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Mendy Smith

Breaking the Speed Barrier

September 10, 2013 at 1:32 AM

My "new school year" lessons started recently after having the summer off. As an adult student, I have alot of influence on those goals, but there was one that my teacher insisted on: breaking my speed barrier. For longer than I can remember, my speed barrier has been around 80-90 bpm (16th notes). Faster than that, and everything falls apart: intonation, coordination, tone production... you name it.

Last week I was assigned two studies, a 3 octave scale and the Matson finger exercises with instructions to take it starting from a quarter note per beat (at 60 bpm), and then to take it steadily to 32nd notes per beat without stopping no matter what. At first I thought "Ok, this is like sight reading". But that delusion was quickly abolished once I got home and tried it.

When I tried it at home, the first thing that became apparent was that the faster I played the more tense I would become. The more tense I became the more mistakes I made, and then the more mistakes I made the more tense I would become. It was a vicious cycle that nearly had me tossing my viola across the room in despair and disgust. I HAD to stop and figure out why I was getting so tense and fix it if I had a snow-ball's chance in you-know-where in working through this little problem. I broke out Simon Fischer's book and looked up what to do about a tense left hand, watched Zlata's video on left arm rotation, got some great advice from my first private viola instructor (from over 30 years ago!!!), and got to work on getting relaxed.

Over the course of the next several days I came to the conclusion that my overall posture went to you-know-where in a handbasket, my thumb was too far back towards the scroll, and generally had gotten lazy in my overall stance which ironically caused me to work even harder. Once I got those issues more or less straightened out, other things about my playing that my teacher has been telling me for the better part of the past year finally hit home like a ton of bricks: preparing my left arm for the shift, keeping my hand-frame, using ghost notes, etc. I worked those problems over the weekend, but still had no luck in being able to play those 32nd notes at all, let alone without stopping. I almost threw in the proverbial towel.

Until tonight.... I was finally able to make it through several of the 32nd notes without stopping. It took being given an "impossible" goal for me to finally start truly addressing what has been holding me back. I'm so glad I have a teacher that understands me well enough to know when I need to be pushed, and how to go about doing it.

From Matt Pelikan
Posted on September 10, 2013 at 1:02 PM
Good for you for sticking with it and attacking the problem from so many angles. And good for your teacher for giving you a challenge that stretched you just the right amount. How satisfying it must be!

I'm working on something similar -- trying to accelerate Flesch scales and etudes without losing intonation or rhythmic accuracy -- no problem up to a certain metronome speed, but then it's like hitting a wall. Your report encourages me and gives me a few new ideas to try.

From Roy Sonne
Posted on September 12, 2013 at 1:04 AM
Mendy - It sounds like you've got some very good input and that you're on the right track and making a breakthrough. Congratulations.
If you'd like some more input on this topic check out my video "How to play fast - Strategies and routines for developing speed in the Rigaudon" I actually posted it here a few weeks ago. Here's the link

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