A lot of time should be spent practising slowly but if you practise slowly for too long, this could happen…
This week, I was practising Concert Study No.6 “Pastoral” by Nikolai Kapustin, a fun piece I started learning at the beginning of this year. It’s a very dense piece, full of notes and jazzy chords, leaps and syncopated rhythms so it’s taken me a long time just to get through the notes and rhythm.
For the first time I felt like I was finally getting to grips with the piece, and I could play it from start to finish in a relatively fluent manner without too many pauses or mistakes.
Curious to see at what speed I was playing, I pulled out my metronome. I thought I was playing pretty slowly, so I put the metronome at a slow speed. “No, I’m playing faster than that”, I thought, so I kept increasing the speed until I got to the tempo that’s marked in the score, crotchet equals 108. I thought, “Wow! I’m playing it up to tempo! It’s easier than I thought!”, and got a big boost in confidence. I had been slowly increasing the tempo over the past months, so I assumed I had reached the tempo without realising it.
I then tried playing through the whole piece with the metronome at that speed and did pretty well, except for a few passages where I had trouble keeping up.
At one point, doubt crept in, and I thought, “Hang on a second… This is strange. I thought it was faster than that.” So, I went back to the beginning and played with the metronome at crotchet equals 108 and that’s when it hit me.
I was playing quaver equals 108, NOT crotchet equals 108!!!! I was thinking in quavers the whole time. In other words, I was playing at HALF the tempo at crotchet equals 54! *Hand slaps forehead*
“Sh*t! That means it’s waaaayyyy faster. It’s double the speed! DOUBLE the speed!?”, I realised, my jaw dropping, and my eyes opening wide like a deer in headlights.
The confidence I’d gained vanished in an instant. I felt like I was back to square one. How was I ever going to play the piece twice as fast!?
I tried playing just the right hand at crotchet equals 108 to get a feel for it and boy is it fast! It’s fast because every beat is made up of semiquavers!
Here’s a recording of me playing the first two bars at my current speed (just the RH):
And another recording at the actual speed:
Can you hear the massive difference?
Now I understand why it’s a study. It’s not just the notes and the rhythm that are difficult to read but it’s also technically very challenging. It wouldn’t be called a study otherwise!
I had practised the piece at a slow speed for so long that I had forgotten how fast it’s meant to go! Even when I rehearsed the piece in my mind, I always rehearsed it at a slow speed. No wonder I had forgotten how fast it went.
And besides, it didn’t feel slow at crotchet equals 54 since every beat is made up of semiquavers. It already felt fast.
Why am I telling you this?
I share this anecdote with you because it’s funny (to me at least) and more importantly to remind you that: When learning a piece that is meant to be fast, make sure you don’t stay at a slow speed for too long otherwise you’ll have a nasty surprise like I did.
Alternate between slow and faster practice and try to play close to or at the actual tempo at least once early on so that: 1) you remind yourself of the tempo you need to reach; 2) you know how fast your movements need to be so you can work out ways to do them in an efficient and relaxed manner, in other words, what technique to use.
Knowing what technique to use is really important because the movements you use at slower speeds are going to be drastically different to the ones you need to use when playing at faster speeds. That’s where technique comes in. At a slow tempo, you have time to get from one note to the next but not at a fast tempo. Every movement has to be faster and done more efficiently. And everything becomes harder including coordinating the hands, playing leaps, playing evenly, etc. The faster the piece is, the more difficult everything becomes.
If you gradually increase the tempo over many months like many people do, you might hit a wall at one point because you won’t have practised the movements and the technique required for a faster tempo.
Instead, while still practising at slow and medium speeds, try playing short combinations of notes at the actual tempo, hands separately and hands together. By short, I mean one bar or less, depending on how many notes there are.
In my case, I do 3-5 notes at a time (see example below). If you try to play too many notes at the fast tempo, it will be too difficult, and your brain won’t be able to keep up. Stick to a small number of notes and play them at the fast tempo until it feels easy, then do the next group of notes, and so on. Then try to combine two groups of notes, then the next two, and so on, then three groups of notes, etc. Until you have a whole bar at the fast tempo.
Then apply this same method for the next bars, adjusting the combination of notes depending on the notes you have to deal with. Choose the groups of notes based on the movements you need to practise rather than based on the beats or phrases. It doesn’t need to make sense musically, only technically.
Some bars will be easier than others, in which case you can play a larger number of notes in one go.
For example, here are the combinations of notes that I will now practise at a fast tempo (as shown in brackets):
What is difficult in the RH is playing a single note followed by a chord, so I insert breaks after each chord so that I’m practising the hard spots in isolation. The breaks also allow my hand to relax, which is important if I want to be able to play this fast. I will then string two groups of notes, then 3, and so on. I may also practise the transitions between one group to the next by adding the first note of the next group.
If you’d like me to record a YouTube video where I practise this piece in the way I described above, let me know in the comments.