How to build speed on an advanced level at the piano?

by Carolyn Topliff
(New York)

I play the piano at an advanced level, but I have never been able to shift over into fast, clean playing of difficult pieces. Do you have any suggestions to help me move through and beyond this blockage? It feels like a wall that I just
can't seem to break through. Thank you for any suggestions you may have.

Hmm, interesting question.

Of course it depends on the piece you play, and what technical difficulties it presents. As well as what your own weaknesses are ; )

So I will try a general idea of how to improve speed on an advanced level piece.

After doing all the basic work; really learning the notes of the piece, the rhythm and phrasing at a slower tempo, with fingering that is secured and not changed all the time. (This is important!)

The next step is passage work, to isolate your weak spots and practice slowly, hands separately as well as both, gradually increasing speed with the help of a metronome all the places that you feel any insecurity.

For rapid note patterns you should also take them through all kinds of rhythmical patterns to make sure every pattern flows effortlessly. This is an ongoing process by the way- even after you “know” the piece, it is useful to practice difficult passages this way.

This is important, you can not skip the basic work!

Now, divide the piece in parts of lets say 4-8 measures, or more depending on the difficulty of the piece (the easier, the bigger parts). With a metronome start slowly, as slow as you need to play comfortably with out any effort, almost ridiculously slow. Increase speed for each repetition until you start making mistakes. Then go back in speed a few “clicks”. Your goal is to play effortlessly and without allowing any mistakes at all .

(It is a bit like training to do splits, you stretch and go back, stretch a bit more and go back, etc.)

You will reach a limit “for the day” where you feel you can’t do more. Make a note of the metronome count you successfully reached. Finish each day by playing through the section you just practiced in slow motion. No I am not kidding. The faster you have practiced, the more important it is to “ re-confirm” that you know the notes, rhythm, fingering and movements also in a super slow tempo. The following day you start at a few "clicks" lower speed then increase step by step faster.

Continue with the next 4-8 measures then combine the 8-16 measures with the tempo you successfully can master. Continue like this with the whole piece part by part then combined for larger sections.

This takes care of the technical process. But you need more to get over the feeling of not “flying” yet. Find a comfortable chair. Now read the piece. Really read through. Imagine yourself playing in your head. This is called mental practice. Go back, rewind as much as you like, but your goal is to get a feel for the bigger outline of the piece, the architecture if you like. You want an overview of the big phrases, and the piece as a whole. You can also try to “conduct” the piece as if you had an orchestra playing in front of you.

It helps to listen to different master piano players and sample different interpretations as well.

So, in short: You can never avoid the (tedious) basic technical work, but you can also never really “free” the piece without the overview, seeing the piece as a whole. Feeling the meaning, the purpose and direction of each phrase as well as the music as a whole.

I can recommend two resources that I often find inspiration from:
Confident Music Performance: The Art of Preparing

And the DVD of:
Mastering Piano Technique

I hope this was of some help!

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