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I can play a certain classical piece (specific tune is not important, I don't think) very well at a relaxed speed with proper fingering, even tempo, etc. It sounds just fine. However, when I listen to a recording of the piece played by a professional, it's much faster -- almost impossibly fast, as if the pianist is playing it as fast as possible and would play it even faster if he could. When I try to play the piece at or near that speed, it's choppy, I miss a lot of notes, and it sounds amateur.

How can I determine the following?

  • Was the piece intended to be played that fast by the composer?
  • Do I need to play the piece that fast to consider it to be mastered?

If the answer is "yes":

  • How should I practice to increase speed?
  • Does lack of speed have to do with a general lack of dexterity? Would piano-playing exercises help, e.g. scales?
  • Would memorizing the piece help? At what point in learning a song should I memorize it?
  • Roughly what percentage of the practice time required to mastering a piece should go to simply increasing speed?
  • 5
    I don't see any reason to compete with Tim's good answer, I just want to mention that I'm not aware of a way to increase speed except for repetition, repetition, repetition - at a comfortable speed. With enough practice on a piece, all the musicians I know find they have to actually slow themselves down, because their fingers just take off and end up moving so fast it takes away from the piece. Also, speed in itself is not good. Go for the tempo that sounds best to you. Don't fall into the trap of thinking that faster is better. – Todd Wilcox Oct 16 '15 at 16:54
  • 5
    We all really just want to know the piece now. – djechlin Oct 16 '15 at 20:35
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Since you don't mention any specific pieces, this may not be relevant to you, but it does apply in many situations.

If you want to progress from studies like Czerny and Hanon, which are mostly about finger-technique, to things like the Chopin or Debussy Etudes (and most of the 19th-21st century piano repertoire), you have to leave behind the mindset that "you play the piano with your fingers" and learn to use the stronger muscles in your shoulders and arms as your main "power source", and your wrist as a means of "aiming at the right notes". If you are using your fingers in contact with the keys to lever your hands and arms around, you have it backwards.

A simple example of the two alternatives is the (often pointlessly heated) debate about playing scales with the "thumb under" or "thumb over" techniques. (Note, IMO "thumb over" is a very misleading and non-descriptive name for the technique, but it seems to have stuck).

If you want to play scales very fast, don't move your thumb "under" your hand at all. For an ascending C major scale with the right hand, play the first notes fingered 1-2-3. At the same time, move your arm to the right (using your shoulder muscles) and turn your wrist to the left (using the muscles in your arm) so your fingers are aiming at the right notes as your arm is moving.

Then flick your wrist to the right to line your fingers up with the next group of notes, without moving your thumb under your hand, and play them 1-2-3-4. Don't worry about the break in legato when you flick your wrist. With practice, it will be too small for anybody to notice it.

At speed, your shoulder muscles are moving your arm at a steady speed, the muscles in your arm are turning and flicking your wrist, and your fingers are just picking off the notes as your hand goes past them.

You can practice that scale technique slowly, but some techniques can't be learned by starting with slow practice and speeding up one metronome notch at a time. As an analogy from athletics, you can't "practice" pole vaulting by walking towards the jump and planting the pole - you won't even leave the ground that way. Once you have internalized the sequence of moves that you need to make, you just have to "go for it" at full speed. Similarly, you can't "shake a passage in double octaves out of your sleeves" slowly on the piano. Just like the pole vault example, it's more analogous to throwing a ball at a target, not carefully carrying it and placing it where you want it.

  • I really like the analogy. Some say, "just start slow and speed up gradually." I do that, but at a certain speed, it breaks down. This answer gives me something to try that addresses the problem directly. ("Chopin or Debussy Etudes" -- Yes, exactly what I had in mind.) – woz Oct 16 '15 at 20:30
  • At fast enough speeds the idea of "Legato" is meaningless. It's just too fast for you to do that type of dynamics. – Nelson Oct 17 '15 at 5:09
  • Great answer.+1. There was a question about 'thumb over/under' much earlier. Sorry, can't source it right now. – Tim Oct 17 '15 at 7:31
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First answer - don't know till the title is known.

Second - not necessarily, as speed is only one factor. Feeling/technique are often more important.

Third - use a metronome, so there is an absolute to work with.

Fourth - sometimes. Scale/arpeggio exercises help, as well as any others that give more fluidity to hands and fingers.

Fifth - certainly. If it's being read, that in itself has a slowing effect. It will usually become learnt by memory with more playing . All the way through, no stopping.

Sixth - speed will come with mastering the piece anyway, as explained above.

