No matter our playing level or age, clean playing and fast playing are often at odds. Over my years of teaching the violin and viola, I’ve noticed that students tend to fall into two camps - those who try to play near tempo from the start, often with a lot of intonation issues and terrible tones, plowing right through mistakes without a second thought, and those who take everything very slowly, who stop and start a lot, apologize for their mistakes, and who may end up playing well in tune and time, but who struggle to get to tempo even after they’ve studied a piece to the point of memorization. Neither approach is better as each has its benefits and its pitfalls.
The first student tends to not mind metronome work and displays more inherent confidence. He doesn’t display obvious signs of performance anxiety, but he may rush through the more challenging sections of a piece in performance, sometimes barely hanging on, other times in a complete train wreck. Missed notes usually don’t shake him up too much. He tends to find technical details tedious and boring, and may become ambivalent towards the teacher who constantly forces him to stop and fix problem areas. It’s not unusual for him to tire of a tune (or the instrument itself), long before the magic day when he’s shaped the chaos and learned to fix the trouble spots needed to play it well.
The second type of student generally hates metronomes and lets rhythm take a back-seat to tuning and tone. With his naturally refined ear and mature musical sensibilities, he can become hyper vigilant of the slightest tone or pitch that isn’t 100% perfect, and often struggles with self-doubt and limiting beliefs about his abilities. He resists the teacher who asks him to boost the tempo, reasoning that he’ll surely fail, and prefers to focus on one piece at a time, with a seemingly endless capacity for repetition in his determination to keep working on a tune for as long as it takes to master it. Eventually he very well may, as long as he can keep his self-critical thoughts from forcing him to quit.
Obviously, many students have a trait or two of each and most are less dramatically polarized, but in all cases, striking a balance between these two extremes is ideal.
Most any practice is welcome practice, but practice geared towards clean playing and practice with the hope of fast playing might look very different and we can’t expect one to automatically lead to the other.
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts and in my podcast, though practicing slowly is great for clean playing (perfect intonation, beautiful tone, etc.) it can create problems when we try to play faster. When the time comes to boost the metronome speed, it’s likely that we’ll hit a wall where the technique we were using to play slow and clean just can’t keep up with the technique we need to play fast.
For example, if we were using large motions in our bowing arm to create our stokes at half speed, we can’t possibly expect to use those same big motions and strokes when playing up to tempo. We won’t be able to keep up and everything will quickly fall apart. We need to use different mechanics when playing slowly versus quickly, and if we play slowly for too long, we’ll need to learn our passages all over again with the correct technique required to play at tempo, at least to some degree.
Similarly, we have ample time to think about each note we’re playing with our left hand when playing slowly. We physically look at each note on the page. We might lift the left hand fingers high and independently. Our eyes may look back and forth between the sheet music and the fingerboard to ensure that each finger tip is perfectly placed. And this will absolutely help us develop playing that is well in tune, but perhaps not the most fluent or fast playing.
Getting up to tempo, we can’t possibly play or read note by note anymore. We don’t have time to constantly look back and forth between the music and the violin. We can’t process a smooth melody line finger by finger. To play at a fast tempo we must process the left hand fingerings as a flow of patterns and shapes, with no finger acting independent of the next. We might imagine it like a string of dancers, holding hands and moving in choreographed sequence across the stage. Each has their millisecond in the spotlight, but they flow by as a unit.
Even with a high level of playing experience, we can expect to spend some time with a new piece with at least some of the practice exercises I’ve detailed in other posts and podcasts. Some will be more beneficial for accuracy, others for speed.
Common ideas might be:
- We might work on speed in little groups of 2+ notes, played at or near tempo, with liberal rests in between each flurry of activity. This helps us look ahead on the page and plan out what it will take for our body and mind to make our next move. Many pedagogies describe this sort of approach and Galamian goes into it in great deal in his scale system. This can be a particularly effective way to practice both speed and clean playing as long as we give ourselves enough time to plan each execution. An example of this type of practice technique is at the end of the second additional reading link at the bottom of this post.
- We might need to work on both clean playing and fast playing by first isolating our bow strokes, maybe even down to just the open string choreography. We’ll need to identify the moments that will require smaller wrist, hand, or even finger motions for tiny centimeter or millimeter bow strokes, versus the moments calling for longer strokes coming from the forearm or the shoulder. If we can’t get good tone or reach top speed here, it makes no sense to complicate matters with a melody line.
- We might need to experiment with bow distribution and usage, especially when we want to increase speed. All areas of the bow are not created equal, and students are continually amazed at how moving just a few inches up or down the bow length can drastically improve their chances for success, both in terms of speed and tone, not to mention strokes like spiccato that really only work in a very narrow region of the stick. Playing slowly, we’ll use more bow generally, and most any area of the bow can work for many types of strokes, but when it comes time to play a fast passage with energy and confidence, being stuck at the frog or the very tip can find us struggling to keep up and annoyed by tone challenges.
- When moments in the music cause us to stall, we may need to isolate string crossings, shifts, passages with accidentals, fourth fingers, transitions in key, tempo, time signature, mood, color, dynamics... really any section that requires us to focus on several elements or motions at once.
Chunking the music down enough so that we can still play it cleanly, but playing these sections as close to performance speed as possible from the beginning, is one of the best ways to avoid the pitfall of learning to play with mechanics that will only work for slower passages. This practice idea is often accepted by both types of students described above. The notes are still played fast enough for the first student to feel challenged and avoid boredom, and for the second student, the chunks are small enough and with enough space to think in between that he isn’t overwhelmed.
As romantic as playing the violin (or another instrument) may sound, success comes most easily to those who are inquisitive and flexible, accept that learning will be a process of making mistakes, and who can set aside any expectations about "perfect" playing to enjoy the process of improving over time. Effective practice isn’t about repeating a piece from start to finish, hoping to avoid mistakes and counting on having better luck next time. Playing straight through has its place, but when we’re first learning a piece we have to realize that this approach really doesn’t require more creativity from us then what’s printed right there in music. When the same trouble spots linger after months or weeks of running through from start to finish, it's no wonder we become frustrated and wonder if maybe we’re just not talented enough. Similarly, trying to play straight through and stopping and fixing mistakes whenever they show up isn’t the best method for eventual mastery and performance either. We run the risk of building a habit of unnecessary hesitations. Either way, we can’t possibly expect to get up to tempo if we still have these trouble spots waiting to derail us at any moment.
The first days of practice on a new piece is our best window for troubleshooting, planning our fingerings and bowings (and writing them into the part!), and identifying the spots we’ll need to practice the most. Our priority beyond basic decisions about arrangement, needs to be identifying the problem areas and getting inside all the gritty details about why they are so challenging. Then comes time to experiment with different approaches, like our small note groupings, or employing dotted rhythms or accents. We need to repeat our chunks and passages in different ways, learning holistically and thoroughly so nothing will shake us. And we need to keep shifting our focus between the different elements we’ll need to master - left hand, right hand, and everything both of those entail. There’s so much to keep track of when playing a violin and it’s all too easy to become obsessed with one element of our playing to the detriment of everything else.
As boring and intellectual as that all may sound to some, it frames our practice for measurable success rather than chance, and it can be quite a relief and confidence booster to realize after the very first practice on a new piece that there may only be a few bars per piece or page that we really need to work on technically. If we prepare well, before long the technical becomes much more automatic and our focus shifts more to music making as we build the stamina to play straight through the piece every time.
I am a fan of attempting some run throughs at tempo or close to it the first time however, even if we’re making a huge mess of things on that initial try. It’s a great way to gain insight into what it will take to eventually get to speed, show us which sections will really need our attention, and it gives us a sense for how the piece fits together as a whole, both technically and musically. Then we can go back and do the real work, breaking those sections down and cleaning them up, practicing speed in short, contained bursts rather than flailing around all through our practice sessions.
I’m also a fan of metronome practice right from the beginning. Some students complain that they can’t possibly learn to play a new piece in tune or get the right bowings down if they have to keep such steady time, but pulse and rhythm are just as important as tone and tuning. If we can’t learn to play in tune and with the right bowings on demand (the demand of the metronome in this instance), then how can we possibly expect to do it down the road when we’re trying to get up to tempo and out on stage? If we choose a metronome speed we can process and keep up with, our practice with it will quickly show us the holes we might have in our technique and shine a light on the real trouble spots we’ll need to spend our time on.
And we may need to shift our focus back and forth between the different elements of our playing, especially with a new piece or when we’re a beginner. This may mean that in order to keep good time and rhythm we play a few notes out of tune or with problematic tone on a run through, but we will still pat ourselves on the back when we meet our objectif du jour. Then we shift our focus to a different goal and let ourselves feel good about some time spent practicing perfect intonation perhaps, letting the rhythm and tempo take a back seat for a bit. If we stick with it, eventually we’ll be able to juggle increasingly complex combinations of elements, fluently, automatically, and up to speed.
For further support on this topic, check out this short excerpt from Simon Fisher’s book “Practice”: https://www.simonfischeronline.com/uploads/5/7/7/9/57796211/247_january_2012_playing_fast.pdf
And this blog post from Noa Kageyama which pretty much sums up the thoughts I’ve presented here in a sports study: https://bulletproofmusician.com/struggling-to-get-a-tricky-passage-up-to-tempo-try-this-clever-practice-technique
I hope you’ll find these ideas useful in your quest for speed! Happy Practicing!