Playing faster

Playing faster

I’ve been playing tenor banjo in Irish trad for about 15 years, and know a lot of tunes, but despair in the fact that am a slow player. Part of the problem is that I try to play really clean and include interesting ornamentation - it may sound better, but it slows me down. Even when I leave out some notes and drop the ornamentation I still struggle on reels faster than about 105 BPM, if that. Some advanced players I’ve asked have said that ‘you can’t rush it, you can’t force it, it just comes over time’. What do you think?

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Re: Playing faster

They’re right. The key to speed of execution is deliberate preparation.

See here for a parallel in military science:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NLF_and_PAVN_battle_tactics#Attack_doctrine:_.22one_slow.2C_four_quick.22

If you do not lay the groundwork in a deliberate fashion, and build a firm foundation by taking your time in the planning and preparation phase, you cannot execute swiftly. A military operation will get bogged down in confusion; a musician will get bogged down in inefficiency and fogginess.

But as part of that deliberate preparation, there might be some technical adjustments you can make to get out of your own way.

With the tenor banjo a lot of it is right hand efficiency and economy of motion. It could be left hand economy of motion, but that problem seems a bit less common on banjo players.

If it’s a synchronization issue, the the way to fix it is to slow down even more.

Can you post a vid? Maybe we can ID what’s holding you back.

Re: Playing faster

Also, you’ve got to be able to relax. If you’re nervous about going faster, then you’ll have a hard time relaxing. Sometimes it’s as simple as just, in the middle of a fast tune, telling yourself to relax. Or it might be a matter of replacing your note-by-note thoughts with images that suggest calming motion, like waves lapping against a shore.

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Re: Playing faster

Blimey! What was all that offensive macho American military guns and warfare nonsense got to do with playing a tune?!

Re: Playing faster

I have no experience of playing the banjo so this may not be relevant. Also it doesn’t seem to be your main problem, but…

I have often read or heard people say that ornamentation slows them down. This has not been my experience on three instruments (fiddle, whistle, box) on all of which ornaments / twiddly bits are executed with tiny rapid finger or hand movements (relaxed movements, as mentioned above). Once they are flowing well, and a natural part of my playing, I’ve found they can be sped up without any difficulty. The wall I hit when attempting to play at really silly speeds always involves other elements (larger muscle groups?), not the twiddles. I dunno, really, but I reckon that if ornaments impose a speed limitation, maybe you are not executing them efficiently enough - or the "interesting" stuff you are attempting is never going to really fit with the flow of the music. You cannot have any kind of tensing up to do a twiddle, that is for certain.

Anyway, good luck with it, hope you find a way to break through the barriers.

Re: Playing faster

"Blimey! What was all that offensive macho American military guns and warfare nonsense got to do with playing a tune?!"

Normal American exceptionalism. Why Americans are so popular all over the world. Bringing peace, freedom, and death. War is music to our ears.

Re: Playing faster

I’ve been playing a similar amount of time and have had a similar problem, primarily with reels, and received the same advice: slow down. Here’s the thing: I play plenty slowly; that’s the problem. And frankly, fifteen years is plenty of time to build a foundation. Last year I decided to go to the Padraig O’Keefe music festival in Castleisland, Co Kerry, and I really wanted to play in the sessions without having to sit out every reel. So here’s what I did:
I picked three reels that I felt were certain to be played. I acquired mp3s of them at a style and pace intended for learning, and another mp3 of the tunes being played in concert at full speed. After I felt I’d learned the tunes decently, I took the performance mp3 and used an app on my phone to slow them down to about 60% of full speed. I plugged headphones into my phone and put one headphone bud in my right ear, leaving my left ear clear to hear my fiddle, and I played along with the recording. When I felt I could do a decent job, I bumped it up to 75%. When playing along, I kept going when I made mistakes because the whole point was to get my brain thinking at the faster tempo, but I made note of where those mistakes occurred, because they would generally happen at the same points in the tune every time. Then I’d turn off the recording and slowly play just those parts I kept messing up, until I got them right, then gradually faster and faster, then I’d go back to playing with the recording. Repeat for 85%, 95%, 100%, up to 120%. I never got 120% sounding good, but trying to play at that speed made it much easier to relax while playing at 100% speed. Start to finish the process took 2-3 weeks of daily practice, 1-2 hours at a time. But it paid off, and I played those reels at sessions in Ireland, and I felt pretty good about that.

