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I've started up practicing piano again in the last few months after 15 years of classical lessons and then a 7 year gap, and I'm running into a similar issue to one I had back in the day playing piano, hoping you can help me find a solution.

With a piece, I can get up to a moderate tempo, depending on the piece, somewhere in the ballpark of 16ths at quarter = 100, but I can't get it up faster than that while maintaining clarity and accuracy.

This is the section I am having the most trouble with, early in Scriabin sonata no. 1. I'm much further along in the piece and most everything after this point has been coming together nicely, but the 16ths in the left hand are creating problems for me. I'm currently kind of stuck in the dotted quarter = 65-70 range (i.e. quarter = ~100), but generally I need to practice for a while in the 55-60 range, then depending on day, I can play at 65-70 for a bit with good accuracy/clarity, but it degrades as I continue playing, and overall I'm not making progress towards getting it faster than that while playing cleanly.

Scriabin sonata no. 1 m.14-19

I think my problem is that at lower tempi I'm playing more rigidly, each note quite distinct rather than blending together with the others, and probably too much tension, then to get faster I have to relax and play more 'flowy', which allows me to play faster, but I can't maintain sufficient control, I have trouble playing precisely with a metronome, and my hands get a bit out of sync in spots (not completely separate, but notes don't line up perfectly). My pedaling also goes to junk as I'm focusing too much on my hands. Another issue is that my legato gets bad at higher tempi when I play without pedal, the left hand kinda just becomes jumpy, but when I try to fix that, the tension builds up in my left hand and I am forced to slow down.

I've found that the times I play best are when I'm only thinking about my right hand and just letting my left hand go along for the ride, then increase the speed of my right hand and the left hand somehow manages to keep up for the most part and sound pretty good. I think this helps my left hand relax and for my hands to synchronize without actively trying to synchronize. But it's still not perfectly accurate, and I don't know how to clean it up without putting my mental focus on the left hand again.

Basically, I think I'm playing with a different feel at higher tempi, but I'm having difficulty practicing that same feel at lower tempi, so it's difficult to clean up.

I practice scales, can do a C major at a little over 100 quite cleanly, but as I speed up, I have the same issue with my left hand building up tension, particularly on the descent with the thumb cross-unders. I do practice arpeggios a bit but I struggle with them - perhaps that's where I'd benefit most.

Does anyone have any suggestions on how I can fix this? My professor in college focused a lot on hand positions, angles, and especially addressing my tension issues, and I've been trying to be conscious of all that and find mechanical solutions to my problems that aren't just 'practice more', but it's been years since those lessons and I'm probably forgetting things she taught me that could be helpful here. Not that I'm opposed to practicing more -- definitely not -- but the fact that I've hit a wall for over a month on this one section where I really can't get it faster without messing up other things, I think there's gotta be something smarter I can do in how I practice.

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    There are levels of musicianship that can be almost impossible to achieve without a teacher - something to strongly consider. Tension in my experience has always been the main thing that slows us down on any instrument. Playing with the minimum amount of effort is usually the key to unlocking speed. Without a teacher, one thing I can think of is looking at exercises suggested by Josh Wright and others: youtube.com/results?search_query=josh+wright+speed Dec 13, 2023 at 20:36
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    There are really two questions here: 1) How, in general, to improve speed, and 2) How to practice the Scriabin. I suggest refocusing your question on the Scriabin, because the more general question is a duplicate of Playing a classical piece at full speed and How to practice for speed and consistency as well as other posts specific to scales and arpeggios.
    – Aaron
    Dec 13, 2023 at 22:54
  • A further question other than what Aaron noted, and related to what Todd wrote: how to improve "performance". Not just in the sense of "music performance", but of the physical (and psychological) efficiency. It's normally explained as "best result with minimal effort", but a better way to consider it is to put the minimal effort required to get the best result (which is quite different). While it's not impossible to achieve that, it requires a lot of self-awareness, proper self-criticism, knowledge/experience and personal (psychological) research. Most of the times, that means a good teacher. Dec 14, 2023 at 4:00

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The following are only my experiences and may not work for everyone.

First I start with slow playing. Getting it correct. You've done this and seems to be OK.

Next, I go absolutely as fast as I can. The goal now is to see what motions I have subconsciously changed because I'm going faster, then revisit my slow playing and see if I am using incorrect techniques.

One common mistake is keeping the fingers on the keys for far too long. This will affect your wrist movement as you twist it all over the place just to keep your fingers on the keys. At sub 100 speed playing scales, you can do that, but at around 120 playing 16th, you can play a 123 (on the right hand), literally shift the entire hand to position the thumb on the 4th note, while keeping your wrist and fingers in the exact same position, and start playing. If you keep the proper speed (we're talking 8 notes a second here), you actually cannot hear much of a gap. At this speed, the techniques change because you no longer need to keep your fingers on the keys for so long.

The way you play at high speed involves very minimalized wrist movement, highly predictable and practiced vertical finger motions so that your focus is on horizontal positioning. The wrist position will cater to sections of music instead of individual notes.

If I need a high-speed run, and there are a lot of black notes, I will angle my wrist and practice doing the entire fast run in one wrist position, instead of twisting and changing my wrist as it goes up. This WILL involve some odd feeling finger extensions, since you will be reaching out further than normal on some keys, but at that speed, nobody cares.

I would also look at videos of other pianists and observe their movements at high-speed playing. Pay attention to what exactly they move and don't move. You'll notice that the wrists move LESS at high speeds.

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  • This is all very helpful, but in particular the idea of playing as fast as I can, then going back to a slower tempo has already shown great results for me. I need to do a bit more conscious analysis of what I'm doing at those faster tempi, but even just playing through a couple times as fast as possible, then slowing back down to where I was at before has helped enormously even just in my practice last night. Playing at the slower tempo immediately felt way easier and lighter and I was able to maintain accuracy, tone, musicality, etc better as I increased speed. Thank you for the great answer. Dec 15, 2023 at 17:26

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