How to Play Faster – Part 1

There are several threads running on the ABRSM forum about playing fast. Here is the main one:

Speed

The opening idea is that it is difficult or impossible for older learners to develop the ability to play rapidly.

Is this true? I think not. At least nothing I have read, seen, or experienced supports that view. So far as I can tell you can learn to play most things plenty fast enough at any age, though I don’t deny that the ultimate in virtuosity can be achieved only by those that started in childhood.

I can say for sure that the ability to play fast and fluent is capable of huge improvement even by 50-somethings. That is because I returned to the piano at the age of 52 after years of neglect. At the time of writing this article I was 57 years old, and one result of 5 years hard work is that I need to I can play very much faster and more fluently. Not that there is any end to it.  So long as you keep studying and practicing intelligently improvement can continue until the mind and body are in terminal decline.

But I am not a genuine adult beginner, I started to play piano when I was 8 [already too late according to Nadia Boulanger!] and was getting good by the time I was 17. Perhaps it is different for learners that take up the instrument in adulthood. I still don’t think so. I have an adult male student who is Grade 6 or 7 standard. When it comes to playing fast he can rattle through those Grade 3 and 4 pieces almost as quickly as I can. What is more he already had that ability when he was preparing to take his Grade 5 exam.

There are plenty of misconceptions about what is entailed in playing fast, and plenty of mutually incompatible ideas about how to learn to do it. In my experience striving to play faster rarely works, and often results in playing even slower, or at least more sloppily. It is more effective to take an indirect approach, and to eliminate the obstacles to playing fast.

So here are some of the principles:

KNOW THE KEYBOARD:
If you need to look at the keyboard to find the notes then you will not be able to play particularly quickly. Any competent pianist can find the notes with only a rare look at the keyboard to make big leaps secure. Partly this is an absolute sense of where each key is, but more important is using knowledge of where the fingers are to judge where they need to go next.  That is to say a sense of relative positions.

This is huge.  Do not underestimate how much a complete familiarity with the keyboard can improve every aspect of your play.

It has to be subconscious to be useful. The conscious mind is just not quick enough. You should not need to think about where the notes are, you should just know. The skills also develop mostly subconsciously and over years of practice, but you can help them along.

[p.s. I am not a psychologist.  The differences of meaning of “subconscious” and “subconscious” are too subtle for me.]

A simple way to help your subconscious is to always sit in precisely the same position relative to the piano whenever you play. Not only do you need to set the stool so that your arms are at the right height and your body at the right distance (for you) but also you need to position yourself correctly in left to right relationship with the keys. What works for many is to align the navel with middle C.

I also found that my instinctive knowledge of the keyboard took a huge leap forward when I began to improvise more and more often in my practice sessions.

But the main thing is to work your way through lots and lots of music of great variety.  Avoid looking at the keyboard as much as possible when you are sight reading.  Watch your hands when you are playing from memory.

KNOW STANDARD FINGER PATTERNS AND SEQUENCES:
Certain sequences of notes crop up again and again, so if you can already manage those patterns almost automatically then you have a head start in playing quickly. Most obviously knowing scales and arpeggios helps with music from the Baroque period, the Classical and Romantic repertoire and even much 20th century music.

When practicing for speed single-hand scales are more useful than hands-together. As well as learning single note sequences scales in thirds and sixths in one hand also need to be known.

But scales and arpeggios are not the only patterns. The much maligned Hanon exercises systematically put the fingers through all kinds of useful sequences. It is not NECESSARY to study Hanon, Czerny et al. You can learn the same skills eventually by learning enough repertoire. But for anyone that enjoys separate technical exercises they are a very efficient way of learning technique, with the side benefit of developing stamina. If your time is limited you can do very well with just a small selection from Hanon, for example just Nos. 45, 46 and 50.

It is the same when playing chords. When you see a chord of 2, 3, 4, or 5 notes on the stave then you should instantly have some idea how it will sound and, perhaps more importantly, should know how your hand will feel as it plays it, even down to the different levels of tension in the fingers that will voice the chord correctly in its musical context.

KNOW THE PIECE:
It amazes me that some students complain that they cannot play a piece as fast as they need to when they have not even learned it properly.

If you still need to use the score to translate the squiggles into the note names then you have no chance of playing quickly. If your sight reading is better so that a glance suffices to allow you to both pre-hear the sound and to find the notes with your hands … then you may still struggle.

So memorize! Only when your hands can find the right notes, in the right order, virtually without conscious thought will you attain truly high speed with fluency. As Kendall Taylor wrote (Principles of Piano Technique and Interpretation) “the notes of the piece should follow one another as easily and fluently as the notes of the C major scale”.

MINIMIZE CHANGES OF HAND POSITION:
This is an example of a more general rule: to minimize movement by eliminating unecessary movements, and refining necessary ones. Moving the fingers is fast, shifting the whole hand by moving the arm can slow things down. In general the fewer changes of hand position, the faster the playing.

Common sense has to be used. If you end up making big jerky moves then the end result is not going to work. You may have to compromise to maintain the correct phrasing.

Be aware that when playing a scale sequence at high speed there is not time to keep the legato by turning the thumb under and actually connecting the notes, as is sometimes necesssary in an Adagio. What is worse it can lead to injury of the thumb’s base joint. Instead the hand moves smoothly and the thumb skips sideways, hardly turning under the palm at all. At high speed it still sounds legato, either because the damping has not had time to work fully, or because the mind does not notice any tiny gaps, or a bit of both.

