Practicing for Speed

Speed is the second most difficult skill to acquire, after musicality. It is where too many students spend too much time with too little to show for it. The most common intuitive misunderstanding is that you need to practice playing fast in order to acquire speed. Experienced teachers know the futility of such a simplistic approach and have tried to devise methods for acquiring speed, generally without much success. What success was achieved, depended on the “talent” of the student. One common approach has been to discourage students from playing fast -- this approach will at least prevent all kinds of potentially irreversible damages: psychological, physical, musical, technical, etc., but does not address the speed problem directly and can slow down the learning process unnecessarily.

The key in understanding how to practice for speed is to ask the question, “Why is speed an inadequate criterion for success?” The answer is that speed alone, without proper technique, will ruin the music. Therefore, we should use music as our criterion for acquiring speed. That is, in order to acquire speed, we must play musically. However, musicality is only a necessary condition; it is not a sufficient condition. Playing musically does not automatically guarantee speed. But, at least, we are half way there! We now know that we can play fast, but only up to speeds at which we can maintain musicality. After we succeed in playing musically, we must then add everything else we know about speed in order to reach the end goal as quickly as possible. These two concepts, musicality and knowledge, give us the framework for understanding how to practice for speed.

Let’s use this framework to design a practice routine for speed. An easy solution is to play only compositions that are so easy that you can play them musically. This solution is impractical because the best students want to play challenging pieces, and are willing to work for it. But perhaps more importantly, challenging pieces can help you advance more rapidly. In that case, we must iterate: first, learn the piece at slower speed so that you can still play it musically, then use parallel sets, etc., to enable faster speeds and then practicing to play musically at these faster speeds, then iterate the entire procedure; that is, use the principle stated elsewhere of practicing at different speeds. In addition, you will need to know how to make the best use of post practice improvements. In order to execute this routine, we must know what musicality is and what those “parallel sets, etc.,” are.

Musicality cannot be defined in a few short sentences. This is not surprising in view of the fact that even the concept of music is still not easily definable. The only thing we can do is to describe the implications of musicality when we are practicing and learning new pieces. We all have sufficient musicality in the sense that we can judge musical quality at very high levels -- witness the frequent remarks we hear (even from non-pianists) about the inadequacy of some concert performances of accomplished pianists and even famous artists. But when it comes to making music ourselves, it is a different matter. Musicality won’t come easily, especially if you don’t have a good teacher. One of the best methods of developing musicality is to record or video tape your playing and listening/watching it critically, using this high level of judgmental musicality that we all posses. Taping should start from the very first year of lessons, regardless of age. Then, you must listen to professional recordings of pieces you are playing. Beginners may have difficulty finding recordings of their simple lesson pieces; in that case, ask the teacher to play them so that you can record them. Most pianists listen to an adequate mount of music but the critical point here is that you must listen to performances of pieces that you are playing. The most basic part of musicality is accuracy (time signature, etc.), and following the expression markings on the score. Errors in reading the music, especially the rhythm, can make it impossible to bring it up to speed.

Because we all have sufficient musicality to appreciate and judge music that we hear, “I am not a trained musician” is never a valid excuse for not knowing what musicality is. In addition, music is personal -- it is not possible to define a universal musicality that applies in all cases. This lack of a definition actually opens up the musical world into a limitless vista of possibilities that is the basis for the variety and excitement of music.

You do not understand how to practice musically unless you understand the difference between practice and performing. Most people simply assume that when you practice, you are also practicing to perform. For the majority of people, this is absolutely false. The mental states for practicing and for performing are two entirely different states. For practicing, the mind wants simply to acquire technique and learn the piece. For performing, the mind’s only task is to make music. It is extremely difficult to put your mind into the performing state when practicing, because the brain knows that there is no audience. This is why video taping or recording is so important; in addition, you can see and hear your own strengths and weaknesses. Do not just make tapes for practice; tape for a permanent record of your accomplishments -- an album of all your finished pieces. If the recordings are not for permanent archiving, they become just another practice recording, which is not much different from routine practice. All good piano teachers hold recitals of their students; these recitals teach them the performing state of mind. You will be amazed at how rapidly you progress when you must tape by a certain deadline, or play a recital. Most people ascribe this progress to the pressure of having to perform, which is only partly true. A large component of the progress is attributable to the necessity to play musically. This is proof that we all know what “playing musically” means. But we may lack the mental discipline or energy to do it; this energy is what I call mental stamina. Therefore, the road to success in acquiring technique is to duplicate the performing state of mind during routine practice -- which is another way of saying, “play musically”.

There are two extremes in the way people approach musicality. One is the “artist” approach in which a musical expression is created in the mind and the hands “simply execute” to produce the desired effect. Unfortunately, most people with normal intelligence can’t do that -- it is called “talent”. The other extreme is the analytical approach in which the person learns every detailed anatomical motion to produce the final effect. Unfortunately, we don’t have a complete list of all those necessary motions. We are all somewhere between these extremes. Although the great artists use mostly the “artist” approach, they are geniuses and can figure out the right hand motions, often in great analytical detail. In other words, successful pianists from both extremes will end up doing basically the same things in the end. These considerations again lead us to the same conclusion: that in order to acquire speed, we must learn to play musically (artist approach, a necessary condition), and then add as much analytical knowledge as possible to accelerate the process (to make it as sufficient as we can). We are approaching the point of finding the necessary and sufficient conditions for speed.

