One fundamental question that lurks in the mind of students is: “How am I ever going to play this music up to tempo?”
Many teachers have standard methods for speeding up a student’s playing, but there are several interesting ideas to consider on this subject, and they reflect different priorities about how to play music.
Perhaps the most common method for learning to play at tempo is to first learn the notes solidly at a comfortable tempo. Then practice the music at slowly increasing metronome settings so as to arrive eventually at the correct tempo.
While I think this approach is valid, its weakness is that it sets the highest priority on getting all the notes right.
Tempo is not about the notes but about the beat. One way to learn to play up to tempo might be to understand the beat first, and then fill in the beats with the correct notes.
Placing a high priority on understanding the beat means physically moving to the beat, which could involve the knee, the foot, swaying, breathing, and for string players requires a strong focus on good and consistent bowing.
Instead of reading the music as if every note was as important as every other, the student who focuses on beat notes would single out those beat notes for awareness and emphasis.
A good exercise for the student to try is to learn the beat notes for a passage of music, and then to invent ways of arriving at those beat notes on time. If the student has heard the piece a number of times, the chances are good that their ears will guide them to actually play the correct notes. But even if they are unsure, they can learn a great deal from finding their own pathways from one beat note to the next.
At heart, this is improvising, but it doesn’t really matter what we call it. The learning process is that after inventing their own ways to get from one beat note to the other, they will appreciate better the choices the composer made, and will remember the music better because they will understand it from the inside, instead of merely memorizing what the music tells them to play.
Of course, the problem of playing the correct notes up to tempo still requires learning the notes. But learning them in the context of arriving at the next beat note, and within the structure of a phrase, makes it far easier to learn the notes.
A good comparison can be made with speech. It is far easier, quicker and longer-lasting to learn to say the phrase, “I like this music up to tempo,” than to learn the sequence, “i-l-i-k-e-t-h-i-s-m-u-s-i-c-u-p-t-o-t-e-m-p-o.” Placing the notes within the beats, right from the start and engages the ears and the muscle memory of the fingers.
Special note: A corollary to this discussion is that as much as we may want to get every note right, some notes are more important than others. The beat notes are clearly the top priority for hearing music correctly. This means we can relax a little about non-beat notes and trust students and ourselves to nail them down during the learning process, rather than panic about mistakes. This too has a correlation to speech. Our brains understand sentences that are misspelled if the first and last letters, and length of the word, are correct. For example, we can understand, “I lkie tihs misuc up to tmepo” much more easily than if the initial letters were wrong: “I klie to aply umsci up to etmpo.”
Cognitive studies have shown that drilling the same thing over and over fatigues the brain and yields diminishing returns. Practicing something in different ways, trying new ideas, and playing games with learning, have been shown to allow for endless attention from the brain.
Learning notes as written and then drilling a passage at increasing speeds can be quite tiring and may have to be repeated many times to get lasting results.
But thinking a little bigger, placing the priority on learning the beat notes, improvising pathways between beats, then finding out the composer’s choices and learning them, noticing patterns within beats such as scales and arpeggios that lead to the next beat note, or even learning manageable bits of the music, such as phrases or half-phrases, up to tempo immediately rather than gradually — these are all intriguing games that allow a student to play up to tempo while gaining a greater understanding and appreciation for the construction of the music. They’ll build in more musicality while arriving more quickly at their goal of playing up to tempo.