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Finger Speed

piano technique

Question: I’ve read a few times on your site about how everyone has a limit to how fast they can play. This really bothers me. Like I know it’s about playing everything musically first and foremost, but… I’m very ambitious. I have a goal to have a very wide repertoire of my favourite pieces – some (many) of which are VERY difficult, like Rach 3, the Liszt Sonata, many of the Beethoven sonatas (especially late), and many other pieces that require not only the utmost in musicality, but the utmost in virtuosity. I want to be able to play these pieces with the interpretation I want, at tempo, without being held back by musical OR technical ability. The thought of me never being able to do this, because of something that I can’t control, is bothering me. A lot. I don’t really know what I’m asking, but could you please respond to this and give me advice? Thank you.

– Josh (Australia)

Albert’s reply: The best advice I can give you about playing fast is not to try to force yourself to do so. Trying to play faster than you are able to at any time is the surest recipe for failure. It’s guaranteed to create insecurity and sloppiness, which needless to say are extremely detrimental to your technique.

Our every moment at the keyboard either propels us forward or pushes us backwards. This is why the law of concentration is the most powerful one in piano practice. As I mentioned in the lesson on insecurity and mistakes, the great Russian pianist Josef Lhevinne rightly stated that keeping your mind on the music and only playing as fast as you are able is the formula for playing accurately. Conversely, trying to play faster than you can think is the formula for insecurity and inaccuracy. This is a matter of simple cause and effect – it’s your choice.

That said, there are absolutely strategies for learning to play fast. In an article on how to play fast I share some basic principles. (A suitable title would be “How to Play Fast Without Trying.”) Chief among them is slow practice, which must be the foundation for all fast playing. Slow practice is insufficient in itself for playing fast, however. In that lesson I shared an invaluable tip on practicing scales, namely playing the two hand positions in quick succession to practicing the transition between them. I’d now like to extend this lesson further to incorporate other passages.

Assuming the technical difficulty of the passage does not involve leaps, the primary difficulty in playing fast usually involves changes in hand position. The scale exercise mentioned above can be extended to fast passages involving rapid changes of hand position. Such passages almost invariably involve scales, arpeggios or a combination thereof, each of which has passing the thumb as the primary technical challenge.

The key to successful mastery of these passages is precise articulation. All notes do not necessarily need to be articulated identically – I very often vary the articulation within a rapid line – but the articulation must be precise and controlled. One of the benefits of practicing fast passages slowly is that it is possible to achieve such precise articulation, with beautifully overlapping legato or a clear detaché, as desired. When played at tempo, some of the detailed articulation will fall by the wayside because it will be impossible to realize fully. This does not mean that detailed articulation at slower tempos is irrelevant – quite the contrary, as it will lead to more musical playing at fast speeds!

Fast articulation requires the ability to release the keys quickly and at precise intervals. This can be achieved either by learning to “turn off” the finger muscles like a light switch or by actively lifting the fingers. The latter requires trained extensor muscles. As this is advanced material, I’d recommend contacting me for online piano lessons via Skype or getting in touch with a master teacher if you have one in your area.

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