I can't hear that fast! :D

December 21, 2022, 7:55 PM · I have always struggled with very fast passages (let's say, 16ths past qtr/150 or so.) Part of the problem, I know, is technical inefficiencies that have never fully been ironed out. But part of it, I've been aware for a while, is simply that I can't audiate the notes that fast. My mental sound-image of a passage either has to slow down, or turn to fast sludge.

Running into this on a piece I'm currently working on, which runs 16ths about 120 and then throws in some triple 16ths. I can play them by practicing slow, and then unit-chunking my muscle memory, but somewhere between 110- 120 I lose the ability to intentionally control the individual notes (bow or finger) bc I literally cannot process at that speed.

Is this common? Is it trainable? Or work-aroundable? I'd love to hear your experience and/or advice!

Replies (17)

Edited: December 21, 2022, 8:40 PM · My thought is that the composer never meant these notes to be heard individually but rather as groups. Maybe that's how you should be thinking about them as a player also.

PS -- for context (or for curiosity), what's the piece?

December 22, 2022, 12:26 AM · Greetings,
it sounds somewhat like your conception of the problem is part of the problem. You do not need to ‘audiate’ or control individual notes at speed. The purpose of chunked practice is to reduce the number of mental commands the longer and faster the passage is so that ultimately you just issue one command and the whole passage, section or whatever is released.
So, aside from slow practice, increasing speed with the metronome and th like, one can play the smallest manageable chunk at speed, then the next and so on. Then two chunks together and so on. (I fist saw this described by Simon Fischer as ABC practice). That is A, AB, BC, CD, ABC, ABCD or something like that.
In order to speed up it is quite possible you need less finger pressure. Also , we often forget that we can actually develop finger speed at relatively slow tempos. Your finger can move at the speed of light befor e it hits the note at th least possible moment while the actual progress of the notes is quite slow. This is a very neglected aspect of practice. Also, you may not be putting hand chunks down. That is all four fingers as one action so that all that is required is the release.
Idle thoughts,
Edited: December 22, 2022, 3:37 AM · hi kathryn, 16th notes at a metronome of 120 is indeed fast. I just want to echo what Paul and Buri already said: such passages are not played or interpreted note per note but in groups, say one beat, or even two beats, or a whole bar, eventually perhaps even the entire passage at once. that's how you practice and mentally store them, in groups, building up from small groups to larger. the book "Practice" by Simon Fischer has an entire chapter on fast passages with lots of useful tips (it is actually the first chapter of the book).
December 22, 2022, 3:59 AM · Yes, audiate slowly to play fast! We will still recognise wrong or out-of-tune notes as they fly past.
December 22, 2022, 4:33 AM · Presumably this is all détaché?
You've practised slowly so the left hand shapes are automatic.
At that point I would say your ears have done their job, now it's up to small bowings and hand-coordination.
Do you practise each hand separately?
December 22, 2022, 9:05 AM · I had that problem with Kreisler on YouTube playing his cadenza to Mozart 4 (Presumably he sped up to get it all on to one side of the disc? Brilliant counterpoint, but too fast for me!).
Edited: December 22, 2022, 11:52 AM · The piece right now is an arrangement of Go Tell It On The Mountain set next to a couple fiddle tunes. I've played it before, super fun and mostly quite doable, but just a couple "spots" where I've always felt a bit at the mercy of my fingers. And there are similar moments in plenty of other places in the repertoire. :)

So--chunking practice--agree! Separating bow and finger work-agree, and yesterday I had a really effective session honing in my bow proportions on a slow metronome.

I think what Paul and Buri are referring to is what seems to be eluding me. I need to be able to listen "from out further" and hear the beat and structure as a whole, and I can, but I expect to still be able to hear (audiate) the clarity and detail within and that's what I lose at a certain speed. It feels like not being able to see the leaves across the parking lot when I take my glasses off. Maybe I'm overthinking?

December 22, 2022, 9:08 AM · Buri, thanks for your comment about slow fast-finger practice. Drew Lecher has some good exercises for that which I would do well to return to!
December 22, 2022, 10:30 AM · However, audiation is still a habit that many violinists should adopt!!
Edited: December 22, 2022, 3:47 PM · A "saltato" (or "saltando") bouncing stroke for 2 to 6 consecutive fast notes of the same pitch can be an easier way to play some passages, especially those that resolve in a longer note; and they can help "audiate" them as well. The closer to the tip of the bow you play them the faster the bow bounces and thus the faster the notes. This can be a big help for certain passages - and it can sound great.

