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The road to speed.

January 28, 2008 at 11:25 PM

Greetings,
The question of playing fast (especially in orchestra) often crops up on this list so this blog is going to address some of the issues involved.
First and foremost is the issue of efficient use of tension and relaxation. This is governed by use of the body. Almost all players who believe they cannot play fast have tension somewhere in the body which stems from and is part and parcel of the fear of playing fast. It may be the toes, the base of the first finger, the jaw, or whatever. But, but something changes just before we are about to play fast and until the action and -the underlying wish- behind the action is changed, attempts to play fast may be apparently successful but mask a host of ills which prevent the best and cleanest fast playing. This has to be addressed on a case by case basis with the help of a teacher. Alexander lessons are invaluable. You don’t need a musical one. That is not the point. A good AT teacher will simply observe, feel and tell you how you are misusing your body and then present you with alternatives.
Second, we cannot play fast without a clear program telling the body what to do which has been made more or less unconscious. Without accurate programming playing fast is a mess which feeds into the tension problem mentioned above. The implication of this is we need to do –slow- practice. Unfortunately slow practice in itself is not a virtue unless the brain is working at peak intensity, usually with visualization. The majority of slow practice people do is mindless and thus achieves very little except the right to tell ones teacher that one has indeed practiced slowly as instructed!
Third, we have to understand how the mind works when moving from slow to fast practice. Fast means more activity within an identical span. Keeping this identical span in mind that is a useful visual metaphor for the instructions we have to give. The size of the instruction must not increase (IE the span does not increase) as the activity within the span increases. In essence, in a span with little activity (slow practice) the brain gives one instruction such as `play this note.` As the activity within the span increases the brain needs to give a differ instruction of similar simplicity such as play this pattern.` Ultimately it might be as simple as `play this movement.`;) In order to develop this use of the mind there is an important practice method. Take one small chunk and practice it slowly using all the necessary commands: `third finger d in first position on the a string mf, wide vibrato followed by…etc.` Repeat this `small` chunk` maybe four notes many times until it is sufficiently absorbed to be automatic via one command. Do the next chunk in the same way. Then the next for four or five small chunks. Now go back and combine two of these chunks in the same way so that they ultimately are triggered by only one command. Then do two more etc. then go back and do three chunks together and so on. In this way the passage is built up to a rapid tempo using the minimum mental energy.
Finally, I am going to respectfully disagree with the oft given and perfectly reasonable advice to practice Sevcik for speed. Not because I believe it is bad or the legions of other great players who have used this route are completely wrong. I have just come to feel very strongly that this is the long way round and is not as efficient as generally believed. My rather strong assertion that the practice of Sevcik for speed has been superceded in this day and age is based on the idea that has become very formalized in the latter part of the 20c that understanding left hand patterns or blocks is something to important to be left to chance. This was, I think first systematically written about by Gerle who argued for incorporating systematic pattern practice into the daily regime in his book `The Art of Practicing.` Fischer includes a lot of this in `Basics` and Drew Lecher has probably taken it as far as possible in his new volume. The difference between this pattern practice and Sevcik (which is, after all patterns) is that one isolates a specific pattern and works on ONLY THAT for whatever technical work one is doing. When teaching post beginners I give them just one pattern that they may work on for two weeks or more. The rapidity exercises use only that pattern, the shifting exercises use only that pattern, the double stops only that pattern and so on. The pieces they are playing are analyzed to identify this pattern, possibly with a photo copy and marker pen.
By isolating one pattern I believe the mind hand connection is vastly strengthened with great rapidity because there are no changes of pattern to think about which one is confronted with in Sevcik. Intonation improves amazingly fast because there is no –mental ambivalence- about where the fingers should actually go that causes them to go in the wrong place or make a small excursion in the wrong direction before being place en masse.
It is this mental uncertainty which is the core of inability to play fast and I have observed more and more through my own playing and the work of my students that this simplicity represents the fastest and most reliable road to rapidity.
Cheers,
Buri


From Drew Lecher
Posted on January 29, 2008 at 5:12 AM
"…that this simplicity represents the fastest and most reliable road to rapidity."

Bravissimo!!!

