Q: How to play fast? A: Practice slow

200_sTechnique came up briefly in my last post about practice techniques but it deserves so much more than a simple paragraph. Good mechanics, accuracy, control, and overall good musical technique are not always god given. In fact, musicians have a rich history of obsession in this area.

One of my favorite composers, Robert Schumann was hell bent on perfecting his piano technique since the music coming out during that time period was incredibly difficult to play. Early Romantic era études, ballades, and scherzos from masters like Chopin, Liszt, and Mendelssohn were flashy to say the least and to perform them well, you had to have some serious skills. To strengthen his fingers, Schumann allegedly went so far as to use a contraption that isolated his fingers and required him to apply more force than usual to play each key. Schumann suffered a hand injury from practicing that badly impacted his playing career.

Instead of focusing on physical strength and dexterity, I want to use these pages to give you tips on how I approach technique, from a mental perspective. It’s all about breaking down phrases and passages and then putting them back together. Do it slowly AND with a metronome. Control is key.

Lets use a 2 bar passage stuffed with 16th notes as an example. This passage comes from the playing of Berklee grad/banjo extraordinaire, Ricky Mier. Give his version of Big Sciota a listen for some context of what we will be working on…

The passage we will focus on starts at :36 seconds in…

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OK, so we have the notes and we know how it sounds. How can we break this passage down so we can truly know it inside and out? Turn your metronome on (slow) and try these techniques out…

Technique #1 – Change the accents

Changing which notes are accented forces you to listen to what you are playing in a different way. You will stretch your brain and enhance your muscle memory. Not too tough when accenting every 2nd or 4th note, but accents on the 3rd, 5th, 6th, 7th notes? Be patient and try to avoid listening to the true melody of the song. Focus on the new, disjointed melody you are creating with your new accents…

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etc…  (TIP – Don’t stop after the easy ones. The 5th note exercise might frustrate you but shed it. Your playing will leap.)

Technique #2 – Swing it!

This one is easy when practicing with 8th note or 16th note passages.

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When you have that down, do the inverse.

Technique #3 – Fill the beats

This technique is my favorite but it can be quite difficult (and annoying to spouses, pets, mothers-in-law who have been staying with you for 3+ months, and most other living creatures with ears). Your metronome should still be on a slow tempo, slow it down even more. You’ll see why…

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Easy, right? Now try 2 notes per beat…

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Still easy..

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The original melody and phrasing become obsolete when you break it down in this manner. By focusing your mind on fitting the notes within the beats, you are subconsciously developing muscle memory AND SPEED!

If you want to hear this in action, click below to hear me giving it a shot.

There is no limit to the ways you can alter these exercises, we are only scratching the surface in this post. Other ideas: Staccato/legato, repeating the same exercises above but starting on a random note, sing the exercises in your head, play them to the rhythm of a totally different song, anything else you can think of.

All ideas will be effective as long as you follow the 2 rules. Use a metronome and start slow….painfully slow!!!

-Mike

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