By Laurel Thomsen
A quick web search for advice about playing faster on a bowed stringed instrument returns the suggestions that the player practice more, practice more slowly, and use a metronome to gradually increase the tempo over time. All these suggestions can make a difference, but none tackle the core issue specifically, the fact that despite our playing level or age, clean playing and fast playing are often at odds.
Over 23 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, terrible tones, and seemingly without notice of mistakes as they plow right through, and those who take everything very carefully, who stop and start, apologize for mistakes, and who may eventually end up playing well in tune and time, but who struggle to get to tempo even after they’re long past the point of memorization.
If the same trouble spots or tempo issues linger after months of practicing, players become demoralized and may start to wonder if maybe they’re just not talented enough. Most any practice is welcome practice, but I’ve found that practice geared toward clean playing and practice with the hope of fast playing might look very different. Perhaps it’s unrealistic to expect one type of practice to automatically lead to both results?
Slow vs. Fast Playing
Though practicing slowly is great for clean playing, when the time comes to boost the metronome speed, many players hit a wall where the mechanics they were using just aren’t refined enough. For example, if you set a metronome at 110 bpm and play 16th notes, you can relax into a small bow stroke originating in the forearm. Bump up to just 120 bpm, however, and suddenly you must start to use an active hand and even finger motion to keep up. If you don’t, you’ll suffer tension that quickly spreads all the way up into the shoulder, and a domino effect of messy, chaotic tones.
Now just imagine a student spending weeks practicing such a piece at 60 or 80 bpm before trying to climb to 120 bpm!
Using large motions to create your stokes at half speed, you can’t possibly expect to use those same movements when playing up to tempo, so you’ll essentially need to start from scratch on a number of fronts to relearn the piece at speed.
Similarly, you have ample time to think about each note when playing slowly. You can inspect each note on the page as it goes by. You might lift the left-hand fingers high and independently. Your eyes may look back and forth between the sheet music and the fingerboard to ensure that each finger tip looks perfectly placed. All this will likely help you develop playing that is well in tune, but it does little to help your fast or fluent playing.
To perform at a fast tempo, you can’t possibly play or read note by note. You don’t have time to constantly look back and forth between the music and the violin or cello, or process your melodic line finger by finger. To play at a fast tempo you must think faster, listen faster, read faster, and process the left-hand fingerings as a steady flow of patterns and shapes. You might imagine it like a string of dancers, holding hands and moving in choreographed sequence across the stage. Each has a millisecond in the spotlight, but they move together in unbroken flow.
How to Practice Up to Tempo
1. Take a tricky passage and divide it into little groups of two notes, then expand them into groups of three and four notes, and so on, with the little groups played at or near tempo, with liberal rests in between each flurry of activity. This practice technique trains you to look further ahead on the page and plan out what it will take for your body and mind to make the next move with poise and efficiency. Many pedagogical systems describe this sort of approach and Ivan Galamian goes into it in great detail in his scale system.
Grouping the notes into smaller chunks so you can play them cleanly, but playing these chunks as close to performance speed as possible from the beginning is one of the best ways to avoid the pitfalls of learning to play with mechanics that will only work for slower passages. This practice idea is often accepted by both types of students I described earlier. The notes are fast enough for the first type of student to feel challenged and avoid boredom, while the chunks are small enough that the second student isn’t overwhelmed.
2. Experiment with bow distribution and usage. All areas of the bow are not created equal. Moving just a few inches up or down the bow length can drastically improve your chances of success. When playing slowly, 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 tip will leave you struggling to keep up and annoyed by tone challenges.
3. Isolate the bow strokes, perhaps even down to just their open-string choreography. If you can’t get good tone or reach top speed here, it makes no sense to complicate matters with a melody line. There will be moments that require smaller wrist, hand, or even finger motions for tiny centimeter or millimeter bow strokes, and others calling for longer strokes coming from the forearm or shoulder.
4. Attempt some run throughs at tempo, or close to it, on the first run of a new piece. Even if you’re making a huge mess of things on that initial try, this is a great way to gain insight into what it will take both physically and mentally to eventually get to speed and gives you a sense of how the piece fits together as a whole, both technically and musically.
5. Use a metronome right from the beginning. Some students complain that they can’t possibly learn to play a new piece in tune or with the right bowings if they have to keep such steady time, but pulse and rhythm are just as important as tone and tuning. If you 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 you possibly expect to do it when you’re trying to get up to tempo and out onstage? If you choose a metronome speed that challenges you to think and hear ahead while not so fast that you are constantly having to stop and start, your practice with it will quickly show you the issues that cause you to stall—string crossings, shifts, passages with accidentals, fourth fingers, transitions in key, tempo, time signature, and dynamics—and that will be where you can make the most difference in your practice.
There’s a lot to keep track of when playing a violin-family instrument and it’s all too easy to become obsessed with one element to the detriment of everything else. You need to keep shifting the focus of your practice among all the aspects you need to master—left hand and right hand, accuracy versus speed. And keep in mind that it’s impossible to do everything well all at once on a new piece or when you’re just starting out.
This may mean that when boosting the tempo on a run through of a passage, you play a few notes out of tune or with problematic tone. Regardless, you should pat yourself on the back if you meet your tempo objective. After working on tempo for a while, you might then let it take a back seat as you focus on intonation or tone. This frames your practice for small, measurable successes rather than chance. If you stick with it, eventually you’ll be able to juggle increasingly complex combinations of elements—fluently, automatically, and up to speed.