One way to summarize the above is, “The road to speed is music”. When playing musically, you are doing everything right. For example, you must lift the fingers at the exact right moments. This exercises the extensor muscles and prevents the flexor muscles from over-developing. Having established the necessity to play musically, the rest of this section will be devoted to the analytical side of how to practice for speed.

Relaxation is obviously the most important ingredient for speed. However, relaxation is a complex thing. Most of us need to learn a lot before we can relax completely because total relaxation is not a natural state. Especially for something like playing the piano, in which we tend to repeat things many times, we can develop unnoticed stress to very high levels before we even notice it. Below are some suggestions for developing relaxation and adding speed.

Always practice softly, even loud sections. The mistaken notion that you must build piano muscles in order to play well or fast has led many to practice louder than they need to. Speed is skill, not strength. Thus you need to separate loudness from technique; for playing loud passages, acquire technique first, and then add loudness. Difficult passages tend to cause stress and fatigue during practice. Playing softly reduces both, thereby accelerating technique acquisition. If you play the piano for many years, you will get stronger every year, and can end up playing correspondingly louder without knowing it. The louder playing also makes it difficult to play musically. There is general agreement among pianists that it is difficult to play softly and fast. One of the reasons for this is that most people practice fast passages too loud.

Good tone is produced by “pressing deeply” into the piano. That is, you must accelerate during the entire keydrop and make sure to engage the backcheck securely. However, you must relax immediately thereafter. There is no need to keep pushing down. This constant down pressure not only wastes energy (causing fatigue) but also prevents the fingers from moving rapidly. There is often a tendency to lean into the piano in order to “play deeply” and after many years of doing so, you can end up pressing down with a tremendous force (see item 6 in the Testimonials section) without realizing it. Even students of the arm weight method, which teaches the correct arm pressure, sometimes end up with inappropriate down pressure. This is why arm weight teachers will always check your down pressure by checking your arm relaxation. In spite of the “arm weight” terminology, the weight of the arm is not always the correct down pressure -- in fact, it usually is not. The requirement of the arm weight method is that you should be sufficiently relaxed so that you can feel the weight of the arm. The optimum down pressure depends on many factors (speed, loudness, staccato-legato, etc.); therefore, you must learn to use the precisely correct down pressure, and no more. One way to test the proper down pressure is to decrease it until you start to miss some notes. Now add enough down pressure so that you do not miss any -- this should be the correct value at which you practice for technique. In almost all instances, you will find that your original pressure was too high.

Practicing too loud and too much down pressure are two of the most undiagnosed or misdiagnosed problems in playing fast. Once you find the correct values, you will find that you can play faster. The trills and ornaments will also become faster and clearer. Your piano and pianissimo will improve. Reducing the down pressure does not mean play like staccato -- the finger must stay down for the duration of the note even when playing fast. This is what is meant by accuracy and technique. The “weak 4th finger” will be less of a problem because of the reduction in stress and because the 4th finger does not have to constantly compete with the stronger fingers. Proper lifting of the fingers, staccato, legato, etc., are all affected when you change the loudness and down pressure.

Rhythm is extremely important. Not only the rhythm of the music as played by the fingertips, but also the entire body, so that one part does not move against another. Other problems are unnecessary motions and motions not compatible with the rhythm. A required motion in one hand can cause an involuntary motion elsewhere in the body. Many of these will be visible if you video tape yourself. Of course, you must have the correct rhythm in mind to start with; don’t let the piano dictate the rhythm because it is as much a part of the music as the melody; you must consciously control it. Rhythm is not only the timing, but also the control of tone and loudness.

Balance is another important factor. Not only the balance of your body on the bench, but also the center of gravity of each playing hand and of the two hands. When practicing HS, watch to see where the center of gravity of the hand is (where you apply your downward force). Try to place that center along the line straight out from the arm. This is important only when playing very fast, because during slow play, all momenta are negligible and the center of gravity is right at the finger performing the keydrop so that you can’t move it around.

Depending on circumstances, you will need all the other physical methods discussed elsewhere, such as TO, cartwheel method, flat finger playing, outlining, etc. In order to be able to pay attention to all these factors, you will need to practice at moderate or slow speeds frequently.

In conclusion, you cannot acquire speed by forcing the fingers to play faster than they can at their technical level because you will lose relaxation, develop bad habits and erect speed walls. The best way to make sure that you stay within your technical limitation is to play musically. You can briefly use parallel sets, cycling, etc., to quickly increase speed with little regard to musicality, but you should make that an exception, not the rule. Therefore, if you find the need to cycle for long periods, that should be practiced musically. Next, you must incorporate all the analytical methods for increasing speed, such as relaxation, the different hand/finger positions, TO, correct down pressure, etc. In the final analysis, practicing speed for speed’s sake becomes counter-productive; when playing the piano, you must make music. This frees you from the speed demon and leads you into that magical realm of the wonderful sound of music.