Playing in Extreme Speed
Play a passage slowly, then play it in extreme speed, and you will notice that the motions the body makes have changed. Faced with speed, the body abandons the muscular coordination that worked in the slower tempo. Suddenly, almost instinctively, the body invokes or brings into play other group of muscles that it didn’t previously use.
To discover these alternative motions for speed, it is rarely of use to start practicing the passage slowly and gradually increase speed. The body gives us little prior indication of what it will do in speed when we are playing more slowly.
The origin of an arpeggio, from the point of view of time, is a simultaneous chord and not a sped-up melody.
How to “riffle” through a chord:
Example: to play C E G at extreme speed. First, play it as a simultaneous chord (C-E-G). As before, after playing the chord several times, “tilt” things a little so that the chord, in spite of the pianist’s “best intentions,” (sic) comes out slightly skewed: for instance, with the C first sounding just ahead of the E which in turn sounds just ahead of the G. A slight change of inclination will cause the sounds to come out in the order G E C, or, E C G, or E G C. Regardless of the order in which the notes sound, the important thing is for the pianist to feel that she is playing a (simultaneous) triad. If one holds each note into the others, the result, a moment after the last note begins sounding, is the same simultaneous sounding chord.
The result of this procedure is an arpeggiation that is at an extreme speed, a speed beyond any one that could be obtained by trying intentionally to play the notes sequentially.
The origin of a scale, from the point of view of time, is a simultaneously sounding diatonic cluster and not a sped-up group of single notes.
How to riffle through a cluster:
Example: to play C D E F G at extreme speed (using all five fingers). First play it as a simultaneous cluster (C-D-E-F-G). After doing this once or twice, try it one more time but this time a little more haphazardly so that the notes come out in a quick sequence. The intent is still to play the cluster simultaneously, except one “misses” by a fraction of a second, so that the notes in rapid succession. If one holds each note into the others, the result, a moment after the last note begins sounding, is the same simultaneous sounding cluster.
The intent remains to play the notes simultaneously. Even though the result is sequential the hand retains the feeling of playing the notes simultaneously. The result of this procedure is a scale in an extreme speed, a speed beyond any that could be obtained by trying intentionally to play the notes sequentially. By being this ‘sloppy’ in articulating the cluster, the result is a scale, but one that is so quick that it cannot be matched by moving the separate fingers.
Moral of the story:
Speed is better attained by starting even faster and slowing down than starting slower and speeding up. There is a speed-barrier which resists being approached from the slower side, but offers little resistance to being approached by the fast side. One simply jumps over the barrier.
A student who prefers slower tempos. Is there a hidden reason?
B. (the name I will use to refer to the student) plays beautifully. His favored tempo is to play slowly, even for “fast” pieces. I asked him if he was willing to go outside his comfort zone and try to play faster. In particular, I wanted to track down whether sight reading had a role to play in limiting speed.
We tried three types of exercises, the first of which involved playing “in the dark” (with eyes closed). This to help separate and diagnose two things: Looking at the score and knowing what the notes are, and if the fingers have any difficulty embracing the correct keys on the keyboard.
- Learning to ‘navigate in the dark’.
These are the things that we tried (there is no particular order in which to do them).
In every case, the parts that you do ‘correctly’ are the least interesting or useful. When you have more difficulty or do something ‘incorrectly’ that is a rare insight into how your mind works, and is valuable knowledge.
a) With eyes open choose a note that will be the lowest note of a chord. Close your eyes. I then propose to B. what the other notes of the chord should be. I give him this information in ascending order of pitch.
b) With eyes open choose a lowest note on which to build a chord. Close your eyes. The difference with the procedure above is that B. gets to choose what the other notes in the chord are to be. As he chooses them one by one, he says the name of the note he chooses, and does his best to put a finger on that note. When the chord is complete, first keep your eyes closed and try to name the notes of the chord (this is for memory). Then open them to confirm what notes are actually under your fingers.
c) Give yourself a starting chord of any number of notes – tonal or not tonal. Close your eyes. Transpose the chord up a half step, and repeat this process until you are back on the original chord, though it is now an octave higher than when you started. Sometimes, during the process you can pause to name the notes currently under your fingers.
d) Keeping the eyes only on the music, and not on the keyboard and the hands, try to play a piece that you working on. If you need to confirm that things are going alright, open your eyes to check. Just make it a conscious choice when do open them.
e) With the eyes closed play a random note on the piano. Feel around in the neighborhood of the note and figure out what note you are playing.
f) Close your eyes. Propose a note to play (for example: middle C, or the second G# below middle C, etc.). Begin the search with your hands in your lap. Open the eyes and check whether you did it.
g) Pick a note on which to start the exercise. Close you eyes. Play a chromatic scale (up or down, an octave, with either hand). Give a name to each note you as you play it. Sometimes use sharp names for the black notes, sometimes flat names.
Next, do the same sort of thing but moving two at once. It doesn’t matter what the notes are.
Then do it for triads (tonal or not tonal), and finally for four note chords. When naming the notes that are currently sounding, if you are unsure, it is OK to take a peak.
- Things to do while the eyes remain open.
a) Looking just at the score, say out loud the names of the notes in a measure. If two or more notes are written so as to sound at the same time, name them in a particular order (for instance from the lowest pitched note in the left hand to the highest pitched note in the right hand.*
Do the procedure a number of times but vary the speed at which you do it.. We looked for changes, not so much in terms of right or wrong notes, but the effect the tempo had on his psychological sense of certainty about what we was doing.
* Though order is probably not vital, is in keeping with custom, which in turn is in accord with acoustics and overtones: that the sounds of treble “rest on” the sounds of bass.
