So many young musicians place too much importance on being able to play fast. I see this all the time with my students. They try to play everything at mach twelve and don’t really focus enough on accuracy. If a musician practices for accuracy and pays the proper attention to the nuances of his or technique, speed will come automatically as time goes on. That is the beauty of it!
How to Practice Technique
This is for those who have reached a level where they can successfully practice with a metronome and stay in time while doing so. If you are not there yet, you should probably focus first on that.
The first thing you want to do when you sit down for a nice long technique practice session is establish your “baseline tempo” for whatever exercise, scale or arpeggio you are going to work on first. The baseline tempo is the tempo at which you can perfectly execute the exercise three times in a row, at the beginning of your practice session, before you are warmed up. This means with no mistakes. When practicing technique it’s important that if you make a mistake you should start over from the beginning. This way you don’t end up reinforcing your mistakes, but instead set the standard for perfection.
Once you have established your baseline tempo, play the exercise three or four times (at least) at that metronome setting. (With the metronome, of course.) Once you have done this you are free to bump the metronome up three or four clicks per minute.
Now you are at a new metronome setting. Take your time, and practice the exercise until you can do it three or four times in a row at this setting with no mistakes. Be honest with yourself. Don’t overlook a single error. The goal of this whole process is to develop a very high level of technical ability. Eventually this means being able to always trust that your fingers are going to do what exactly your brain tells them to. It’s important to be strict with yourself at this time in order to achieve this.
Up And Back Down, Repeat!
Once you have mastered the exercise at baseline tempo plus three or four clicks per minute, you might think the next step would be to bump up the metronome setting some more. NOT YET! Before you are ready to push your speed setting higher, you first should return the metronome to the baseline setting. Spend a little more time at this setting, play the exercise a few times in a row with no mistakes. This step is very important. Only after you have done that is it time to push it a little bit faster.
This is how the process goes for the duration of your practice session. Every time you achieve a new metronome setting, return to the baseline for a bit. The higher your new settings become, the longer you should spend in between, at the baseline tempo. As you start to get more and more warmed up the exercise will be easier and easier to play at the baseline tempo. As it starts to feel effortless at that speed, take the opportunity to examine the physical nuances of your technique. Are you exerting yourself more than necessary? Are you moving more than you have to? For example, if you are a guitarist, make sure you are pushing the strings no harder than is required to make the note ring out clearly. Make sure the pick is moving back and forth only as much as is necessary. Good technique is all about economy of motion. That means not moving more or exerting ourselves any more than is required by the task at hand. When we are not pushing ourselves to conquer new tempos, we should be scrutinizing the easy tempos.
Keep a record day to day of your progress. Don’t be frustrated if tomorrow your baseline tempo is no higher than it was today. It will improve. By following these suggestions you will learn to play not only fast, but accurately. And you will learn to trust that your hands and fingers will do what you tell them to.
Good Luck! Please post questions or comments below!
Oh and by the way, do you need a metronome? Many aspiring musicians would just as soon pretend there was no such thing as a little box that was capable of pointing out our inadequacies when it concerns timekeeping. But the truth is that having excellent time-sense is extremely important, and the better we get the more important it becomes. If ya don’t have one yet, here are a few different styles to choose from: