Search This Blog

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Quick Practice Tip: Building up Speed with Thoughtful Chunks

Recently a friend and I were talking about our students' struggles to increase the speed of a passage once they had learned the notes and bowing. I remembered when I first studied more advanced repertoire, I puzzled over the same issue: how to go faster and how to measure my progress. That was when I discovered the metronome and its power.

I would decide what my ultimate tempo goal was, and I set the metronome somewhere about half that speed. Every day I would play the passage with my metronome and increase the speed gradually until I had reached my ultimate tempo. Along the way I became quite familiar with the ins and outs of the passage because I spent so much time thinking about the passage while I was playing.

And that is the problem with this traditional approach of using a metronome and increasing speed a little at a time. The entire exercise takes a very long time to complete, especially in this day and age of digital metronomes that can increase speed at the excruciatingly slow speed of a click at a time. There has to be a faster way, and there is but you must practice carefully and precisely. I call this method "thoughtful chunks."

I will use the Seitz Concerto No. 5, 3rd movement (Suzuki Violin Book 4, #3) as my example of how this process works. I will use the passage in measures 101-108.

The difficulties for the student in this passage are that the bow has to play a large number of notes in a slur (6) and the student may not be the best reader yet. I teach my students how to play this passage pretty much at full speed from the beginning using the method I am about to describe.

After my student plays the first note of measure 101, I ask them to stop and consider the next series of notes to be played with the bow (in this case, the 6-note slur on an up bow plus 1 note F# on a down bow).

When the student is certain that he or she can play the little snippet without a mistake, I ask the student to go ahead and try it. If the student succeeds, we celebrate. If the student stumbles, I suggest that the student may not have thought long enough, and we try it again.

We progress in this fashion, snippet by snippet, chunk by chunk until we have gone through the entire passage or whatever length we have determined was our goal for the day.

The student must learn to spend time thinking about the passage before playing it in order to ensure that the student plays the passage correctly. Incorrect playing is incorrect practicing. Remember the old adage: practice makes perfect. In actuality, practice makes permanent, so the student had better be sure to play everything correctly the first time and every time.

Practicing the passage in this manner accomplishes several things:

  • The student will teach his or her fingers how to play fast from the initial practice session.
  • The student will build "fast" muscles.
  • The student will learn to consider the music in chunks, which helps the student's logical thought process and ability to read music.

The pauses that the student uses between the chunks of passage notes I call "thinking pauses." The length of the thinking pauses can be as long as the student desires. In fact, long pauses are best, because they give the student's brain a chance to really consider the passage thoroughly and ensure successful playing.

Since I have adopted this method of thoughtful, fast practice, my learning time for fast passages has been considerably shortened. Students seem to enjoy it as well, since they are pretty much playing at the correct speed from the initial moment they learn the passage. This method of practicing almost seems like more of a game than hard work. And, rather than teach our minds to wander by slogging through a passage in a slow tempo, we are offering our brains a challenge in concentration and focus, which is precisely the good thing we want to encourage at every juncture.

Stay tuned later this week, as I address another way to practice fast: Magic Patterns!


  1. I have seen these two methods discussed before for learning fast passages. I think they both have their merits, but in addition to the benefits you describe of what you aptly name "thoughtful chunks", you are going to be using something closer to the actual bowing style (not just long slurs) and also will have to have an economic fingering from the start by playing small sections up to tempo. Maybe economic fingering applies more to cellos than violins as we have fewer notes under the hand and larger shifts, I don't know.

    In thinking about how this might apply to my beginner students who aren't playing very fast passages... I do sometimes slow things down when they are learning something for more accurate playing, and that can allow them to somewhat tune out to a more mindless playing. I'm going to try using "thoughtful chunks" more even with them to see if it helps to keep some of them more engaged.

    Thanks for sharing your tips!

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.