Re: Playing faster

Slow is good, but only to the extent you are doing the correct things slowly.

The best advice would be to get yourself some one-to-one time with a decent player, but if not, I would suggest sitting down with a metronome and start off at a comfortable speed, then bump it 2bpm at a time. At some point, something will go wrong, and that is the thing you are doing wrong at slow speed. Fix it so you can execute it at tempo. For example, on a fretted instrument you may be using finger placement on unused frets to guide higher fingers to their correct place. This is OK at slower tempos but at higher speeds can’t be done fast enough. Change to placing the finger directly, which will require more practice at a slow tempo…rinse and repeat.

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Re: Playing faster

"What was all that offensive macho American military guns and warfare nonsense got to do with playing a tune?!"

Blimey, yhaalhouse! It was explained to you in the post. Don’t know what would be "offensive" about it. The question just brought to mind the doctrinal expression "first, slow, then quick." It’s not even American doctrine, by the way, but NVA/Viet Cong. (Which make Levine’s reference to "American exceptionalism" pretty weird!)

At any rate, they had it right: If you want to execute anything well at a high tempo, you must first carefully and deliberately lay the foundations for it. Otherwise you will wind up executing sloppily, if at all.

Re: Playing faster

Hotsauce has some good advice there - learn your tunes slowly focusing on playing them correctly until the melody has saturated your muscles and grey matter. Then, keep bumping up the tempo until you’re pushing your absolute limits. After your arm and wrist completely cramp up in a vain attempt to hit your desired pace, you’ll come to discover there is a wonderful balancing point of speed combined with the relaxation of a fluid picking hand. Small movements, rather than arm-flexing tightness. I regularly play with some lickety-split, lighting fast, fiddle and flute players, so I feel your pain and know that journey very well. Yes its true, sometimes the well-practiced ornaments start dropping off like bolts and trim pieces on an old Chevy flying through a curvy canyon road when trying to keep up with the faster players. Never the less, I had to force myself to play faster if I ever wanted to play a set with those types of folks. Push yourself, then focus on the economy of movement and a loose picking hand at top speed. You can do it my fellow banjo brother!

Re: Playing faster

A couple of schools of thought …
- Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast. (lay your foundation by playing slowly, and then you have something to build on when playing fast).
- Playing fast involves a different set of skills than playing slowly. (the only way to learn to play fast, is to practice fast playing).

The truth is somewhere in between — or they both are true to some extent.

Certainly there is are advantages to using different techniques when playing at 130 bpm than when playing at 90 bpm. (e.g., more slurs, different ornamentation). For really fast playing, a common practice approach is to attack it at speed, but in bursts. Try half phrases, then full phrases, then full sections, etc. But do it at speed, and repeat until it sounds like you want it to sound.

Re: Playing faster

I’ll pass on wisdom I got from really good musicians.

First, whatever it is (melody, rhythm, ornamentation), if it goes away when you try to play fast…it was never there when you played slowly.

Play slow in order to play fast. When you make a mistake or fumble stop and play that part until you get it very right.

Also, the opposite. Play as quickly as you feel you can at the moment without fumbling and when you do…keep on going without breaking tempo and rhythm. It REALLY helps to use a metronome although some people just don’t seem to be able to believe it. (Likely to start a fight here.) At the very least play with somebody else as often as possible.

Last…playing slowly, scales, exercises, practicing your "chops" is quite necessary to build speed and rhythm. Just don’t forget that if you ONLY play slowly , that’s all you’ll ever do.

Re: Playing faster

"Part of the problem is that I try to play really clean and include interesting ornamentation - it may sound better, but it slows me down…."

For me, that’s not a problem. I like to hear a tune played on the slow side if it’s well played. If ornaments slow you down, then you have to set the tempo to your level of technique. After all, not all of us can be Gerry O’Connor. With 15 years tucked under your belt, I bet I’d really enjoy listening to you play. I almost always warm up with technical exercises before I practice the tunes, and that warm up includes simply practicing ornaments. Practice the ornaments by themselves and see if that doesn’t get your speed up; practicing a tune with the ornaments will not necessarily get you playing faster… but like I said, play slower but better and your audience will like you.

