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Thursday, October 25, 2012

Speed Demons

Has anyone else had a speed demon issue show up in the studio? By "speed demon" I am referring to kids who play fast all the time. When a speed demon plays a piece for me, the tempo is too quick, the bowing is messy, there are bumps and jiggles along the way with the notes and string crossings, and generally the sound quality is slippery and wispy.

What happens when students play too fast? What causes this? How can we get these speedsters to slow down and really listen to what they play? How can we reengage the evaluative part of the brain?

What happens when students play too fast is that they no longer listen to what they sound like. On occasion I have written the word "practice" on a piece of paper that I have hidden from the student. Then I ask the student to tell me what I have written down, and I flash the paper in front of the student's face so quickly that the student cannot read it. When I ask them why the student could not read the word on the paper, the student tells me that I flashed the paper too quickly. From this answer I lead the student to make the parallel connection that when we play too fast, our ears cannot hear what we have played.

When students play too fast and can no longer hear themselves, good intonation generally disappears. The tone quality alters for the worse. The bow runs a crooked path across the strings and slips off its contact point, which results in sloppy articulation of notes and uneven (and unpleasant) tone. Notes and rhythms are inaccurate. Posture habits deteriorate.

When this situation occurs, parents ask me how they can address the issue in home practices. Parents frequently ask me how to slow the child's playing down. I can suggest techniques that help, but these suggestions are not complete fixes to the problem of speeding. There is more at stake here.

This situation reminds me of one of my former bosses, a litigation attorney. When asked by a client to estimate the cost of a lawsuit, the attorney said that he could not give an accurate estimate. The client, who worked in the construction industry, did not understand this answer. Surely the attorney could come up with an estimate of the lawsuit cost? Builders and contractors did that all the time.

My attorney used the client's construction industry experience to explain. In an ideal world the builder could give an estimate on a building project. But what if the builder were asked for an estimate and told that every night when the builder left for the day, someone else came in the dark of night and tore down everything that the builder had constructed during the day. Now what estimate would the builder make? Until the underlying issue is taken care of (the destroyer in the dead of night), then the problem cannot be solved.

When we are asked to address the problem of speeding, I liken it to the situation above. The cause of the speeding is like that elusive person who comes in the dead of night and tears everything down. If we do not address the cause of the speeding, then any suggestion I make about how to "fix" the problem will be temporary. We need to discern the actual cause of the problem.

I think that most parents of speed demons assume that this is a natural thing that children do. Is it? Let me challenge this underlying assumption. Do children normally desire to rush around through life? The last time your child played with his legos, did he hurry up to finish his building project in record time? Did your child urge her playmates to dress their dolls quicker so they could move on to the next activity? Could this rushing and hurriedness be something that children have learned? Is there something or someone in a child's environment that teaches him or her to hurry through things?

We live in a busy society with many competing distractions and packaged sound bites. Children are surrounded by examples of the busy-speedy message. Even our country's leaders cannot engage in a civilized debate without interrupting and truncating each side's message. We are in such a hurry. Hurry for what? What do we need to do so quickly? I wish I had a dollar for every parent who told their child to "hurry up" and get ready for their lesson instead of allowing the child and the teacher to casually reconnect with each other at the beginning of the lesson. I find it interesting that parents generally have not considered coming to lessons five minutes earlier in order to allow the child a chance to leisurely prepare the instrument and comfortably focus the child's mental state and attitude on the lesson about to begin.

 It seems to be fashionable of late for parents to enroll their children in every imaginable activity: hockey, soccer, baseball, football, swimming, music lessons (more than one instrument), dance lessons, choir, martial arts, and fiddling to name a few examples from my own personal studio experience. I also hear parents complain rather frequently that they have little time left for practicing, and it is no wonder! Who has time to even sit down as a family and eat a meal together with such a pace? I have even heard parents complain because they have to practice 30 minutes every day, as if 30 minutes took up such a huge chunk of the day. In thirty minutes I can make brownies, wash a load of laundry, vacuum the house, feed all my farm animals (well almost all of them), and watch a TV comedy show. Thirty minutes is not much in the grand scheme of life. Instead, I would think that thirty minutes of quality time daily with my child would be a gift to treasure.

Many parents are proud that they have limited the child to one musical or other learning activity and one sport, because the children need exercise, right? Unfortunately, in my experience, the organized sports activities seem to take up even more of the family's time than the musical activities. There are several practices each week, and when the games and tournaments season hits, there are numerous games and tournaments that demand the students' and parents' participation. Parents and children feel guilty if they do not attend these games, because they serve as members of a team. I recall one family excusing themselves from attending group class because they had to show up for a game because other team members were missing, and the team would have to forfeit otherwise. How did my young students get trapped into the role of taking up the slack for other missing team members?

