Strategies for Speed

            Once we master the notes and rhythms of a piece, the daunting challenge awaits of speeding up the piece to performance tempo. This process often consumes a large amount of time and can often be frustrating when we get stuck at a certain tempo. Many times it feels like the piece will never reach full tempo. Let’s look at the appropriate time to begin speeding up a piece and three strategies to help overcome the tempo roadblock and truly master playing quickly.

            The first questions we must ask are, “At what tempo can I play the hardest part accurately?” and, “What is my goal tempo?” Too often we do not know what tempo we have already achieved or which parts tend to fall behind if we were to check with the metronome. (As a side note, all of these activities require a metronome, so if you don’t have one GET ONE. If a tempo is not indicated in the sheet music, listen to some recordings, or seek your teacher’s advice on a suitable and realistic tempo. Once you have ascertained a baseline tempo at which you can perform all parts of the piece or movement accurately and consistently, we will build from there. Here are three strategies to use in gaining concert tempo.

Speeding Up - Metronome - Cello Life Blog

To Gain Speed…Bump Up the Metronome

            The most commonly used strategies in speeding up music is to simply bump up the metronome a few clicks per minute. If you can play the piece, hard parts and all with the metronome at =60, you can probably play it at =65. Continue increasing the metronome a few clicks at a time until the music goes by so fast that you can no longer play accurately. At that point, slow down the metronome by a few clicks and continue getting comfortable at your maximum speed. Don’t simply speed ahead and accept mistakes. Find your comfort level and be prepared to push that level the next time you sit down to practice.

Two things to note:

1. Don’t get frustrated. If you hit a maximum speed and cannot overcome it, take a break and come back later.

2. Don’t expect the same level of proficiency the next time you pick up your instrument. Forgetting happens quickly. It is not unusual to feel like you are starting from the same slow tempo for several days in a row. With daily practice, you will be able to speed up the piece, but it may not happen the first (or second, or third!) time you pick up the instrument. This is normal, so do not be alarmed if (when) this is the case for you.

To Gain Speed…Add a Note 

            The Add a Note strategy gives the right hand practice at tempo while the left hand slowly adds the notes. Here is a short example of the Add a Note strategy at work.

First pick one of the hard spots which tends to be difficult playing quickly compared with the work as a whole. 

Speeding up Hungarian Rhapsody - Cello Life Blog
David Popper Hungarian Rhapsody

 Notice that we start with a short segment, as this strategy works best when used with small portions of music.

            To begin, we will take just the first note and play it with the rhythm of the passage, straight 16th notes in this case. The metronome should be set significantly faster than you can play the passage comfortably, even up to final performance tempo. 

Cello Life Blog - Jonathan Simmons - Add a note for speed
Step 1

As you continue, simply add one note at a time until you are playing the passage as originally written. 

Jonathan Simmons - Cello Life Blog - Add a Note Step 2
Step 2 – add the 2nd note
Jonathan Simmons Cello Life Blog - Add a Note Step 3
Step 3 – add the 3rd note

To Reach Concert Tempo…Practice Rhythms  

            In addition to Add a Note, we can speed up the music by playing all the notes yet altering the rhythms. These rhythms work best in perpetual motion passages like the one above, but can be applied to many different types of rhythmic passages. Different rhythms are applied to simple meter (where the bottom number of the time signature is 2 or 4) and compound meter (where the bottom number of the time signature is 8). Here are examples of the rhythms to use in order to speed up passages in each of these meters. Let’s first start with the passage from Hungarian Rhapsody as an example.

Jonathan Simmons Cello Life Blog - Hungarian Rhapsody
As written

            The first practice rhythms we could apply are dotted figures. Make one note long and the next note short at a quicker tempo than you could play all the notes as written. When written out, these practice rhythms would look like this:

Practice Dotted Rhythms to Speed up Music
Practice Rhythm 1 – Dotted Note First
Practice Dotted Rhythms to Speed up Music 2
Practice Rhythm 2 – Dotted Note Second

Once the first two practice rhythms are mastered, move on to playing more notes up to tempo. In the next practice rhythms, only one note per beat is altered. By this point, you are already playing three out of four notes at or near tempo!

Speed up notes 2-4
Practice Rhythm 3 – First Note Long
Speed up notes 1, 3-4
Practice Rhythm 4 – Second Note Long
Speed up notes 1-2, 4
Practice Rhythm 5 – Third Note Long
Speed up notes 1-3
Practice Rhythm 6 – Fourth Note Long

                        Now onto compound meter. Music in this meter being divided into an odd number of three, different practice rhythms must be employed. Two of the three notes can be sped up at once. The following example show three possible practice rhythms.

Rhythm as Written
Practice Rhythm 1 – First Note Long
Practice Rhythm 2 – Last Note Long
Practice Rhythm 3 – Middle Note Long

Gaining speed is an ongoing process, but these three strategies of employing the metronome, adding a note, and utilizing practice rhythms can help speed the journey along. For more great tips on practicing, a wonderful resource is the book Practicing for Artistic Success. Many more techniques for speeding up music can be found in the book.

I hope you feel more ready to begin speeding up your music having read this post. Happy practicing, and let me know how it goes!



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