How fast can you play...

February 1, 2017 at 09:14 PM · Last night in rehearsal with my community orchestra I completely derailed in the last movement of the Mozart Symphony No. 40 (Allegro assai), when the tempo felt like in the vicinity of 170-200bpm to the quarter note. The movement is mostly 1/8 notes with several string crossing. Couldn't read the notes fast enough, never mind playing them! So this prompted me to wonder, how fast can I play theoretically.

In my mid 50's I started learning violin 6 yrs ago. Curious about my own physical limitations, I took a Reaction Time test at, which measure the time between visually recognizing a change of color and triggering a finger (similar to sight reading a note, recognizing it and then playing it). The human average is between 200-250ms, and I scored right in the middle not surprisingly. This translates into an average human playing a maximum of 240-300 different notes per min if sight reading the music. Playing the 1/8 notes at a tempo of approximately 340-400npm it is no wonder that I derailed! Surely there is more to it, but I also wonder how a seasoned player who can play at this speed sight reading with ease would score.

Replies (22)

February 1, 2017 at 10:12 PM · A skilled player, in recognisable, tonal music, will "grab" groups of notes, rathes like recognising whole words in a text.

Atonal music, which makes no apparent sense will need note by note appraisal.

I have also tripped up on Irish jigs: although they are often composed with the the violin in hand, the motifs can be very different from those in classical music.

February 1, 2017 at 10:38 PM · When faced with that sort of thing combined with string crossing my strategy is two-fold: to play in the higher positions (usually 3rd or 4th) so as to avoid awkward string crossings at speed; and to look for patterns in the music so that the same fingering can be applied to several groups of notes. This is often the case with most non-modern music.

Underlying all this is the necessity for really, really slow practice to coordinate fingers and bow. Note that it is most important when practising slow to use the same amount of bow that you would use when playing up to speed. It is a natural instinct for a learner to use long slow bows when playing slow but the technique for long slow bowing is quite different to playing fast with short bows, and long slow practice bows won't help with the real life requirement to play fast with short bows.

You also need light finger pressure with a relaxed left hand, and a relaxed bowing arm. These essentials aren't acquired in five minutes, and this where a good teacher steps in.

A tip - when you see fingerings in printed music have a think as to why that fingering was chosen by the editor. You can learn a lot, not least that you may be able to figure out a better fingering for yourself.

February 1, 2017 at 10:51 PM · There's a video (audio only) on YouTube of a 17-year old Heifetz performing Paganini's Moto Perpetuo. He gets through it in under 4 minutes, which indicates a finger-bow speed of about 14 notes per second - all separate bows of course, and plenty of hand shifting. And in his case cleanly played - as you'd expect from the young Big H. This must be close to the practical human limit when doing extended fast playing with separate bows. Some pianists can play significantly above that speed (Art Tatum, anyone?), but they're playing on a mechanical instrument, so that's quite different.

February 1, 2017 at 11:33 PM · My sightreading is reasonably decent (professional orchestral musician in the US), though it varies by how technically "in shape" I am at any given time. Trying the test, I got an average of 308ms after 5 trials. However, when actually sightreading, as others have said, I'm looking more at groups of notes and general contours and making a certain number of assumptions about what the specific notes in the group are.

February 2, 2017 at 02:47 AM · With my rather slow vibrato and slowish trills, abd well below the average apeed with a reaction of close to 400 vs avg 215, I can still play slighty faster than quarter to 200.

What this shows is that a passahe memorized does not rely on reflex alone to play at speed, but, much more importantly, finger efficiency (very tiny lifts).

After all, if a slowpoke like me with a naturally slowish vibrato and trill can play that fast, why not Heifetz?

Interestingly, because twitch speed is related to trilling and stiff staccato muscle impulse speed, Heifetz is not even close to having the fastest fingers (his trills are fast only because of his wrist flexion he puts into them).

Even so, he plays Sarasate's Carmen Fantasy at over 250 BPM to the quarter at the very end here:

The fastest fingers probably belonged to Josef Hassid, as heard by his rapid bird-trills in his recording of Hebrew Melody:

February 2, 2017 at 03:34 AM · I scored 312 ms, which is top 28 percentile, apparently.

