Increasing Tempo in Practice

“To escalate the tempo of newly learned material, you first have to reduce the effort required to play or sing it at your initial tempo.”
The Musician’s Way, p. 73

Some of the thorniest challenges we encounter in practice surround increasing the tempos of newly learned pieces.

All too often, we start off slowly but then hit barriers as we hike our speed.

Here are 7 expert practice strategies that enable us to transition from slow to rapid execution.

1. Isolate Problems
When a passage causes us trouble, we should isolate its tricky components and solve the problems that trip us up. We might employ strategies such as omitting then reinserting pitches, varying rhythms, and modifying the rate of change (see p. 54-70 of The Musician’s Way).

2. Step Up Incrementally
Instead of abruptly increasing tempo, we should step up gradually, maintaining ease, and trusting in our ability to master the music over time. A metronome makes for a handy tool to gauge our progress.

3. Image Ahead in Larger Chunks
To perform at brisk tempos, we have to sense passages in chunks, mentally imaging ahead. Problem is, when we initially learn unfamiliar music, we tend to perceive in smallish groups of notes. So, as an illustration, if in a 16th-note passage we first conceived of individual beats, we should promptly sense two or more beats at a time.

4. Simplify Technique
Sometimes our technical choices don’t work at high speeds. In such cases, we should simplify fingerings, tonguings, bowings and so on to support fluency.

5. Invent Exercises
If a technical weakness hinders us, we do well to concoct relevant exercises and integrate them into our daily practice.

6. Balance Practicing Small Bits and Large Spans
Isolating problem spots is essential, but to foster continuity we should balance tackling excerpts with running through sizable spans of music. Self-recording helps too.

7. Manage Repetition
Deliberate practice entails lots of repetition, but we need to manage repetition so that we work efficiently, avoid overuse injuries, and steadily ripen our music into fine art.

See The Musician’s Way for more about these and other techniques to practice creatively and productively.

Related posts
Beautiful Repetition
Building Technique
A Different Kind of Slow Practice
Habits of Excellence

© 2013 Gerald Klickstein
Photo © BortN66, licensed from Shutterstock.com

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4 Responses to “Increasing Tempo in Practice”

  1. Shawn said:

    Jul 30, 13 at 19:14

    I have been hearing recently that starting slow and gradually increasing tempo is NOT the best way to play faster. The argument is that you are training yourself to play slow that way. The suggested method is to play along at a slow comfortable speed and then double that speed. This will be sloppy at first so you will mostly play at the half speed, but you keep trying the double speed over and over and you will eventually get more fluent at it. Another analogy is this: you’ll never be a fast runner by walking slow and then gradually trying to walk faster and faster. The mechanics are different for running. Runners trying to increase their speed train using intervals similar to the half speed/double speed example.

  2. Gerald Klickstein said:

    Jul 30, 13 at 22:42

    Hi Shawn – Thanks for commenting and for bringing up such an important topic.
    You’re correct that certain movements operate differently at slow and fast tempos, so some types of slow practice can actually hinder a musician from playing fast later.
    I address this issue in The Musician’s Way, but, in a nutshell, there are ways to practice in which we still move fast but reduce the pace at which pitches change – that’s what I refer to above as ‘modifying the rate of change’ and I illustrate it in the book with multiple music examples.
    In addition, there are ways in which we can execute some types of passages slowly but still sense the sorts of movement and thought patterns that we’ll use at faster tempos.
    For more on all this, please see my post “A Different Kind of Slow Practice” http://musiciansway.com/blog/2011/02/a-different-kind-of-slow-practice/

  3. Pete Felton said:

    Aug 11, 13 at 20:06

    I like this article Gerald. It coincides precisely with my own experience in drumming.

    One of my practice aims is to feed a steady stream of rudimentary competences into my practice regime, alongside of new pieces and practice in general fluency and musical expression.

    Your point 1 is spot on. There is no point practising errors-they become that much harder to firstly “UN” learn and then to learn correctly. I have had great success (in fact more than I would have thought possible) by breaking difficult passages down into their component ‘building blocks’ and then establishing fleucy ay very low speed. Then integrating the problem area into its musical context, possible a 4 bar phrase, and then stepping up the tempo in very small incrments.

    I generally start at full performane speed minus about 15% and then in steps go -13, -10, -8, -6, -5, -2. I never increase the tempo until I am comfortable with what I am doing. This is not just a theoretical recommendation-it really does work.

    My speculation is that we are really training our brain and the muscle memory in our arms and hands to perform the required work for us so that it ceases to be a task requiring concentrated effort.

    I use either Goldwave or Audacity. Goldwave (for me) is a little easier to perform the tempo manipulation, but both are very good.

    I select the notes/rudiments or bars that need special attention and then put my practice track on a play loop at reduced tempo for maybe 20 iterations. Repeat as necessary but break it up into productive sessions. If it has been a particularly challenging task to master, I also try to leave it for a day or so, and then come back to it to verify that my newly found proficiency did not desert me while I was sleeping!

    Once I have ‘mastered’ the practice tape, I record my own performance (only) and then listen critically for errors of timing, expression, or clarity of execution and apply corrective action as appropriate.

    Shawn’s comments above were interesting and accurate, but not necessarily for every situation. With drumming, your finger, hand, wrist, arm and whole upper body movement are relevant and slow practice is in reality the best way to master most tasks. If problems emerge at faster tempos then the place we generally start looking is in super slo-mo analysis of the movements which are giving rise to problems. This process can be very accurate and resolves most issues. There are exceptions of course and in these situations Shawn’s comments come into play-sometimes you just have to go for it!

    Also big tickes to your points 3,4,5 ,6 and 7

    Nice work Gerald!

  4. Gerald Klickstein said:

    Aug 12, 13 at 21:59

    Fantastic, Pete – thanks for taking the time to share your ideas and make such a valuable contribution!