- Thinking and Speaking Exercises
In parallel with his preference to play at a slow tempo, he exhibits the same preference when talking. So I thought it might be interesting to approach the musical side of tempo with the proxy of his speaking voice.
a) I asked him a question, like “name 4 different colors”. The relevant data was how long did he pause before starting to answer, and at what tempo did he speak the answer.
Sometimes I followed up a question like that with a question like: now name to or three more colors. I wanted to see what effect having to remember the previous colors had on the act of choosing colors not in that previous list.
I said that I thought of piano playing as being often a ‘fast’ paced skill. I wondered whether we worked on the speed of his talking, it might act as proxy to help make changes in the his piano playing – a bit of extra leverage from outside.
We went back to the piece he played before. Though meant to go moderately fast, he played it slowly: by automatic choice. He played very beautifully with personal expression. Then I asked him if he would be willing to play it again, very fast, trying to provoke as many wrong notes as possible. Even enjoy with bemused indifference what transpired.
The result was that he could play it a good deal faster than he thought he could without encountering difficulties. There were just a few mistakes or hesitations. The only thing that changed, interestingly, was that the beauty of the playing went away. When I asked him if he could recapture that beauty but still play fast, he could.
- Doing these exercises at home.
When repeating the exercises at home, it’s OK to open your eyes at any time for confirmation. It may alleviate any onerous psychological stress or discomfort involved in doing the exercises. You are teaching yourself the way to go back and forth between visual and tactile, and help establish a certain rhythm in doing so.
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Practice Technique 30: Extreme Speed: Part One:
Introduction to Extreme speed.
There are certain body motions that can translate into an extreme velocity of notes. These motions fall into two categories. In the first are motions that involve extremely fast movements by one or another part of the playing mechanism (often not the fingers). The other contains slower, more gradual motions, during the course of which a series of notes can result.
Every motion by the body takes time, and the time tends to grow longer as the distance in space through which the motion travels gets longer. As a result both categories of movements economize in space. Though initially practiced in such a way as to use a lot of space, when put into performance they are constrained to a small spatial ambit.
In the first category are found things like:
1. Shaking motions.
2. Shuddering motions.
3. Shivering motions.
4. Tremulous motions.
5. Cyclic motions, often large, ‘geared down’ so they act more rapidly over a very small amount of space
6. Less symmetric motions, chaotic, even random motions which, as in the case above, are eventually focused into very targeted parts of space.
In the second category are found rotational motions, diverted motions, motions in single planes executed by specific body parts.
In future Blogs individual types of these motions will be described in more detail.
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PLAYING “EXTREMELY” FAST:
Extreme speed is achievable by going beyond what seems to be the fastest speed attainable by systematically or gradually going faster and faster. Eventually one reaches and impasse. Simply making the same muscle motions faster no longer produces results.
Our muscles are indeed capable of acting even faster. Only one has to instigate a speed that treats the normal limit not as an impassable boundary but something that can be jumped right over. Into another region. Where the muscles behave in a way that they can only act if one has surpassed the normal limit. We can only discover this region of speed if we first try to play as fast as possible, at which point we say to ourselves: now go faster.
My guess is that virtuoso pianists normally can function in this higher altitude of speed without encountering any barrier as they increase speed. For me, I am reminded of a piece of music that I once played that, on the ante-penultimate page, said “as fast as possible”, only to be followed on the last page with: “faster still”. For me, somehow I do go faster; but first I had reach the temporary limit in which the muscles of my body acted in their normal mode of balance and interconnection. Then suddenly I find I can go faster, and that an entirely new form of balance and coordination of muscle groups takes place.
Many of us have experienced this when eating a large meal, feeling absolutely full, stuffed to the gills, when the host asks: any room for dessert? And as if a new stomach appeared to hold the food, I find myself saying yes.
Once I gave a telephone lesson to a student at the Oberlin Conservatory. She had to play the Chopin, Etude, Op. 10 / 8 in F Major, a half an hour from then in her piano class. She was having trouble bringing it up to speed.
I asked her: how fast do you want to play it? She responded: around 178 for the quarter note…but I can’t get it beyond 144 or 152. Does your metronome have settings above 200. Yes. Then set the metronome to the quarter note equals around 220 – 230, and try playing the piece.
She seemed, to put it mildly, skeptical of the idea. Just try I said. She did, And suddenly, without having warmed up by playing anywhere in the range of 144 – 196, she was playing the etude at 220.
She was astonished. I said, do you notice that the muscle groups, and the interrelations between the body parts, are acting differently than before. Yes. I said there is no way activating this form of coordination unless you start by playing significantly faster than your previous maximum. Doing so forces the muscles into a new organization, with new timings, and new ratios of coordination.
I remember hearing once that while the speed of light was the limit of speed for a particle that is currently traveling slower than the speed of light, nothing prevents a particle being born traveling faster than the speed of light. Did I read this is a bonafide contemporary physics book, or did I watch an episode of “Star Trek”, where such particles were called “tachyons”.
Update: I just copied this from Wikipedia: “One curious effect is that, unlike ordinary particles, the speed of a tachyon increases as its energy decreases. In particular, E approaches zero when v approaches infinity. (For ordinary bradyonic matter, E increases with increasing speed, becoming arbitrarily large as v approaches c, the speed of light). Therefore, just as baryons are forbidden to break the light-speed barrier, so too are tachyons forbidden from slowing down to below c, because infinite energy is required to reach the barrier from either above or below. As noted by Einstein, Tolman, and others, special relativity implies that faster-than-light particles, if they existed, could be used to communicate backwards in time.