Keys for Playing up to Speed

Playing up to Speed

Pieces that we learn to play for performance are usually personally challenging. These pieces have more expressive detail or move more quickly than we can read all at once at full speed.

When watching a virtuoso pianist perform, it’s easy to wonder how they could possibly read all the dots and lines on the page quickly enough to keep up with the pace of the music – that is, if they are apparently following the score and not playing from memory. In reality, the virtuoso pianist does not follow every note and detail. They use the same skills a less advanced player needs to learn to be able to play pieces fluently.

By starting off with slower reading and playing of the music, the pianist learns the rhythms and notes of the piece being studied. (The speed of the earlier readings is affected by the speed of sight-reading) As the piece is practiced, the picture patterns of the notes are recognised as groups that make sense together, rather than as individual notes. The patterns become road maps for the directions our fingers, hands and bodies need to move. The movements are then memorised. They are triggered by the sounds we hear and the patterns we read.

Once the patterns of a piece of music are recognised, it is time to work on the technique needed to be able to play the music the way the pianist wants it to sound – for expression and speed. Technique is the name given to the group of skills that allow us to play with the most suitable expression and speed. The best technique is the movement that allows us to play with the least amount of energy.

To play up to speed, the pianist needs to develop two important skills – memory and relaxation.

Relaxation

Relaxation is possibly the most important skill for playing expressively and at increasingly faster speeds. There are many different types of movement needed to play different sounds on the piano, and different levels of energy are used with these movements. Yet, to be able to produce any of them effectively it is important to relax. (If a pianist doesn’t relax, their hands and shoulders start to hurt and they hit a speed-wall – a maximum speed they can play at for a short time before the notes and rhythms become messy.)

Relaxation needs to be practiced from the very beginning of learning to play. Relaxation exercises and thoughts should be included in practice routines. It is also important NOT to practice when we feel frustrated – tension reinforces bad technique, which makes any difficulties even worse.
Try turning down the lights so you can only just see the keys and the music. Play quietly and slowly, concentrating on using the smallest possible movements to play the notes. Soak in the darkness and the quiet notes. Let your hands and arms feel heavy and only just rigid enough to stay on the keys and play. Remember how this feels and try and feel the same way whenever you play.
When you are playing, give each hand a break every five to seven minutes and hang your arms loosely by your sides.
If your hands begin to hurt, stop playing and check for tension. Then relax your arms and start playing again, from about 2 bars before the place you stopped.
Think carefully about relaxing while you are playing.

It is impossible to play faster by trying to make your fingers move faster.

Spatial Memory

The other important part of learning to play at full speed is learning how a group of notes ‘feel’ when you play them. This is spatial or body memory. Groups of notes can be played almost without thinking – just like riding a bike; your body remembers what movement is needed next. This is when playing fast really becomes fun - instead of hard.

Repeatedly play a group of notes (one phrase or sometimes even just two notes that you are learning). Once you have done this about six times in a row, you should begin to know how the notes ‘feel’. Then it becomes so much easier to play them.
Scale passages and runs are much easier when your fingers simply take in turns hitting the keys. Let your hand be in control of moving them in the right direction while your fingers just move up and down in a pattern. (Decide on a finger pattern that works and stick to it.) Use fingering numbers to learn the movement patterns and then focus on the feel of the patterns rather than on the numbers.
When you have to make long jumps between keys, close your eyes and learn how it feels to move the distance. Given the chance, your body is much quicker at being the judge of distance than your eyes are.
At all levels of playing, it is great practice to close your eyes and play. Think about how the notes feel and sound. Try feeling distances between keys with your eyes closed. How does a step or a skip between notes feel? Can you close your eyes and find all the groups of 2 black notes or all the Cs? Can you cross your hands over and play all the Ds up and down the piano, one at a time? Can you play five fingers in a row or a scale with your eyes closed?