Experiment with hair ribbon angle and hair tightness as well as location on the hair length and stand-off distance (bow height). Down bow is easier, but developing up bow as well would really pay off.

Edited: December 22, 2022, 3:06 PM · Your problem is that you have not trained your brain to think in advance. The solution can be that you play your passage slowly. Play the first note, then play each subsequent note, but only until you can hear it in your head. This practice technique works especially well with shifting.
December 23, 2022, 1:31 PM · Loved Buri's post - only one thing I would suggest to add: practice raising the fingers fast - the lower them slowly to the string and then lift immediately after contact. Its often the end of the note that slows down speed.

The other issues with fast sequences are dealt with above - but they often require a reasonable fast memorization of the sequence. I find it helpful to also spend time on the music - listening to the passage and singing it (aloud or in your head). That way (it feels as if) your fingers will drive the sequence and not your brain.

Edited: December 25, 2022, 12:35 PM · Since you're playing some fiddle music, I have a few thoughts, since there are aspects of fiddle music--especially, say, Irish fiddle music--that are really a different language than the classical tradition, and I believe that classical training can be a bit of an obstacle to learning because the way you think about the notes you play is actually different. Also, classical music is of course read off the page, while that is a real obstacle to playing fiddle music well. You must get it into your ears and fingers before you can really do it. There are already great suggestions here for confronting fast passages, and you should try everything. There are things you learn consciously, working through exercises and developed through practice, and then there are those things that just come to you over time.

In Irish fiddle music, the ornamentation involves notes that occur extremely fast, and if you try to hold the individual notes in your mind, you will be unable to play the phrase properly. I did an experiment when I was in grad school (as a composer). I wrote a string quartet that used traditional Irish phrasing, bowing, and ornamentation. I worked these elements until I could write absolutely every detail (including changes in bow speed, etc) into the music. I wanted to see if virtuoso players, given an exact notation in the music, could deliver an authentic sound. No, they couldn't. Even when I demonstrated how to play, say, a slow roll--they couldn't match what I could do. Obviously, they would have had to work on it, as I had to do when I learned it. As I explained at the time, knowing how to speak French doesn't mean you can speak Arabic.

So, for ornamentation in fiddle music, I would suggest that you step away from the idea of hearing each note, and think of these things as gestures. This is not unlike Buri's suggestion, where you eventually experience the passage as a single gesture, but you do have to start very slow because, if this is fiddle ornamentation, there will be a few things that you are being asked to do that you may not have done before.

When I teach Irish fiddle, the first ornament I teach is the "cut", which was the first ornament I was taught. It's a grace note, basically, but you don't push the string down, you just touch it as you increase your bow speed. It should "pop." It doesn't actually produce the note you would get if you pushed the string down--it's percussive and there's a harmonic in there...Different styles are different, but the way I was taught was that the way you cut an open string is with the second finger, the first and second fingers are cut by the third finger, and the third finger is cut by the fourth finger. Of course there are exceptions, but that's the standard. There should be no. tension. whatsoever. in your left hand when you do this. Better to practice super-slow and have no tension. Some Irish players will do this with a bit of a circular motion of the cutting finger. Think of it as a little flick.

When you can cut every note in first position, then you can confront triplets, of which there are many types. There are triplets played within a single bow stroke and "bowed" triplets, either a single pitch repeated three times, or different notes. Though this is called a triplet, a bowed triplet it isn't really a triplet. The rhythm is two 1/32s and a 16th. The bowed triplets are the hardest ornament, IMO, because the movements should really be mainly in your right hand-and-fingers, not your arm. The famous Scottish fiddler Johnny Cunningham told me that he learned to do this (and honestly, Scottish/Cape Breton fiddlers are the absolute masters of this ornament) by sitting sideways on a chair without arms and locking his right arm on the chair back so that he HAD to do the ornament only with his wrist and fingers. You will start this super slow getting each note (begin with a super-light bow touch--don't dig in), but you are headed for a "BRRT" sound that, when I do it, I experience it as a single thing. My favorite exercise for this is not from fiddle music, but towards the end of the Biber solo passacaglia, there are a few variations that feature this ornament (apologies--I am a fiddler only playing baroque music seriously for a decade or so, and I am not sure this is exactly how this passage was played, but it's how I do it, and it is a great exercise).

The triplets and three-note graces done in a single bow stroke are of course easier, and while you chip away on the bowed triplet, these will give you more immediate gratification. The lightest possible touch on the string, but this time you really stop the strings. Irish fiddlers will often say that exact intonation on these ornaments may not be all that important, since they are mainly rhythmic and go by so fast, but... mea culpa, I generally try to get it in tune. Anyway, all this talk of triplets is meant to end up focusing on the triplet you would play within a single bow stroke, with the main note and the note one step lower... say, E on the D string and the open D. Practice speeding up the bow as you play it. It doesn't pop like the cut, but does get a little louder as it goes--"eeyAWL" or something.

