Two years after I wrote it the first article about “How to Play Faster” is still read more often than anything else on this ‘blog but, for reasons unknown, few of the readers of that article go on to read this one.
This interest in playing faster is a mixed blessing. On the one hand it shows that people are researching what to do about their problems. But on the other it suggests that they are going about it the wrong way, looking for short cuts and tricks of the trade that will get them results quickly. Of course there is no point doing un-necessary work as though it has some intrinsic virtue. We want only to do what is necessary to reach our goals in a sound way.
I stand by the diagnoses, prognoses and suggested remedies of the earlier article, but here I want to recommend a way that will benefit you much more. It might seem wrong, but it is nevertheless true: If you want to play fast, then trying to play fast, aiming to play fast, is not the best way to do it. Of course you need to do some practice at or beyond performance speed, but that should not be your only practice, or even the main part of it.
Here is the paradox: If you want to play fast do not strive for speed.
Instead strive to understand the music as completely as possible. The main thing is that if you have developed reasonable control of your playing apparatus and knowledge of the piano’s layout, then what determines how quickly you can play is how well you know the piece.
Here is how to do it:
1. Learn the MUSIC. By that I do not mean the sequence of conditioned reflexes and aural/tactile/kinaesthetic/visual feedback that we call “finger memory” or “muscle memory”. I mean themes, melodies, bass-lines, harmonies, counterpoint, cadences, structure, textures, special effects, mood, and so on. To know it as pure music, independently of the keyboard through which it is realised.
2. UNDERSTAND what the music is saying. For that you have to understand the musical language, not by attempting to paraphrase it inadequately in English or French or Chinese but on its own terms. Fortunately we all seem to either be born with the capacity to feel and understand musical messages, or we develop it when we are very young. Even more fortunately, our understanding develops and improves simply by listening to a variety of music. The subconscious mind once again does the work for us. We do not need to consciously think much about it at all. We “just” need to expose ourselves to lots of music and pay attention to it, but without analysing.
3. Work out a fingering that is non-injurious, suitable for the articulation and patterns of stress/release that you wish to create and comfortable (so far as possible) for your hands
4. Practice both short sections (for accuracy and technical development) and longer sections (for fluency)
5. Practice at a variety of speeds, but mostly slowly and with the utmost accuracy
6. If a section breaks down at speed do not simply keep trying until it comes right. FInd out what is causing the breakdown and fix it
When you can play a piece fluently and accurately your subconscious will continue to improve and refine it without conscious effort. You may even find that you have adopted improved fingerings without being consciously aware of how it happened. But until you reach that stage it is best to fix problems by thinking about them and devising a solution.
So … stop … analyse the problem. Devise possible solutions and experiment until you find something that works. Consult a good book on practice drills to find ways to “burn in” the change. Then re-integrate the repaired or newly-learned section with the whole piece by practicing it with a few of the preceding and following measures.
If you have uncovered a gap or weakness in your technique (i.e. the kinds of co-ordination that you can manage) then seek out exercises and etudes to learn the new skill, or devise your own, or seek out similar passages in other pieces.
7. Some teachers recommend playing the piece (or sections) in a way that dissociates the music from a single set of movements, for example crossing the hands so that the RH plays the LH part and vice versa, or inverting treble and bass. I have found that useful for fugues (other than playing the separate parts of a fugue on their own, and in all possible combinations) but not much use for other forms of composition … . But try them, they might work for you.
8. Do not forget the value of mental practice, away from the keyboard. Imagine the movements you have learned and the resulting sound as accurately as possible. Apart from forcing you to make more use of the MUSICAL memory (rather than the KINAESTHETIC memory) this reduces the stresses and strains on your fingers. If you are a young pianist that might not seem to be a priority, but if you want to still be playing with enjoyment 30, 40 or 50 years from now it is important to look after your hands. That means good technique (i.e. economical, non-injurious) and no unnecessary straining. If you can achieve the same result from hours at the keyboard, or from doing something different away from it, then choose the latter!