How do you practice a passage that is very fast?

February 24, 2020, 4:24 PM · Hi,

imagine you face a passage that is very fast and you can barely play it at 60% of its speed. It's not that it's difficult for you, I mean, at 50-55% of the speed you control everything perfectly fine, although it is your limit, but still, you play it clean and nice. Nevertheless, as soon as you get to 60% of the speed you start to collapse. Since there's a long way to go, how do you approach this situation?

Remember, it's not that you're trying to play Paganini within the first year, it's "simply speed", you don't know how to play any faster without sounding very, very dirty.

After thinking a lot about it, I've come to the conclusion that there are 2 phases when playing any given passage:

The First phase is that phase where you can "exaggerate" your hands movements a lot, not necessarily in a useless way, I don't mean that, but simply that you have control of the whole system (hand, elbow, fingers, even tips) and you can get very, very picky with the exact movement you want to do. Think about a little melody of 6 notes cycled that repeats itself quite fast. You play faster and faster, until you reach a moment when you can't play any faster if you maintain the control and all the hand movements. You might be even force to change the bow stroke. You're entering the second phase.

The Second phase is reached when, for any given passage, you must learn to do something, or even the whole thing, in a totally different way in order to exceed the speed. It's kind of a brainless way of playing, and by that I don't mean muscle memory or not having precision.

If you still don't get what I mean, think about this: when you play a very fast passage, you are not doing, at all, what you would do if the speed was half the original, but faster. Even if the bow stroke is the same, the way you will move your right hand fingers, bow hand, and bow, will be completely different if you play at 50 bpm and at 250 bpm.

So, my point is, how do you practice "slowly" (in order to make it easier) a pattern of movements that only come to play when you play very fast.

As an example, I feel like I have to practice how to control a F1 car, and the problem is my F1 car starts directly at 200 mph, that's the slowest, which is already uncontrollable for me, let alone faster. If I reduce the speed, the F1 car transforms to my known Ford Mustang that I already know how to drive but can only reach up to 180 mph. I hope you understand the dilemma.

Thank you

Replies (27)

February 24, 2020, 4:27 PM · Do a few notes at a time really fast then a gap then a few more really fast. For example 1-2-3-4, then 5-6-7-8. Then do it again with the same number of notes but the gap in a different place. Such as 1-2 then 3-4-5-6 then 7-8-9-10 etc. This helps me with fast stuff.
February 24, 2020, 4:49 PM · First, you should use exactly the same amount of bow when practicing slowly that you will use when you are playing at fast. I would bet money you are using far too much bow in your slow practice. You should also be using exactly the same part of the bow that you will use when playing fast.

There are several ways to speed something up. The most basic is simply to use a metronome and move it up one notch at a time, only moving the tempo forward when you can play the passage well at the previous tempo.

You can also practice with rhythms. If it is a 16th note passage, then you play it first with a dotted 16th followed by a 32nd rhythm (LONG short LONG short) and then reverse the rhythm (short LONG short LONG). You start by doing these rhythms at a relatively slow tempo and then speed up the tempo as you practice the rhythms.

If the passage in question has string crossings, it’s also useful to practice by putting a small pause in just before every string crossing, and I mean every one. Likely you will miss some crossings the first time you try this.

Good luck!

February 24, 2020, 4:54 PM · I like what I see above.
Many years ago, my piano teacher told me that it is not possible to learn to play fast by playing slowly, so I learned my fast piano passage by playing slowly until I had good muscle memory for the sequence, and then --per teacher's advice-- playing 2 notes as fast as possible, then 3 notes as fast as possible, then 4 notes as fast as possible etc. Playing fast is a different ball game.
February 24, 2020, 5:04 PM · No bow, then no fingers, then in rhythyms, and then with a metronome.
Edited: February 24, 2020, 5:14 PM · If you can't play it slowly you can't play it fast. Playing slowly is crucial, but of course must not be your only strategy.
February 25, 2020, 4:21 AM · Mary Ellen gave great advice about using the metronome, one notch at a time. And pay particular attention to her advice about using the same amount of bow and the same bow placement that you will be using at the fast tempo, even when you're playing it slowly.

And listen to that passage a lot as played by a great violinist so that you have a clear concept in your head of what it's supposed to sound like when played up to speed.

February 25, 2020, 5:18 AM · Practicing in varied rhythms is also excellent advice. If you use dotted rhythms, and reverse the rhythm, you end up practicing every note fast.
February 25, 2020, 6:15 AM · May I add to all this my Moonwalk Mode, slowing down the transitions as well as the notes. (The tone will be fuzzy, though.) Like a film in slow motion rather than "frame by frame".
I reckon that two thirds of our technique lies before and between the notes we hear, and should not be left to chance.
Edited: February 25, 2020, 7:35 AM · https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iRl6XwZWUco

Roy Sonne has a nice video showing how to play fast using Kreisler's Rigaudon.