Oh if we music teachers would be able to develop such an attitude in our studio families! I have tried to do this, and every year I discuss how group class attendance is similar to being a member of a team, because we learn how to play together for future performances. However, I have less success with this argument than I suspect the sports coaches have, because playing as part of a sports team is an experience we can all relate to, and playing on a music group team less so.

When confronted with a speed demon issue, here are some of the questions that I ask the parent in order to discover what might be at the root of the speeding issue:
  • Does the child speed through other activities generally or just the music practice? The answer to this question might uncover additional helpful information.
  • What happens after the child is finished practicing? Is the child (or parent) in a hurry to do something else afterwards?
  • Is there a finite list of practice goals, such that once the child has "run through" the list, the practice is over? Maybe the list of practice goals may need more fleshing out rather than just being a list of pieces to play.
  • What possible role models exist that might be teaching the child to speed through practice? Usually when I ask the parents this question, the parents immediately recognize how the rushing tendency may have been created in the child.
  • Do the parents exhibit this same tendency to rush through things hurriedly?
  • Does the home practice parent generally work through practices quickly (maybe with the thought that he or she is being efficient)?
  • Is there a short amount of time available for practice? Is the child's day too filled already with other activities, leaving little time for reflective practice?
  • Is practicing a chore or is it fun? If the parent or child approaches the practice session as if it is another chore to cross off the list of daily activities, then the child may be obliging the desire to be done with practice sooner rather than later.
  • How has the parent or teacher handled the speeding problem so far?
  • How well have past solutions worked to address the speeding?
Practicing in general needs time. I have pockets of busy days in my life, and I have learned how to be the master of short, efficient practices during these times. There is much that can be accomplished in five minutes; some days I manage to find several five-minute blocks of time throughout the day. I help my students and their parents to identify what items on their practice assignments would work well in a five minute practice, and we work together to structure possible practices like that "just in case." Remember though, that these five-minute practices should be the exception rather than the rule. Refer to my previous article about the perils of making "life happens" an excuse for not practicing (to read that article, click here).

The best practice sessions include plenty of time for thinking, digesting, considering, experiencing, and in general enjoying the process of creating, working, and discovering. In the Suzuki world, parents are very much involved in their children's music education. This parental involvement is a wonderful opportunity for parents to spend quality time with their children if done with this positive attitude in mind. In those families with more than one child taking lessons, parents tell me that practicing takes up a lot of time on the parent's part. I can easily understand how parents might look for ways to hurry practices along.

So my point in the previous paragraphs is that the child's speeding issue might be something that the child has learned from his or her environment. The parents might be showing the child how to do this behavior and the child has just learned the lesson well. We might want to be careful about how much we teach our children to rush through life. Here is another article on the subject that Dr. Laura Markham wrote: 11 Ways Your Child Loses When You Rush Him Through Life.

In another future article, I will discuss some methods to address the speed demon issue during lessons and practice sessions. I address the rushing issue in group classes as well. Before I address ways to "fix" the speeding issue, I wanted to be sure that we had reflected well on what might be the underlying cause of the speeding.

I would welcome any comments or suggestions that others have regarding the speeding issue. I am always looking for many different ways to approach the problem. I want my parents to have a quiver full of many ideas to draw upon if the speeding issue comes up in practice, so be sure to submit your ideas in the comments below.

In the meantime, enjoy your practices!


  1. My daughter just started speeding through her piano songs--I will have to try and slow down our life. We did start playing a game--she chooses to play the song fast, then I play the song slow--then the next song I play fast and she plays slow! She loved the game so much we played every single song in book 1. Not sure I am solving the underlying issue--but it was nice to hear her play the songs slow for a change! Great post--as always!

    1. I recall my first piano speed demon. She raced through a piece for me. I told her that it seemed like she was in a hurry to finish her lesson. Does she practice in a hurry at home? She told me that they do practice in a hurry at home, because her mom has so much to do and they have to go places. I remember looking over at the stay-at-home mom, and she showed me a calendar that was filled to the brim and color-coded. Her daughter really learned the speeding-through-life lesson very well. Thanks so much for writing and for your idea. I have some other ideas I will share in a later article.

  2. Paula - You really opened my eyes with these thoughts - thank you! While my violin-playing son is not over-scheduled, I think you have hit the nail on the head about why he is speeding through the practice. He's often reluctant to practice so neither of us finds it much fun, and I admit that at least in my head, I'm eager for it to be over. Surely he can feel this, if I'm honest with myself. And... we usually practice before dinner, so I have that in the back of my head as the minutes tick by. Wow. Lots to think about. You're also SO on the mark about how the speed demon playing affects his tone - and I've had him play with his eyes closed and in the bathroom recently to have him really hear himself, and he does slow down. I think I'll also try using the "practice" card example, too, and see where that takes us. But mostly I'm going to start with me and see if I can fix that part. I'll be checking back for more of your very thoughtful tips - you are such a wonderful resource. Thank you again.