GET THE FINGERING RIGHT:
Sometimes it is an awkward fingering that disturbs the flow and slows you down. For fast play the general principle is to use long groups. For example to play an ascending chromatic scale with the right hand (starting on C) with 1234 123 1234 12, rather than the “standard” 13 13 123 13 13 12

KEEP THE FINGERS CLOSE TO THE KEYS:
It was said of Chopin that when he played his fingers seemed glued to the keys. This is another example of minimizing movement. All movement takes time. Theoretically the less you do the quicker can be the sequence of notes. Fortunately the a priori logic is borne out in practice. Some books (and who knows – maybe some teachers) advocate lifting the fingers high. That may be a useful exercise (I am undecided) but it is definitely not a good way to perform except, perhaps, for some rare special effect.

USE TECHNIQUE APPROPRIATE TO THE TARGET SPEED (NOT THE PRACTICE SPEED):
I often see pianists practicing fast movements as if they were Adagios. In slow practice they produce a beautiful controlled sound, with smooth legato where it is needed, but as soon as they try to speed up it falls apart.

The reason is simple. Presto uses qualitatively different movements than Adagio. A Presto is no more a speeded-up Adagio than an Olympic 100m sprint is a speeded up walk.

But it is not to simple as reproducing in slow motion the movements that you will make when you get up to speed. That turns out to be almost impossible. What you have to do is practise movements that, when speeded up, will naturally become the correct movements for the higher speed.

It is hard to explain, but easy to demonstrate. It is like jogging (rather than walking) to easily shift to a sprint or, on horseback cantering rather than trotting, so as to easily shift to a full gallop.

THINK OF TOUCHING THE KEYS RATHER THAN PUSHING THEM DOWN:
This is a tip that my teacher gave me after we had listened to an astonishingly fast recording of the Passepied from Debussy’s “Suite Bergamasque” by Sviatoslav Richter. When I tried the staccato let hand I could get nowhere near Richter’s speed. She gave me this simple tip, and I attained it with only a few minutes practice. I don’t know the theory behind how it works, and I suspect that you have to have done plenty of slow practice, making sure that each note actually sounds, before using this trick to get faster. But work it does.

A NOTE ON RELAXATION:
You will often hear the platitude that to play quickly you have to relax completely. Taken literally that is total nonsense. If you ever relaxed completely you would fall in a heap on the floor. Maintaining your posture needs tension in opposing sets of muscles. Tension in itself is not a problem. It is necessary. It is too much tension that is the problem.

To move a finger the muscles in the forearm to the tendons on the underside of the finger contract. If there is excess tension in the opposing muscles (those that control the tendons on the upper side of the finger) then its movement will be slowed down. It is a bit like pressing your car’s accelerator without releasing the brake.

What we are seeking is optimal tension at all times. We need to be able to relax the muscles that oppose the movement we want to make, and to relax them to just the right degree … not too much or the movement will be uncontrolled. In some players this ability develops seemingly of its own accord as they play and practice. The subconscious mind sorts out what needs to be done. Others have problems and remain overly tense.

What is to be done? A direct approach, telling yourself to relax does not work. And direct, concscious control of the muscles is not possible. We control the muscles only through the intention to make some movement, the details are beyond our conscious control. But all is not lost. There are many avenues to explore. Practicing tai-chi or yoga is beneficial, as is any form of meditation. More direct methods that work by re-educating the body to move more naturally are Alexander taining and the Feldenkrais method.

SOME CLOSING THOUGHT ON FINGER SPEED:
I used to think that people had it wrong to think that playing fast required especially fast finger movements. I have posted on other notice boards that finger speed affects the volume of a note, and that rapid sequences of notes are attained not by moving faster, but by reducing the interval between notes. Well, I was wrong, at least partly wrong.

It is still true that good technique (as outlined above), subconscious knowledge of keyboard geography, and a well-trained ability to play notes in many different sequences are very important, but at really high speeds the fingers have to move faster as well. I know this from watching many videos of good pianists playing at a variety of speeds.

So how is it possible to play fast and quiet? Why do not the faster fingers result in a louder sound. This dilemma can be resolved by watching what good pianists really do, rather than what some books and some teachers say you should do. Many piano methods insist on depressing each key fully to ensure that the note sounds. But at high speed that is simply too slow.

What good pianists actually do is tap the key quickly but shallowly. The shallow action (allied with faster movement, good technique, and a well learned piece) allows for spectacularly fast playing. The notes still come out piano because after the initial impulse given to it by the finger the key, with no continuing force to maintain its speed, is slowed down by gravity and friction, so that at the moment of the hammer’s set-off it is travelling at just the right speed to produce piano or pianissino. But this is an advanced skill. Getting it right demands much finer control, judgement and sensitivity than playing more loudly. It is easy for some notes to come out too loud, or too soft, or not to sound at all.

For another blog with more ideas on fast playing, and references to articles and Videos on the web, see this entry in Busted Piano String’s blog

Ten times as many people have read this article than anything else I have written, so I do not understand why so few go on to read my later article “How to play faster: Part 2”.

Please read it. There is a lot more to think about.

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3 responses to “How to Play Faster – Part 1

  1. Pingback: How to Play Music Faster | Busted Piano String

  2. Hello Tom, I think this topic “Speed” is very useful to all pianists; while people focus on speed, they could lose quality. The postural techniques and tips, and the movement of the thumb are insightful indeed, and I do believe that Hanon exercises could prove very useful to a budding pianist. As you mentioned, the word ‘relaxation’ has to be tempered to the project at hand. I especially liked the analogy of a car brake and accelerator when you wrote about ‘optimal tension’. Thank you for this information, which I intend to put into practise in my piano playing.