  • I want to address question 5, the method of memorizing a piece. Slowest way to memorize a piece is by playing it from start to finish. Memory of a song is not a 0 to 100% jump. You will most likely have problems only with specific areas, say two similar sections that have slight variations. You need to combine whole song playing with targeted problem bar practices to learn a song thoroughly. I've been able to memorize Moonlight Sonata in 3 days practicing 2 hours each day by phrasing the song and repeating and memorizing phrases of the piece, instead of the whole piece in one go. – Nelson Oct 17 '15 at 4:52
  • @Nelson - you're right. I meant once the piece is nearly known, it's best to go straight through it. Learning initially will be best in bits, but to go through without stopping cuts out potential joins. In my opinion. – Tim Oct 17 '15 at 7:26
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Note, that before Beethoven (or more exactly Johann Maelzel, inventor of the metronome, ca. 1816) there was no exact speed indication at all. While a term like presto surely means fast, it is not clear how fast. In earlier music named after dances that dance name often gives a rough indication.

Even if a metronome setting is given, there is a good chance, that it was added by the editor and not by the composer - check the manuscript or Urtext edition for that.

Finally, there is a strange kind of competition among some musicians, to exhibit their - surely impressive - speed, often without substantial evidence, that it is required and for the benefit of the piece. Sometimes this reveals interesting other aspects; so exists a Glen Gould recording of a Mozart piano sonata, which is so fast, that the presumable melody is completely blurred, but a new melody appears from the accompaniment. Try a second or even third recording, before forming an opinion, if you want it well-founded. Otherwise feel free to decide for yourself.

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Some great answers here.

I'm just going to address a couple of things you asked that I don't see answered yet.

1) Was the piece intended to be played that fast by the composer? If the composer is still alive, ask him/her. If not, then you'll need to read, listen to recordings, learn as much as you can of the history behind the piece and common performance practices of the period, and then form an opinion. And know that your opinion may be wrong. In other words, without a composer around to ask, there's no way to know precisely what he wanted unless he told you. The best way to approach accuracy in answering that is to study study study.

2) Do I need to play the piece that fast to consider it to be mastered? To quote composer Paul Hindemith, "My God, how can anyone ever be a MASTER of music?" Nothing is ever mastered in music. The more you work intelligently at it, the better you will get, the the idea of perfection does not exist, as there are too many subjective variables in musical performance. Mastery can only occur on an individual level when the physical rises to the level of the mental (when you achieve your goal, that is). And if you find yourself achieving goals TOO often, that's probably a sign that you're ready to raise your standards. I never strive for mastery, but rather for consistent improvement.

3)Does lack of speed have to do with a general lack of dexterity? Would piano-playing exercises help, e.g. scales? I just wanted to address the last part. Yes. Scales help. In everything. Always. Forever and ever amen. Fundamentals are the absolute most important thing in playing any instrument and should never be neglected.

4) Would memorizing the piece help? At what point in learning a song should I memorize it? I've always found memorization to be rather organic. If I'm doing enough repetition and working things out slowly, in small snippets, muscle memory starts to work its magic, and I don't have to even try to memorize. If this isn't happening, more repetition will help.

That said, memorization is definitely helpful in performance. As to when, I'd say memorize it when your memory and muscles tell you it's time.

5)Roughly what percentage of the practice time required to mastering a piece should go to simply increasing speed? I'm not comfortable dividing things into percentages, because it all depends on your needs. Identify the weakest points in your playing, and improvements there should get the most time. Speed isn't everything.

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Although the tempo is important in the playing what is more important is playing in time and playing the correct notes. You may not be playing to a concert level when you play a presto piece at andante speed but a perfect andante speed piece is still better than a correctly fast piece in which you stumble.

It is truly a bad idea to play faster than what you are capable of.

  • Are you suggesting each pianist has a limit on speed that cannot be improved? – woz Oct 16 '15 at 19:14
  • @woz See my answer. The ultimate speed limit is probably more psychological than physical - if you don't believe you can do something, that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. And if you keep trying to do something using an inappropriate technique, your failures will reinforce your belief that you will never be able to do it. – user19146 Oct 16 '15 at 20:22
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Adding my brief two cents to a set of good answers-

Was the piece intended to be played that fast by the composer?

Check the original print of the piece for a tempo marking. If you can't find it, the next best bet is to listen to recordings, preferably by people who are known for their interpretation of that composer. Then at this point, I'd probably ask my teacher or someone who is deeply involved in classical piano. After playing piano for a while, sometimes you can also "feel" the tempo yourself, how fast the melodic line is moving, or how fast it needs to be going for the harmony to "make sense", etc.

Do I need to play the piece that fast to consider it to be mastered?

The bald answer is yes. You're just not playing the composer's piece as s/he intended if you're playing too slowly.

How should I practice to increase speed?

Repetition.

Does lack of speed have to do with a general lack of dexterity? Would piano-playing exercises help, e.g. scales?

In some cases. Even though you're playing the same piece, playing fast requires different movements than playing slow. In particular, you minimize a lot of your "slow-playing" movements and move a lot more efficiently. Scales will help a bit, but scales by nature don't offer much variety. I'd suggest learning some short fast pieces which require a great deal of swift hand independence, which would help a lot more (some of Bach's faster Inventions would be ideal).

Would memorizing the piece help? At what point in learning a song should I memorize it?