Now, the roll. There are several versions, but I will explain the standard slow roll on the D string first-finger E (it will use the triplet I just mentioned) There are two ways I have had this explained to me and they are both correct, and different ways to conceive of a roll. Basically, a roll is what in classical music is called a "turn," but if you try to play it as a turn it will sound awful, because classical players want to put their fingers down. I know several players who have not humbled themselves to learn this correctly, and they simply cannot play the ornament fast/light enough. Don't be that player.

The way I was taught to play a roll was that it's a cut, followed by a triplet, all in one bow stroke that speeds up. Keep in mind that when I play a roll, often it is on a whim, improvised in the moment. I don't experience each note, I just... play a roll. "Bree-AW"--just an instant. So, you start on the E, cut with your third finger about where a G would be (rolls are almost always like this with the fingering for the top note obeying the rules of cuts), and then play the E-D-E triplet. Important point--I *barely* lift my finger in this triplet. It is not a triplet with three distinct pitches, it's like "ee-yah-ee". The whole roll should "pop" like the cut. The other explanation for how to play a roll that I liked was Kevin Burke's, whose touch in Irish fiddling is worth studying, IMO. I was a complete Kevin Burke fan boy when I was in Dublin in 1979, following him and Micheal as they worked up their repertoire, playing at Tailor's Hall (I think it was) every week, trying to steal everything Kevin was doing. He would describe a roll as five notes, each one getting faster--that helps you understand the bow pressure/speed, which increases as you execute the ornament. I will say that if you watch his left hand though, it is still a cut plus a triplet.

Sorry for the novel, but if you want to play this music, IMO it is worth the effort to learn the language. Cheers!

Edited: December 27, 2022, 5:01 PM · Paul: wow, this is amazing, and the crazy thing is that (with a bit though not a ton of background in listening to this type of thing) your written explanations make really good aural and physical sense to me. I performed this last weekend before reading your comment, but will have to pull it back out and mess with it. I know there were some "possible" ornaments/figures that I skipped bc I knew I didn't know how to do them convincingly; in my context it was fine without, but it's an area I'd love to grow in!

FWIW the performance did go really well--my chunking and slow practice paid off, and I think we ended up closer to 110 than 120 which helps! :) But re: my original issue of hearing, I had a bit of a "moment" and think I've figured it out!
I have a tendency to default my "head audio" to my vocal voice. (I didn't realize this until my 20's and yes, you can imagine it affected my playing!) I'm pretty intentional, now, about audiating my violin in my classical playing, but for this group (church worship) I often learn or create my parts while driving and do a lot of it vocally...So...if you can imagine, I was trying to audiate these crazy fast fiddle figures in my singing voice. It's not a blur, it's a smudge! The moment I changed voice and started audiating it as a violinist--it came into focus. Yes, it is too fast to individually process every note BUT it is all there, the content of the figure is intact.

I did feel a bit of a ditz when I figured that out... :)

Edited: December 29, 2022, 11:49 PM · As I am a rather slow person I can sympathize. There is a limit to how fast we can hear or think. I have read somewhere that the limit to our hearing is 16 notes per second. Faster than that sounds like a blur. Perhaps not coincidentally, our brain starts hearing a pitch instead of fast thumps at 16 Hz.-double low C. There are plenty of fast scales in the orchestra music that run by faster than that, and after a concert I may not remember whether I played them correctly. My daughter's advice is "play the first note and last note correct, then add more notes in between."
Definitely think in terms of groups. That is one reason why we practice our memorized scales and arpeggios to the point of being automatic. Sometimes I just write the name of the scale or arpeggio above the passage.
When a skilled typist sees short common words like [and] or [the] they do not think [a-n-d] or [t-h-e]. The just think the word and the correct key-strokes pop out very fast.
January 4, 2023, 11:28 AM · Paul - That was an awesome write up. Thank you so much. I have been working on making my fiddling sound like a fiddler. That is going to help so much. Thank you for taking the time to write it out
January 4, 2023, 7:56 PM · Yes- thanks so much Paul. As for not being able to hear fast notes, that just needs some ear training. Try a bit of left-hand articulation, or hammering. (make sure you here the sound of the finger making contact with the string). My teacher tells me to do it a lot, and it really helps to clean up passages.

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