Play Your Stringed Instrument Faster

3 tips to up your speed with precision

Rhythm doesn’t always come easily, let alone naturally—it can come with a cost when players fail to control speed or to prepare by studying études. It’s like driver’s training. There’s such an intense desire to play fast and with great emotion that rhythmic relationships can easily be distorted. When a player rushes, over-emotes, or plays like a runaway truck, it may be time to focus on the rhythm side of the equation and get a handle on your speed, even if that means going back to the driver’s manual—the tried-and-true etudes.

Heed the Speed limits

There are many roadblocks on the highway toward correct rhythm. One is the desire to reach the next landmark too soon (known as Landmark Disease). Another is bad bow distribution or unacknowledged tension that can create its own reckless rhythm—in that case, only sheer willpower can keep the rhythm intact and flowing. But playing fast is easy when you learn passages organically and carefully. Just remember: don’t allow yourself to rush or sacrifice technique in your quest for speed. Instead, concentrate on executing the rhythm properly. After all, rhythm is simply the even spacing of notes within the flow of the musical pulse. Any force that intrudes on the rhythm and takes away its symmetry and “domino spacing” will stress the natural unfolding of the rhythm.

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Find a natural pulse

As the rhythm unfolds, pay attention to your thoughts and feelings that emerge as you experience a string change, the distance of a shift, or the slight rush of a rubato or hemiola. These thoughts are the memories of music, and the mind stores them.

When you play faster, the thoughts will come back to you in the rhythm of thinking, not the rhythm of music. The coordination between playing the music and thinking about it becomes more tricky as you play faster and faster. You may feel like you’re playing quickly, but thinking slowly. Do your best to think ahead. When you haven’t thought out the measure completely and find yourself caught off guard, you may experience the unsettling sensation that the beat is closing in on the notes. By tying the beat to a more natural pulse, and by synchronizing it with the context of the music, it’s easier to feel the pace of the rhythm. Don’t become a faceless, static metronome—instead, keep a natural flow.

Ensemble Obstacle ahead!

A funny thing happens to all the rhythmic organization and fine-tuning that you worked out in the practice room. When you play the passage in an ensemble, a lot of things change. The context in which the music lies becomes so nuanced and variable that you may feel like you are in a sea of shifting sands. So how do you practice and prepare for all that’s going to come your way?

Never play the same passage exactly the same way twice. Imagine a 16th-note accompaniment to the melody you’re playing. Know what’s in the score and leave room in your mind for the other instruments.

Finally, to avoid the nonmusical sensation of an inflexible metronomic beat, remember Debussy’s rather caustic saying about metronomes: “You know my opinion of metronome markings: they’re all right for one measure, like those roses which only last for a morning.”

The benefits of Études

Playing quickly and accurately depends in large part on the amount of étude material that’s hardwired into a musician’s brain. Practicing all those Kreutzer, Wohlfahrt, Sevcik, and Whistler exercises for hundreds of hours will help.

The musical brain reflects the connection between the ear and the mind, then the immediate response of the hands, and finally back to the ear again. A musician doesn’t respond so much to the individual notes as to the musical thoughts and gestures created by the notes. Études help to keep a “catalogue” of the inner workings of fast, technical passages that you encounter in concertos and show pieces. Even when you play new repertoire, your mind has been conditioned to stitch together new patterns.

The more raw material in the form of études and scales you learn, the better.

*This article appeared in Strings July 2009