He employs most of the techniques mentioned in the above posts.

February 25, 2020, 8:21 AM · One inherent problem of the classical "practice in rhythms" advise is that is difficult to combine with the "use exactly the same amount of bow" advise. I advocate thinking about it slightly different: Practice in tempo and with the correct bow placement and length but only as many notes as you know you can manage. In the beginning it will be very similar to playing in rhythms except it will be "short-short-pause" instead of "short-long". Alternate the note you start on and you will cover the same note transitions as with reverse dotted rhythm. As you go you can start playing more notes - 3 or 4; then 6 or 8 before the pause.
February 25, 2020, 10:37 AM · Simon Fischer's book "Practice" has an entire chapter on practice methods for fast passages. Incidentally it is the first chapter of the book.
Edited: February 25, 2020, 11:15 AM · Mary Ellen's advice is what is also professed by my teacher and what I do. That said from my own experience (read struggle) I can't play fast if my fingers don't know the sequence of movement (notes) to the point of being totally unconscious (in addition to shortening bow stroke and string crossings prep). That includes learning finger patterns (1,3,2,2 4,2,3,1 etc.).

As I said in an other post, the fastest one can humanly "read and play" an individual note is approximately 0.2sec, the average limit of human reflexes. That's 5 notes per seconds, in other words, 300npm. In reality it's even less than that, so this leaves no other alternative than reading and playing groups of notes. While you play a group of notes, you have time to read what the next group of notes is. For e.g. assuming your fingers can fire up at 500npm, the least amount of notes per group you can physically (reading groups rather than individual notes) play every 0.2sec would be approximately 2 notes. Hence the bigger the group, the easier it gets on your brain. At that speed, groups of 4 notes gives you 0.4sec to read and react to the next group etc. In other words practice and learn groups of notes.

February 25, 2020, 3:13 PM · My teacher tells me to practice in 2 different ways.

The first is classic "get a metronome, start slowly in groups. Vary the meter of the groups to get fingers and shift comfortable"

The second actually is helpful for me in double-stop passages which is "play at tempo, ignoring if you miss the notes; don't go back and fix intonation". The purpose of this is to get your hand frame used to making the jumps at tempo. It was helpful for me in Bach A minor and that one part in Tchaikovsky after the big orchestral tutti to practice these transitions, especially when it is going "2nd->1st->half".

February 25, 2020, 7:26 PM · Roger, I don't understand how those numbers can be right, since 16th notes at 144 (576 notes per minute) is pretty common.
Edited: February 27, 2020, 11:43 AM · What I meant, if you read a note, between the time your brain registers the note, lets say an A, and your fingers react to that realization, that is limited by the speed of your reflex. The average reaction time for humans is 0.25 seconds to a visual stimulus, 0.17 for an audio stimulus, and 0.15 seconds for a touch stimulus. That is not to say one cannot play faster than human reflexes if you are playing a series of notes, but if you have to read each individual notes before playing them, the visual stimulus, the everage time before your fingers move is 0.25 sec after the visualisation of the note to be played, not counting the time necessary to move a finger from one position to another. If you read the notes ahead of time or groups of notes, this is no longer a reflex reaction hence the ability to play faster than human reflexes can allow. Fortunately music comes with patterns, and pattern recognition plays an important part in our ability to sight read music and play at tempo.

Try for instance reading out loud. Say a word like violin. Even when you spell each letters individually, if you recognize the word v,i,o,l,i,n you already know what the letters are and the sequence of them. Now try to spell the same number of random letters (or even the same word backward) and compare how fast you read them to those of a known word. I bet it will be a lot slower being subject to the limitation of your reflexes, especially if you can only see one letter at a time. Music reading works the same. Building a familiarity with the words (patterns memorisation) and ability to read ahead allows you to play faster.

February 26, 2020, 3:31 PM · I have found that the one-step-at-the-time Metronome method does not generally get me to the target tempo. At least not before I give up because I am bored. I still remember trying to learn to play that tricky Vivaldi/Nachez passage in the third movement of the a-minor concerto at "presto". I was a kid and spent hours and hours on the passage, never getting there.

I have since found that Paul Deck's method is an awful lot more efficient.

If string crossings are involved--especially if those string crossings are (part of) the difficulty of the passage--it is helpful to practice on open strings: Play the passage with the bow as written but don't stop the strings. It feels weird at the beginning but it helps enormously if you overcome the weirdness. When the exercise works well it is generally pretty easy to add the left hand back in.

February 26, 2020, 3:47 PM · "That's 5 notes per seconds"

That can't be right. It's more like 9 + notes per second.

