Playing fast is cool. Audiences love to see fingers flying fast over the keys, effortlessly and in perfect control (or even out-of-control!) It provides a sense of exhilaration and danger, and taps into our love of exhibition and speed. The pianist themselves also enjoy playing fast, as the effort and exercise is satisfying once grasped. But despite the love of playing fast, the practice and journey to gain this ability is actually very much slow practice.
There is a famous story of a concert pianist visiting the Moscow Conservatory and during a tour of the practice rooms with the Head of the School, the pianist remarks “Why is everyone playing fast??? The young generation does not understand the importance of slow practice – you and I spend most of our time working a section slowly and that often takes the whole time!” Imagine if even the concert pianists practice slow most of the time, shouldn’t we do so too?
Here are some of the most important reasons for practicing slow and the benefits of that come from it.
Learn your notes
One cannot expect to play fluently and fast without knowing your notes – really knowing them, to the point of having them memorized. Be able to start at any spot, not always the beginning. Get to know the patterns and intervals between the notes, so that you are grounded and feel comfortable knowing that you have learned the notes well and correctly.
Playing fast requires grouping of the notes into larger units, which mean we tend to glide over the notes. If you do not know your notes well enough, you will gloss over them instead.
Solidify your fingering
When learning a piece as fast as possible, we tend to use whatever fingers we happen to land on, often twisting our hands in weird positions! Going slow and taking our time to figure out the best fingerings will make the passage much easier. Some extremely technical passages are also made much easier with the right fingering. When in a recital or nervous situation, knowing your fingering 200% will keep you stable and grounded.
Work on rhythm and evenness
Another downfall of rushing to play fast is unevenness in passages and incorrect rhythm. Play the passage slowly and count out loud to make sure all rhythms are accurate. For technical passages, make sure you are playing the tempo in a steady manner, not stopping and starting due to mess-ups. For passages with running notes, it is imperative that the notes are played evenly, which must be practiced starting from a slow tempo.
Practice finger independence
The ability to move each finger independently (with the exception of the fourth finger) is critical in piano playing and allows for clean, brilliant, and strong technique. This must be developed at a slow tempo though, as finger independence is not a natural movement for the hands.
By practicing raising each finger high and maintaining a curved fingertip, you can begin to develop this technique that will allow you to play fast passages with brilliance. But developing this takes time and effort, so be patient in your slow practice to monitor and exaggerate the finger movement until it becomes natural.
Make your technique efficient
One of the most important things in advanced piano playing is the ability to move as efficiently as possible. The great concert pianists are able to play fast, clean, and have amazing technique because they understand how the body works in order to remove all unnecessary movements and maintain ease and relaxation.
Again, the first steps in achieving this efficiency is to slow down your practice and monitor your movements carefully. Remove anything that does not directly influence the sound. Ask yourself questions like:
– Am I moving my body unnecessarily?
– Am I relaxed in my posture and arms?
– Am I moving directly to the next position after releasing the previous note?
– Am I preparing ahead-of-time enough?
– Is my hand in the best position possible on the keyboard to play the notes?
Exaggerate your dynamics and articulation
The key to having absolute control over dynamics and articulation at a fast tempo is to exaggerate them at a slow tempo. When practicing slow, one must do twice as much in expression so as to make the gesture natural. This includes legato, staccato, dynamic changes, and even character expression for more advanced pieces.
At a fast tempo, you will not have time to think about all these things, so the muscles must learn to do things by memory. Attempting to work on dynamics and articulation at a fast tempo will only cause confusion for your brain and your hands, so work slowly to avoid the mess.
Hear the music
Although it is fun to play fast, we often forget to express the music in our preoccupation with the technical side of piano playing. What makes a fast passage brilliant and truly great is the ability to bring out the music and make the technical aspects serve a higher purpose: that of expressing the true meaning of the music.
Do not forget to play music in your pursuit of technical proficiency, as both are connected and should not be separated. Fast playing without any feeling and expression simply sounds robotic.