How To Play Music Faster

Learn to play faster and sound better!

Learn to play faster and sound better!

“How do I play faster?” That’s one of the questions I am asked the most. Even if students don’t ask it, I know they’re thinking it based on the tempo of their performances. When students ask about playing faster, I sometimes say, “Just move everything faster.” That’s not the answer they’re looking for because they don’t want to know how to play faster. What they really mean to ask is, “How can I play faster and actually sound good?”

Ahh. There’s the rub. What is it that makes us sound bad when we play fast? There are lots of potential problems but I boil it down to two: our left hand fingers aren’t hitting the right notes and our bow and left hand fingers aren’t coordinated.

Left Hand
Let’s tackle the first problem. You’re fingers aren’t hitting the right notes, a.k.a. you’re not playing in tune. Even if you have finger tapes, playing in tune involves more than just putting your finger down. There are two must-do’s to playing in tune.

1. You must hear the note before you play it. If you can’t hear the note before you play it, how do you know if it’s in tune? Practice playing a note then singing the next note before you play it. That’s a big eye-opener. I know what you’re thinking. “That means I have to play SLOW!” Yes. I’m getting there. You know it’s coming.

2. You must relax. You have to be able to quickly adjust your finger if it is out of tune. You can’t do this if you are tense. Try tensing up your left hand and wiggling your fingers as fast as you can. Now relax and try it again. This is another reason to practice slowly. It gives you time to think about relaxing and placing your fingers as lightly as possible.

Now the next big problem with playing fast. Coordinating your bow with your left hand. As you place a left hand finger, your bow should move almost simultaneously. If your coordination is off, you’ll get that overlapping “blub blub blub” sound. The faster you play, the harder coordination becomes. Add in slurs and string crossings and it gets even harder. There are two parts to staying coordinated.

1. Putting down fingers as soon as possible. As you advance in technique this will become more crucial to playing cleanly. If you are about to play a fingering of 3-2-1, go ahead and have all fingers downs. This allows you to move your fingers quicker than placing and releasing each one. You can’t always put a finger down ahead of time (for instance, if you’re going from 3rd finger to another 3rd finger). Even when you can’t get the finger down before you play, you can get as close as you can to actually putting the finger down. If you are going from a 1st finger to a 4th finger on the same string, let your 4th finger stretch and hover right over where it needs to go. Practicing this way requires planning and forethought and it also requires you to practice…ahem…slowly to make sure the fingers are doing what they need to do.

2. Coordinating the bow with the left hand. First put down your bow and play the excerpt pizzicato until your fingers move quickly and smoothly. Add the bow but play very slowly and stop in between each note. Place the finger and then move the bow. For string crossings, make sure you stop the bow, drop or raise your elbow to the new string level and continue. Play the passage again making the pauses shorter and shorter. You are training your muscles to do exactly what they need to do so you can play quickly without having to work as hard.

Students often start out playing something smoothly and cleanly and before long they get excited and finish the song like they’re at the Kentucky Derby. Using a metronome helps you stay consistent and keeps you from rushing. I like to start slow then move the metronome up 10 clicks then back 5 and on and on until I get it to the tempo I want.

Keeping everything in proportion
Generally, the faster you go, the less bow you will use. Otherwise you will start a small fire on your violin. Using the right amount of bow helps everything stay coordinated.

What’s the real key to playing faster?
Playing slower. There’s really no other way around it. I’m not talking a brisk walk, I’m talking turtle slow! And just because you play it slow once doesn’t mean you can go back to tempo and expect major improvement. You have to start slow and increase your speed gradually. Remember, any listener would rather hear a song played slowly and cleanly than to hear something quick but messy and unrecognizable. When you choose a a tempo to play a piece (whether for a teacher or an audience) choose the fastest tempo you can play cleanly. This might be slower than what you achieved at home but you’ll know you’re playing at a tempo you can actually manage with all those extra nerves and sweaty hands.

In order to play faster, you’ve also got to make sure your form is correct. If your left wrist is like a pancake or you can’t bow straight, you’ll want to tackle those things first. Learning how to practice can also help you improve your speed. Check out my blog on practicing wisely here.

Remember, it’s never a waste of time to practice something slowly. On the flip side, playing something fast before you are ready can be detrimental and even hamper your progress. You are also less likely to get frustrated when you play something at a relaxed tempo. So take a deep breath, before you start playing fast, play slow. I promise you’ll be pleased with the results!

Happy (Slow) Practicing!


The Key to Being a Better Musician Is....

      Making your practice time "golden."

      Making your practice time "golden."

Before I tell you the answer. Here’s a quick story. Does any of this sound familiar?