It depends. I memorize sections with lots of notes so I can move quickly without having to process reading notes, but I know plenty of people who are just as quick without memorization. You should try it and see if it makes a difference for you!

Roughly what percentage of the practice time required to mastering a piece should go to simply increasing speed?

It depends. Ideally, you should spend >70% of the time playing at the correct tempo, and when you can, suss out your problems in the higher speed because as I mentioned before, playing fast requires slightly different technique than playing slow. So, fixing yourself at a slow tempo can be useless if you can't really apply it to a faster speed. Be judicious.


Final thought: I think, in the future, you may want to to play with a final tempo in mind, even if you play slowly at first.. it can help to avoid "I like my personal tempo but I discovered that most people play faster/slower" etc. Good luck!

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You build speed by playing slow! The reason why you can't play fast is because you can't play slow! Simple as that!

You must learn to play extremely slow and master that. It means playing perfect and smooth timing and internalizing everything.

Why? Because even though you might think you can play something well at a slower tempo, you are not if you can't play it at a fast tempo!

It's simple math:

Suppose you have to do a physical motion from A to B(which, there are an infinite number in actual playing). All these motions involve moving distances. If not, then your hands, fingers, wrists, arms, etc would not move at all. Physics tells us that distance/time = speed Hence, each distance will be "covered" in a certain time and hence the body part will move with a certain speed(in fact, a velocity).

Now, What happens when we speed up we are scaling the time factor. If we play twice as fast we must cut the time we move the distance by 1/2... because the distances are all the same in both cases. (unless you play on a different scaled instrument, in which case many factors change)

so

d/t and d/(t/2) = 2*d/t.

This says that when we speed up 2x we are effectively having to cover twice the distance(mathematically, not physically). It also says that are playing twice as fast(which we already know, of course).

But what really happens when we try to play faster is that we do not actually play the same way(unless we can do it). We try to compensate and change our technique to be able to play faster. e.g., suppose preparing for a note is this "cheating" technique that we do... which, at fast tempos actually causes us problems.

Let me explain:

Suppose you must play a low C1 bass note with the left hand then a C3 with the same hand. At slow tempos we can play the C1 then immediately move to the C3 and rest it on the C3 and wait to play it when it's time. At fast tempos, we cannot do that. Because we have to process more stuff, things get choppy trying to manage it all... after all, our brains can only do so much and it will drop out things and take shortcuts.

If we have practiced our piece slow by preparing the C3 note, when we move to playing it fast, the preparation of note then becomes a hindrance. Why? Because we cannot actually prepare... we have trained our self to do so at slow tempo but now we have changed the technique in to something we haven't actually learned... and we then screw it up because, simply, we haven't practiced that. One could say that you should practice at a fast tempo only, and that would be ideal if we could do it, but that's not how reality works(if it did, we wouldn't have this discussion).

So, what do we really do? We actually play very very very slow(as slow as we can) and pay attention to every detail(which we can do because our brain doesn't have to try and cram everything in at quick). We pay attention to not cheat and remember that if someone else can play it that fast then we can to.

We develop correct technique at these slow speeds. We then work our speed up gradually once we can play it PERFECTLY at the slow speed. Any imperfection will creep in and create a weakness when played fast(think of a motor with a bad bearing... sure it might work at slow speeds but the faster it goes the more that bad bearing will cause problems).

So, playing slow is not "Oh, shit man, I can play it slow easily! No problem!"! Just because you can play something slow doesn't mean you are playing it in the same way as you would play it fast. In fact, you probably aren't. What we want to do is train the body and mind to play it the same way slow as we would fast(if we could).

Eventually this becomes ingrained and we don't have to play everything so slow but it is the correct way to learn. People that avoid it generally play sloppy when they play fast.

Now, this is a progressive training. It is not something you just get by someone telling you. It is something you have to train for and get better and learn yourself. Slow done if you want to speed up! Pretty simple and it works even if you think it makes no sense. Try it. Give yourself a month and you'll see the benefits and it will carry over to everything you do in the future.

This does require you to play with a metronome, so if you can't do that, that is one of your problems.

We must play perfectly in time with the metronome and the metronome is their to tell us when we are off. When we are off, that is a flaw in our technique that will become terribly obvious when we speed up because the error in timing will be amplified(we might not notice it at such a slow tempo or people will just call it rubato, but at a fast tempo that turns in to a jumbled mess).

e.g., suppose you miss a note at a slow tempo by 1ms. Over the beat of 250ms(60bpm in 4/4), that is just 1/250th of a percent off, but over a faster tempo of 25ms that is 1/25th of a percent off, a factor of 10, which makes it much more obvious(in reality we might cheat or use momentum to reduce the factor but it's still much larger and more noticeable).

The metronome is the way to solve those problems... start slow and build up. Eventually you'll get it and understand what I'm talking about(you can feel it better than I can explain it to you, but you have to put in the time to get to the point where you feel it and understand it on that level).

Eventually, with enough time, it will be second nature and you won't have to do it with every new piece... which is ultimately where you want to be.

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