Why Playing Fast Is Easier Than Playing Slowly

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Welcome to LivingPianos.com, I’m Robert Estrin. The subject today is about how playing fast is easier than playing slowly. You might think that’s crazy. Of course, it would take more work to be able to develop speed in your playing. There is some truth to that. But once you do have some speed and fluency in your playing, have you ever tried to go back and play slowly again? It can be really difficult! There are a lot of reasons for this. We’re going to discuss this and what you can do to help your playing.

Once you’ve played a piece many times, your fingers just know where to go.

Years ago I made a video about how playing your scales should be on autopilot. I likened it to learning how to walk. You see toddlers taking their first steps. The concentration on their faces is unbelievable! Of course, once you learn how to walk, you really don’t think about it. It’s almost involuntary. You can be thinking about other things while you’re walking once you learn how to do it. Well, the same thing is true of scales! It’s also true of all the music you play. You get to a point where your mind is wandering, but your fingers keep going. That’s actually a good thing in some respects. If you didn’t have that to rely upon, it would be hard to be focused 100% of the time. But naturally, you can’t depend upon that motor memory, finger memory, muscle memory, whatever you want to call it.

When you play slowly, it’s harder to think through everything.

When you slow things down, every single note becomes very obvious. But there’s another reason why playing fast is easier than playing slowly. I’m not even talking about the solidity of how well you know the score. I’m talking about musical considerations. When you’re playing slowly, it’s very difficult to even know where the line is. For example, Chopin’s E Minor Prelude. Playing that piece slowly and trying to get a sense of the rise and the fall of the line is all but impossible. It’s very difficult to maintain a line playing under tempo.

All music really is reflective of the human voice.

All instruments are an extension of the instrument we all carry with us. Naturally, wind instruments are a direct analog to the human voice, because the breath is involved. It’s a natural extension. Bowed instruments, like a violin or cello, have the continuum of the bow against the strings. On the piano, it’s a challenge to create that continuum of sound. But imagine a wind player or a singer trying to sing a song much slower than its normal speed. It would be hard to sustain the phrase. You would run out of air! It would be hard to get a sense of the line. That same Chopin prelude played at a faster tempo, with the pulse of the quarter note or even the half note, makes it much easier to feel the musical line.

Once you know a piece, it’s so much easier to play it faster, because you can get a sense of the line.

The challenge is gaining enough fluency that you can play up to speed. Sometimes it helps just trying to play something up to tempo. Even if it’s not totally polished, playing it up to tempo helps you know what you’re working for. Of course, you don’t want to repeat sloppy playing again and again. You may even want to play just the right hand, just to get the feel of the phrasing. Once you understand the intention of the music, your practice is so much more productive. You want to know what you’re aiming for. So think of your music up to tempo, even if you can’t quite play it yet. Try to play it up to speed so you get a sense of the music. Your practice is always in service of the music.

That’s the message for today! I hope this works well for you. Thanks again for joining me, Robert Estrin here at LivingPianos.com, Your Online Piano Resource.

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7 thoughts on “Why Playing Fast Is Easier Than Playing Slowly”


 
 

  1. 2023.01.0

    Dear Robert,

    You spelled out perfectly a “phenomenon” that I have experienced many times, but didn’t understand what was going on. All the time I have have that experience of playing a piece where “my fingers just knew where to go.” But finally I have found someone who has explained that thing that happens to me that I had no words for, and even you have a difficult time understanding. Thank you so much.

    Sincerely,
    Charles in Albuquerque

  2. Believe it or not, for me, playing faster is harder. I don’t care if it’s a piece I already know or one I am just learning. I am able to play it slowly, and I don’t have a problem with the line. But I have always struggled to play up to tempo, and the harder the piece is, the more difficult it is for me. Maybe this means I am not accomplished enough to play some of these pieces. I manage to play up to tempo eventually on easier pieces. But I have never had trouble slowing down. I have learned that in general, my brain works differently from that of most everyone I know.

    1. If you can play solidly, slowly, with no pedal, with the metronome, without any problems, but can’t increase the tempo, perhaps you are studying pieces that are not on an appropriate level for you.

      1. I agree with you up to a point. I can play solidly, slowly, with no pedal, without any problems, but I cannot use a metronome. And when I play, I am very, VERY aware if I change tempo in the slightest. I can choose a different tempo and stick to it. Perhaps the reason why is because I appear to have a talent that is somewhat unique. My MIND acts like a metronome. I can accurately count a minute in my head and be spot on at the end of a count of sixty. I can do it with two minutes. This is just one example of what my mind does to me. The metronome and my natural sense of time clash. I can increase the tempo on the pieces I work on, but I usually cannot play them at the tempo that most accomplished people play them. This appears to be a coordination problem. I’ve been a victim of this all my life. I would assume college piano professors can select pieces appropriate for my level, and I struggle with those as well. So I think you are an excellent teacher, and I get worlds of good just from watching your videos. But I’d be willing to bet you never had a student with my peculiar talent. So I guess we would have to agree to disagree up to a point. Obviously the way you teach works for you and your students. This is not meant as a criticism in any way, just an observation.

        And in addition, I should add that my mind works in peculiar ways otherwise as well, so this is not a unique problem for me. I have grave difficulty really meshing with just about everyone, although I work hard at it, and occasionally I find someone I can do it with, but they also appear to have some very strange talents. The story of my life!

      2. Like a carpenter with an excellent sense of distance, building without using a tape measure is the same as relying solely upon your internal clock in music. The metronome is a great teacher! It would be worth your while with your uncanny, natural timing abilities to learn to work with the metronome.

  3. There is a little bit of difference between me and the carpenter. The carpenter has to make a building that is safe for the occupants. My use of a metronome, or not, does not affect anyone’s safety. It would be especially important if I were going to play with an orchestra. That is never going to happen. I agree in principle it would be worth my while, but I’m past most of my lifespan now, and I have to set my priorities. For the moment, learning to play with a metronome isn’t one of them. But I will certainly think about it. Thank you for your kindness.

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