But I also look ahead and rely on patterns when sight-reading.

February 2, 2017 at 04:15 AM · Wow, reaction speed has a very steep curve. A tiny boost makes you much faster!

Increasing reaction time by a measly 50-60 nms makes the difference between me and Lydia (15.6 vs her 28th percentile).

Tbis shows that, if playing with complete efficiency of movement (think Milstein), even the player with tbe slowest reflexes should be able to play at about 180 to tbe quarter, going all the way to about 800 a quarter, if we take the quickest reaction time that is double the average, at 100 nms.

Realisically, we can probably assume the lowest genetic speed as playing 16ths with quarter at 150 and the highest as about quarter at about 270ish (at which point- about 18 notes/sec- even the most responsive instrument will start to blur notes) even if there somehow is a faster player. :)

February 2, 2017 at 06:09 AM · 237 ms was my best score but as others have already pointed out, sightreading isn't reaction time; it is reading ahead and recognizing patterns. I've always been a good sightreader, which has been extremely helpful on occasion.

This is one reason to study etudes--they not only cover different techniques, they include many note patterns that the student will encounter again and again in repertoire.

I tell my students they need to learn to read notes the same way they read words (assuming they are fluent readers)--in chunks, not one word at a time. And I work with them on reading ahead. But frankly I find it very difficult to teach a skill that I myself have absolutely no recollection of having been taught; I don't actually think anyone ever needed to. It is much easier to teach those aspects of technique that I had to struggle with.

February 2, 2017 at 01:53 PM · What does this little test actually mean? I just tried it and scored 378 (17%) on my first try. Yet I swear I have no fast-twitch muscles. I have always had an issue with playing quick phrases (on both violin and bassoon) - something I am always working on to improve...

So as far as I can tell, this test is fun. Nothing more.

February 2, 2017 at 02:52 PM · not that it is any important but I don't understand the results being reported? Lydia reports 312 ms as being top 28%? And N.A. reports 378ms (which is slower than Lydia) as being top 17%?? I for myself tried it and had an average of 267ms which the system tells me puts me in the top 57%???

February 2, 2017 at 03:36 PM · No, tests like this follow the curve gradient: Your percentile tells you how much of the population you exceed. So, I am faster than about 16% of the population.

However, it's worth pointing out that this twitch tends to gradually decrease with age. Lydia is probably faster than me in a fair comparison, as I'm not even 25 yet. :)

February 2, 2017 at 04:45 PM · Oh! Okay...wasn't paying attention. It means I am slow! That makes much more sense! ;)

February 2, 2017 at 04:49 PM · There's probably an effect from the quality of your mouse/touchpad as well.

I found that site to be interesting. I'm 99th percentile verbal memory, making up for my slow visual reflexes. ;-)

February 2, 2017 at 04:57 PM · We seem to be talking about two things here: muscular reaction time, and ability to read quickly.

Roger, you made the comment in your original post that you "couldnt read the notes, let alone play them." This tells me that you simply don't know the notes yet, and no one, save top studio musicians, are expected to read everything perfectly at full tempo (your tempi are VERY slow, with Mozart 40 IV going about 126/half note). So perhaps there is a discrepancy between what you think you should be capable of and how much you have practiced. Most orchestral musicians don't just sit down and read this stuff--they practice to the point where the music, especially in common repertoire like this, is virtually memorized. Any professional musicians out there really reading the first page of Don Juan, or the Scherzo from Schumann 2? Not very many.

The next question is your technique: do you have the best possible left and right-hand setup? Because I can tell you that having a straight right pinkie or fly-away left fingers will absolutely limit your speed like 4 flat tires.

The last question is whether your teacher has given you a good practice technique, and whether you really use it: practicing in groups and rhythms, exploring every possible fingering, (including 2nd and 4th positions and stretches and contractions), and spending hours with a metronome to slowly work to tempo?

