How to Play Fast

Question: I have problems with fast, scale-like, semi-quaver (16th notes) passages, which are typical in Mozart sonatas for example. I can’t control them at a fast speed. I have issues with evenness of tone as well. Do you have any advice on how to practice them? Thank you.

– Rafael (Poland)

Albert’s reply: The key to playing fast is practicing slowly. You should almost never practice for speed and instead aim for control.

In single-note passages, work to control each keystroke, making sure that dynamics and articulation are perfectly even. Never attempt to play faster than you can play the passage with perfect accuracy and control. The speed will come by itself once these factors have been achieved.

For scalar passage, it’s imperative that you know all of your piano scales. If you’re a serious pianist, it’s absolutely normal to spend your first hour of practice on scales alone. Do practice them with a metronome, since otherwise you’ll never achieve the necessary evenness and you’ll almost certainly play them too fast. I don’t advocate abuse of the metronome since it can risk making your playing mechanical, but scales are one suitable application.

I can’t stress enough that evenness of articulation and dynamics is far more important than speed, so practice your scales at moderate tempos only.

You must master all scales in all keys. If you wish to play even one scale well, you must learn all of them. This is the surest way to master the one.

One tip for scales is practicing only the change of hand position. Practice one hand at a time and play only the group of three plus the group of four notes, going back and forth with perfect evenness. For C major, for example, in the right hand C, D and E form the group of three notes (fingers 1, 2 and 3), and F, G, A and B the group of four notes (fingers 1, 2, 3 and 4). You would practice the transfer of the thumb by playing C, D, E, F, G, A, B, then going back down to C, back and forth. In the left hand, the group of three notes in C major is C, B, A (fingers 1, 2, 3), and the group of four notes is G, F, E, D (fingers 1, 2, 3, 4). This amount is safe to practice fast – but only once you have mastered it at a slow tempo. Make sure that your articulation remains even at the fast tempo and that there are no false accents, particularly when passing the thumb.

Finally, as an advanced exercise, transpose the difficult passages into all keys, maintaining the same fingering. Again, play slowly and evenly. Eventually the difficulty will disappear and speed will come of its own accord.

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