement of the Pathétique Sonata of Beethoven:
- For a more indepth I explore this subject in depth in Part One of my eBook series, Practising the Piano – The Practice Tools
- The following blog posts contain more detailed information on the concepts covered in this article:
Getting Your Pieces up to Speed
If you’d like a hands-on demonstration of how to apply these and other practice methods for building speed then you may be interested in joining our upcoming workshop on Sunday 13th June @ 14:00 – 15:30 BST (GMT +1). In this interactive session, Graham Fitch will explore the following topics:
- The technical considerations for fast playing
- Avoiding tension
- When slow practice no longer helps
- Practice method that delivers results
- How to maintain speed and accuracy in old repertoire
The workshop will feature examples and demonstrations followed by exercises that you can try yourself with a piece you’re working on. There will also be opportunities for questions and to get direct feedback from Graham if you wish! Click here for more information or to book your place.