Another thing about playing slower. You can, while playing, concentrate more on other aspects like phrasing, accenting, and tune structure. Where, in that short 4 measure phrase, is that tune going? Is there an interesting pattern I can create by accenting certain notes? When I play "the Tulla" on my hammered dulcimer, I use no ornamentation in fact, but concentrate on where the phrases are headed, and I found that by accenting that repeating three-note motif I can give the listener something interesting to listen to other than a fancy ornament.

David E

Re: Playing faster

Thanks very much to everyone for the good advice posted here. I’m more optimistic now.

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Re: Playing faster

My you always keep your optimism!

Admittedly, none of my music teachers taught me ITM, but from grade school to college they never emphasized playing fast, just playing well.

Remember, there are those that play fast, and those that play half-fast. ;-)

David (I tend to be more of the latter!) E.

Re: Playing faster

To play fast,you must play slow ! Applies to any instrument.

Re: Playing faster

In addition to the good advice above, I would like to add that we play with our minds. Mind before matter. Your mind directs your fingers; they are your students.

Your imagination is an amazing tool, because it prepares your body to play. If you can imagine doing it, you usually can. If you can’t imagine it, you can’t do it. So, without the instrument, imagine slowly and very clearly in detail what you want to do. Feel it all without moving at all. The tempo at which you can imagine playing all clearly is the tempo at which you can play it. Start with the first phrase only, and add others when you can clearly imagine the preceding phrases. To help speed up, perceive melodic gestures (twiddly bits, scale bits, chord bits) as one physical gesture.

When you can imagine the entire tune clearly at your current tempo, then speed up your thinking. This will allow you to think clearly and more quickly bit by bit.

When imagining, and especially when playing, always think ahead. Musicmaking is a time warp. It is not only about playing the note you are playing. Playing is about "What’s next" "What’s next". What’s next in relation to what you are now playing, which is in relation to what you just played (note, phrase, part of tune, other tunes). So you are simultaneously in 1) the moment making the sound, 2) in the past having made sound, and 3) in the future preparing to make sounds. This time warp reality is the reason to give the job of keeping Time to your body, which does cycles well, rather than your fickle mind, which can/will warp time.

What do you do before you tell a joke, make a shot in sports, walk downstairs, drive across town, etc.? You rehearse it first, every step of the way. So think ahead always: when taking in, when giving out; especially making music. Thinking ahead will 1) allow you to play quicker, and 2) allow you to play what you want to play.

Happy musicmaking,
vlnplyr

Re: Playing faster

Lots of really great stuff here! Using a metranome to slowly ratchet up speed while conserving quality, learn the tune so you can play with out thinking so that its in your muscle memory.
Just as dancers are athletes of the larger muscles, musicians are athletes of the smaller muscles! So how does one actually go about training the muscles to relax enough so that tension doesn’t hold you back?
As a dancer, I struggled with this for years, until I learned about muscle economy.
How does one attain muscle economy?
Stretching and holding the muscle/tendons for at least 20 seconds, very important, don’t forget the opposition stretch to relax and allow fresh oxygenated blood to diffuse into those tissues. Repeat this in your practice often and breathing room in your sessions. Most important BREATHE when it gets hard. Am a flute and whistle player so i try to breathe diaphramically filling the lower lobes of my lungs, thanks to my singing coach for teaching me that one. Practice fingering without playing. Experiment in front of the screen or tv, goal being finding what is the very least amount of energy you have to expend to achieve your goal of a cleanly executed maneuver. See if you can bounce your fingers off the fretboard or flute so that they are relaxed just after executing the move. See if you can shorten that time of relaxation between maneuvers. Don’t worry about the sound, concentrate fully on the relaxation time between movements. You are training your body to work efficiently thus releasing your muscle resources to work faster, not harder. Thanking my dance coaches for teaching me that one. Have only been playing the flute and whistle for two years now. By year 5, I anticipate that I will be over the initial or the hardest part of all the possible executions. The harvest or returns on this investment are huge. I promise! Happy playing.