Practice Techniques for Increasing Tempos on Violin/Viola
With the holidays approaching, the time for practicing for various performances, recitals, holiday events, and family gatherings is rapidly disappearing. This predicament often causes panic, even in the most confident musicians. In particular, a struggle I am frequently faced with is helping students play pieces at “performance tempo.” From the young child learning “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” to the advanced student preparing a movement from a sonata or concerto, the difficulty in playing passages at performance tempos is all too common. To address this issue, I would like to provide some practice strategies to help any student more efficiently prepare music to play at performance tempo.
- Slow Practice is Key!
First, I would like to point out that before you can play anything fast, you MUST be able to play it slowly. If the technique is not strong enough to execute a difficult section at a slow tempo, then it will be impossible to try and play faster! As the saying goes, “practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes permanent.” Even if you must slow down a section to 1/4 of the performance tempo, it is better than jumping in too quickly and learning mistakes.
- String Crossings with Open Strings
For any sections which you must complete string crossings quickly, a good way to isolate the section is to practice without the left hand, all the way until you reach the practice tempo; thus, your right hand/arm can determine the most efficient way to cross strings, without worrying about the left hand. To add the left hand, slow down the tempo again and focus on copying the feeling of string crossings you had with open strings.
- Rhythmic Patterns
One of the best ways to bring difficult passages up to tempo is to use various rhythmic patterns. Using this method, you are able to create space between the notes in order to plan for each change, in both the left and right hand. Here are some examples:
- In a passage with rapid sixteenth notes, alternate each sixteenth note with the following pattern: long – short – long – short, then do the opposite.
- In a passage with rapid patterns (sixteenths, eighths, triplets, etc.), lengthen each pitch, beginning with the first, then the second, third, etc.
- Insert rests between sections of rapid notes; begin with a substantial length rest (such as adding 4 beats of rest between sections), then decrease the rest length until there is no space between the two sections
- Chunk and Overlap Sections
The idea of “chunking” helps the brain to connect different patterns so that transitions in fast passages become more natural; for example, if a fast passage lasts for 16 measures, play in 4-measure segments. Once you complete that, stagger the spacing—play 2 measures to begin, then continue the grouping of 4 measures until the passage ends. Consequently, your hand not only becomes accustomed to linking various measures together, but also has the benefit of pausing between sections to reset!
- Play Faster than Performance Tempo!
This tip is pretty self-explanatory; however, most people do not instinctively attempt this tactic, merely because of how daunting it seems; however, if your goal is to play a piece at quarter note = 120, then challenge yourself to learn the most difficult passages at quarter note = 130 – 140. Especially for performance preparation, this technique can be incredibly useful in building confidence. Once you play a section fairly well at quarter note = 140, you can slow back down to quarter note = 120 and see how much easier a section is to play. You will be physically and mentally capable to perform at performance tempo due to over-preparation.
- Address Technique (Very Important!)
In general, some technical concerns may prevent even the most intentional practice from succeeding in getting a passage up to performance tempo.
- Right Arm/Hand: string crossings must be as efficient as possible in order to be able to increase speed. So, make sure that you use the least amount of effort in changing between string levels. Also, be aware of whether or not you need the arm or the hand to complete the string crossing. If you choose to do arm crossings when the hand and wrist could more easily complete the task, then you risk expending too much energy and causing tension. This unnecessary energy can prevent you from consistent, accurate performance, as well as often preventing you from achieving your desired tempo.
- Left Arm/Hand: You must avoid excessive tension at all costs! Slow practice is your friend, because it allows you to be more focused on the amount of tension you are carrying throughout your body. If you allow your entire left arm to tighten up, for example, the fingers will not be able to easily travel during faster tempos.
- Additionally, you must avoid excess motion at all costs. Many students get into the habit of lifting their fingers incredibly high off of the fingerboard when a finger is not in use on the fingerboard; this habit, unchecked, can lead to disaster when trying to play in increasingly fast tempos. If your fingers are too far from their target, they will never be able to land as the tempo accelerates in a particular piece or passage. Exercises such as Schradieck, finger independence, and even scales can help with this issue, as long as you are focused on keeping your hand quietly hovering over the fingerboard (remember, this does not equal tension, just control over the left hand and fingers).
I hope these tips help your practice become more intentional and efficient. Good luck, and happy practicing!