Edited: February 27, 2020, 10:33 AM · 0.2sec per notes x 5 notes = 1 second unless you are using a different kind of mathematics that I am not familiar with ;-) and that's assuming you play each note for no more than 0.2sec of course. The reality is that we generally see the next note before hand, which of course shortens the reaction time between notes. A good player reads several bars ahead, a skill which I very much struggle with.
February 27, 2020, 10:31 AM · Maybe we're not talking about the same phenomena, and you just mean reaction time to each note by itself, rather than to the fastest speed one can play once the notes are learned?
Edited: February 27, 2020, 11:45 AM · Exactly. 300npm approx. would be the fastest theoretical speed one can achieve (on average) if you read each individual notes only after you have played the current one. Our fingers can move much faster than that (about twice as fast). The limiting factor is the time it takes for our visual cortex to receive a visual signal, our brain to process that signal, and then send a signal to the appropriate muscles to action. Removing the visual cortex from the equation (by learning the notes) shortens the reaction time significantly as seen with touch stimulus reflex time which is (0.15sec) nearly 1/2 that of a visual stimulus (0.25sec). If the information originates directly from the brain (a learned note for e.g.), the reaction time would be even less, perhaps 1/2 that of a touch stimulus since the signal only need to go one way (i.e. brain to finger muscles rather than finger touch receptors to brain to finger muscles). That is one reason why building "muscle memory" is just so important in playing fast passages. Past a certain speed our brain and neuro system cannot process each individual notes in time to achieve the necessary speed, hence why learning groups of notes is necessary.

In other words the human computer isn't fast enough to process notes individually at the speed that is often required to play. I certainly don't read every notes when playing 500npm, and doubt anyone does, we ain't got the time.

February 27, 2020, 11:28 AM · Now how fast can a note be played? The fastest hand or finger movements that can be produced lie in the range between 6-12 Hz. I.e. 360-720npm The speed of playing would be somewhat reduced by the extent of the finger movement. The closer to the string a finger is, the shorter the distance to play a note, the faster you can play. So the fastest speed will be achieved by using the minimum finger pressure necessary to generate a clear sound, and the closest finger to string distance between notes. Hence part of developing fast play technique is to remain relax (the opposite of what we all tend to do when things get fast), and close to the strings.
Edited: February 27, 2020, 2:06 PM · I have read somewhere that the fastest notes we can hear, or think, as individual notes is about 16 per second. Runs faster than that sound like a blur to audience. As a player you must think of them as automatic, memorized groups. Like a two-octave scale in Ab- zip- did I actually play all the right notes?- probably yes. It may not be a coincidence that our lowest discerned pitch is a low C at 16 Hz. Lower than that sounds like thumps coming out of one of those annoying car boom-box sub-woofers. After designing your fingerings and bowings that will work up to speed, spend at least one practice session very slowly on when to lift fingers, when to set fingers, and the interval distance of all the shifts. What we want is maximum efficiency- no extra, wasted motions.
February 27, 2020, 8:32 PM · So many good pieces of advice here!! I second the idea of practicing with very small amounts of bow. It also helps to read notes groups of notes, not individual notes (aim for the next beat, or group). Chunking fast helps. I made a playlist of 13 methods I use (besides practicing in rhythms) for my studio at the University. You can find it here:

https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLcsxEkYPwGvxKLJRk8nVc-IRxDUL4dc_e

February 27, 2020, 9:44 PM · Albrecht, I have been following this post with interest for that very reason - the 3rd movement of the Vivaldi A minor, and I have been on it for I don’t know how long, as my teacher is trying to get me to play faster ( after 2 years of”slow down”), and like you , there are 3 parts where I just don’t think I can physically get there!
I assume you got there in the end and can play it now?
2 passages I think are just going to need work and time, and are more about bowing, but in the first fast bit, my fingers just don’t seem to obey me at that speed, and it seems more like a strength issue.
February 27, 2020, 10:45 PM · The hardest fast passage in the 3rd movement of Vivaldi a minor is full of difficult string crossings and the most efficient way to practice that IMO is to pause just before every string crossing when playing, over and over until one does not miss any string crossing, and then "shrink" the pauses until they are gone. I do have my students practice with rhythms as well but the string crossing practice has the biggest bang for the buck.

Most of the time when a student is struggling on that passage, they are also trying to use too much bow.

February 28, 2020, 12:13 AM · Thank you, Mary Ellen, I’ll try that. Yes my teacher is getting me to use less bow, and I was also too far towards the tip, and when he got me down to the middle, I could tell a difference. Now I have to remember not to slither upwards while concentrating on the left hand .
Thank heavens it’s a listenable piece, or I’d hate it by now. He says we’re getting there .
February 28, 2020, 12:18 AM · Yes, you need to stay away from the tip. Sometimes I make my students play a passage with a 1/4 size bow when they have trouble playing in the middle or lower half (assuming they are on fullsize instruments).

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