From William Wolcott
Posted on January 29, 2008 at 5:09 AM
"The difference between this pattern practice and Sevcik (which is, after all patterns) is that one isolates a specific pattern and works on ONLY THAT for whatever technical work one is doing. When teaching post beginners I give them just one pattern that they may work on for two weeks or more. The rapidity exercises use only that pattern, the shifting exercises use only that pattern, the double stops only that pattern and so on. The pieces they are playing are analyzed to identify this pattern, possibly with a photo copy and marker pen.
By isolating one pattern I believe the mind hand connection is vastly strengthened with great rapidity because there are no changes of pattern to think about which one is confronted with in Sevcik. Intonation improves amazingly fast because there is no –mental ambivalence- about where the fingers should actually go that causes them to go in the wrong place or make a small excursion in the wrong direction before being place en masse.
It is this mental uncertainty which is the core of inability to play fast and I have observed more and more through my own playing and the work of my students that this simplicity represents the fastest and most reliable road to rapidity."
Cheers,
Buri

Good, thoughtful post. :)


I agree with your statement about mental uncertainty being a road block to speed, certainly controlled speed.

"The pieces they are playing are analyzed to identify this pattern, possibly with a photo copy and marker pen. "

Can you give a more specific example of this?

Also, because Sevcik has several patterns, it is in fact, quite possible to play one pattern for weeks at a time. I assign this to my students as well.

However, I do believe that just because one fast pattern is mastered does not necessarily mean that one can play everything fast. Would you agree with that?

Also, speed and control are two separate issues.

And there is the the coordination issue (lack of pushing up bows often the culprit).

Another thing: I've often seen players play damn fast, yet lose control. They lose the mental connection (as you say). A block occurs (also as you say) between the mind and the fingers.

In my opinion, speed it is a matter of quickness of the nervous system, and being sensitive and calm enough to feel the touch of the finger (and bow).

An overtly sensitive, quick, tension free body, that can take sensations from the fingertip (and vibration of the bow on the string for that matter) to the brain (strong pushing up bows don't hurt, either.)

Brain tells finger to go down, finger goes down, nervous system feels finger on string- concentration on left hand fingers (as Kato Havas suggests- of course, after much bow work being done).

Practicing in blocks helps as well, groups of 4 sixteenth's with a pause, etc. (also as you say) :)

Anyway, this is what has worked for me in the past.
Take care and thanks for the insight!

-William

From Christian Vachon
Posted on January 29, 2008 at 5:42 PM
Hello Buri,

That was a very nice thoughtful and insightful post!

Simplicity is it, eh? Like they say here "Plus c'est simple, moins c'est compliqué!"

Cheers!

From Tom Holzman
Posted on January 29, 2008 at 9:42 PM
Great post Buri. But, reading the title, I thought you would provide an easy recipe for Meth.
From Stephen Brivati
Posted on January 29, 2008 at 11:06 PM
Greetings,
Greetings,
"The pieces they are playing are analyzed to identify this pattern, possibly with a photo copy and marker pen. "
Can you give a more specific example of this?
One of my favorite examples I use when introducing the concept to more advanced players is the Bach e major prelude. Almost all the opening uses only one hand pattern.. It`s interesting that one can play for so long with no change between the spacing of the fingers (for a nerd like me). But really since its all patterns one way or another it feels strange to single anything specific out. I think the idea of using blocks to understand and memorize passages is an important and neglected dimension of practice. In some ways it seems pianistic to me once one begins spreading the idea across four strings and into double stopped chords where I think the concept becomes even more powerful as time goes by.
>However, I do believe that just because one fast pattern is mastered does not necessarily mean that one can play everything fast. Would you agree with that?
Yes because the control comes from knowing what diffenret @pattern has occurred. However, extreme rapidity in only one pattern will contribute a great deal to oveall dexterity. Sort of reminds me of the Kreutzer f major which is important work in this regard.
>Also, speed and control are two separate issues.
Yes. The pattern practice is also done with a wide variety of rhythms and bowings . Without the mind connection built by variety within a given pattern the danger is of working on automatic pilot which does not lea d to a high level of control. The effect of speed is often more to do with evenness s(or unevenness)anyway.
>And there is the coordination issue (lack of pushing up bows often the culprit).
Yes. You are pointing out the other half of the equation. One has to be skilled in the use of the bow;)
Cheers,
Buri

Tom, best recipe for meth is with prunes.

From Brian Hong
Posted on January 30, 2008 at 12:36 AM
Augh...too many words. Can you put pictures in it to make me more focused?

Naw, jk. Mr. Brivati, I had always wondered how to play fast without tensing up, and you just provided the answer! Thank you so much!

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