You get out your violin to practice. You know you’re supposed to start out with scales so you whiz through them so you can get to the good stuff. You play through the piece you’re working on. If it’s a good day, you make it all the way through. If not, you stop when it gets hard and go back to play the parts you sound good on. Let’s say it’s a good day. You make it all the way through. What do you do next? Start at the beginning and play it all the way through again. It might sound a little better, chances are, not much has changed. You decide to buckle down on the two or three hard lines. You play through the measures once. Ugh. It sounds awful. You try again. Even worse this time! Stupid fingers. Maybe if you try it faster…nope. Slower? That’s agony, too. You’re frustrated but you’re determined to get it right. You play it again but nothing is sounding right today and you’re practice time is up. You put the violin up for another day.

Sound familiar? What progress did you make? Not much of any. In fact, you probably reinforced some bad habits. You may not be doing all of these practicing no-nos but everyone is guilty of some of them from time to time (including me)!

What’s the key to being a better player? Practicing smarter. Not practicing more or practicing harder but having quality practice that yields tangible results. Practicing smarter is a skill you must learn. It might be slower going at first but as you get better at practicing, you’ll advance quicker.

Here are some tips to get more out of your practice time.

1. Get a warm-up routine—Doing the same warm-ups every day makes it easier to measure progress. Don’t rush it. You’re not only warming up your muscles, you’re getting your mind primed to focus. Start off with some stretches focusing on your upper body. Next I do “windshield wipers” with my bow. Then I move on to open strings. This is yoga for the violin. It’s a time to focus on relaxing, breathing, and making a good tone (one of the hardest things to do!). Draw your bow as fast or as slow as you need to make a good sound. Experiment with different parts of the bow. Try adding more weight or less weight. Think about the angle of the bow.
Next I play scales and arpeggios. You might think scales are easy and therefore don’t require much attention. Teachers prescribe scales because they are easier than your piece and are a great way to perfect difficult skills. Start by focusing on intonation then move on to varying the speeds and using different bowings. There are a million things you can focus on while doing scales. If you can’t think up any, I’m sure your teacher has tons of ideas. For now, only focus on one problem for each scale.
Depending on your level, you’ll want to transition to etudes or other method books and then you’re ready for the main song you’re learning. What’s the number one rule?

2. Keep your expectations low—Then you won’t be disappointed! That’s my life motto. Dream big for long-term goals, but for day to day practice, keep your goals short and manageable. Don’t try to conquer an entire song in one 30 minute practice session. Focus on one ore two measures. Even then, don’t repeat them aimlessly. Focus on one thing at a time to work on like getting your f sharps in tune of smoothing out your string crossings.

3. Keep a practice log—Before you start practicing, write down what your overall goal for the day is. Keep it manageable and tangible. Nothing like “I want to make my song sound better.” Pick something specific and simple like keeping your bow straight and relaxing your grip. If other things fall by the wayside, don’t beat yourself up. If you’ve progressed a little on that overall goal, you’re doing better than if you had no goal at all. As you practice certain measures, again write down what you want to achieve. This keeps you safe from aimless repetition. But, to determine what you need to work on, you need to stop and do some thinking first. Which brings me to my next point.

4. Be a detective—When something doesn’t sound right, don’t play it over and over again the same way hoping that one day it will sound better. Stop. Think. Is it a left hand or a right hand problem? Is it a difficult fingering or a difficult bowing? Are you correctly reading the notes or the rhythm? Once you’ve determined the problem, you or your teacher can come up with a way to fix it. You must do this for every measure and every note that doesn’t sound right! This is what your teacher is doing during your lesson. Learning to practice this way means learning to be your own teacher! That means you can use your lesson time to talk about other exciting things.

5. Stay focused—These tips won’t get you very far unless you can devote your utmost focus to the task at hand. For me, 5-10 minutes is the max I can focus on any one measure or problem, and that’s assuming I’m rested and removed from distractions. When you are past the peak of your focusing ability, simply move on to something else or take a break altogether. It’s better to practice shorter amounts and be focused. Otherwise you could be developing bad habits or reinforcing incorrect bowings, rhythms, etc. Like wise, if you start to get frustrated, put the violin down immediately and come back when you are refreshed.

6. Stop practicing on a high note— When you are nearing the end of your practice time and you play something well, STOP! Put the violin down and walk away while you are still happy! Sure, you could plow through a few more measures and risk getting frustrated but it’s much better to end feeling good about something. It will make you want to practice the next day.

Happy Practicing!

7 Ways To Make Practicing Fun!

Before I share a few ways to make practicing fun for your child, let me start with a caveat. Practicing isn’t always fun. That doesn’t mean that it’s tortuous, but it’s not always smiles and giggles. Sometimes your child just has to buckle down and do it. At the same time, you don’t want music to be yet another homework assignment. Having fun during practice time can be a great way to cultivate creativity and encourage focus if you choose the right “games.”

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