Until you have good setup, good practice technique, and have invested the hours necessary, talking about a limiting top speed on Mozart is premature

February 2, 2017 at 05:48 PM · Scott, your remarks as well as every one else's are bang on! To note, this rehearsal was only the second time through for an April concert, and the first to really "set the pace". There is therefore much, much, much, much more practice needed for me to fully be able to play all 4 pieces in this concert's repertoire, the Mozart 40 being one of them. That little "exercise" however has highlighted for me the obvious to most here, i.e. beyond having the optimum fingering (for me) and bowing, the speed necessary to deliver such repertoire depends more on developing proper technique than physical limitations alone (though my 56yrs old fingers can only move so fast, they're getting better ;-). My teacher has indeed pointed out all the good techniques you and other are pointing out, both in terms of practice and delivery, and it is reassuring to see the consistency amongst all the comments. Now, all I need to do is put this into application (easier said than done). Things would undoubtedly be easier if I were 15, but that time is long gone, but at least I know that my reflexes (don't think about these things when you're young and nimble) neither have any bearing on achieving my goal nor limiting me in any way. Thank you all for the wonderful insights and suggestions... got to go practice now :-)

February 2, 2017 at 08:31 PM · I'm 55....

February 2, 2017 at 08:37 PM · The other thing to note is that in addition to practice preparation, listening to the music is really important. By the time you sit down for your first rehearsal, you should ideally have listened to the work many times. That means your brain and ear anticipate what's coming, so you effectively place a sequence rather than placing individual notes.

That's vital for shifting, as well. You develop an instinct for knowing where to be for the next several notes, and therefore choose positions instinctively when you sight-read, so that the finger placement is logical, and you're neither left scrambling nor trying to do awkward string-crossings.

February 2, 2017 at 09:27 PM · Also being a slow-poke, I can sympathize. A lot of the orchestra runs go by faster than I can hear, much less think. This is why we want to learn our scales and arpeggios from memory, so that they become semi-automatic. Think in groups of notes, not individual notes.

A good typist, when they see common words like THE, AND, do not think t-h-e, a-n-d, it just pops out in one thought gesture. Efficient technique is part of the solution, no extra or excessive movements.

Last weekend, when I played Gershwin American in Paris, I don't know if played all those fast notes, probably not, they were over before I heard them. I wrote the name of the scale over each group.-jq

February 2, 2017 at 10:42 PM · I don't hear slowly (I can hear everything at top speed just fine), but my sight-reading and move my fingers on the slower side.

So much that when trying to play a slower passage, I often rush the finger because I think they are moving too slowly, which ends up tripping the bow hand. :)

February 3, 2017 at 03:20 AM · Mary Ellen, though we're pretty much the same age, you've got perhaps nearly 50 years under your belt, and I got just over 5 starting at 50! Like a runner who ran most of his/her life, I couldn't keep up with a 70 yrs old lifetimer runner even if I wanted to having never done it ;-(, so I've got a wee bit of catching up to do and will never reach up to your level (nor should I aspire to) in my lifetime no matter how much talent I may have or practice I dedicate to the task... but I'm not giving up though, I'm enjoying the ride!

February 3, 2017 at 04:57 AM · Roger, good for you! And yes, I have been playing for over 50 years--but slowing down due to age is a thing even for many string players.

February 3, 2017 at 11:19 PM · Roger, et al.,

The journey is what it is all about. You are a late-starter (like me) and we are only here to enjoy the process of learning. The comments all have lots of great tips, most of which we have all used when faced with fast paced orchestral music. (FWIW: Work and a family medical issue made continuing with the local orchestra, who play and rehearse at night, no longer an option.)

My teacher used to remind me that one can never master music, only learn enough to get you to the next lesson that music has to teach. If you are satisfied playing with the community orchestra that is enough. However, you never know where the journey will take you.

I was pleased playing the occasional hymn tune in my church and music that I enjoyed simply for myself until one day the kid across the street asked me to help him learn to play the violin that he got in school but was frustrated that he wasn't playing like the people he sees on TV. Suddenly, I'm a teacher passing along what I learned in almost 40 years of playing.

Be ready for music to take you on a journey that you never planned.

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