The Cellist
Issue #8

Playing With Speed

Perhaps the most desired improvement particularly among my adult students, next to intonation, is the ability to play fast.  Their common observation is that no matter how hard they try, they can reach only moderate speed, while their 10 year old counterparts are able to fly through fast passages with maddening effortlessness.  Why is this, and are cellists who began later than age 8 doomed to a career that is limited to slower pieces?

Developing motor coordination during the years of physical development is certainly a good start to being able to articulate at speed, but many students who have begun their cello studies later in life have already had piano, flute or other instrumental lessons when they were kids.  And even cellists who do not have such a background can, with the proper attitude and practice, achieve the ability to play fast.

First let's examine practices that almost never work, and in fact can have almost the opposite effect. The first is practicing individual passages at metronome speeds equal to and above the target tempo, perhaps on the theory that if you stay with metronome and blast through the passage enough times, the stumbling, out-of-tuneness and muddling and skipping of notes will somehow eventually vanish. (Actually they will almost invariably get worse as you are in fact practicing the stumbling etc., and practicing playing with tension.) Another common one is method of taking a passage that needs speed, playing it somewhat slowly with a metronome, then increasing the metronome speed until the desire tempo is achieved.What almost always happens is that things work well for the early tempos, gradually getting more difficult until by the time the target tempo is reached things are pretty much a mess and you have accumulated a ton of tension.

There are several things that get in the way of speed, most of them not considered by cellists trying to increase their tempos.  They are, in no particular order:

1. Your brain does not really understand everything you are trying to do.  Years ago I asked my teacher to help me with a fast passage that I was having difficulty with.  I would stumble, articulate some notes poorly, and generally play the measures in an unacceptable way.  She had me lay my bow down and began snapping her fingers in a slow, metronomic rhythm.  Then she asked me to name, in order with her finger snaps, the notes in the passage I was attempting to play. I was surprised to find that in the naming process I stumbled on certain notes, not coincidentally the same notes I stumbled on while playing, and that I sometimes struggled to keep up even with the slow pace she was setting.  She had me do this for a very labor-intensive 4 or so minutes until I could successfully name all the notes in the 3 measures in question.  Then she continued, having me name the string that each individual note was on, the finger that I would use, even if was written in, and only then did she have me pick up my bow again and try it.  It was effortless! Absolutely no stumbling.

2.  Tension.  Many of us grew up or are growing up trying to use that old parental commodity, elbow grease.  If we just try harder, grit our teeth and put in more physical effort, we will eventually succeed. It may work in boxing, pole-vaulting and moving the huge rock in the back yard, but it's not the way to improve playing the cello.  Elbow grease only increases tension, and tension will definitely get in the way of speed.  Everything must be relaxed, and trying to play something faster than you are currently capable of playing it will produce enough tension to slow down even an accomplished cellist. Adults worry that they're going to sound bad or make mistakes and that worry increases as the speed of a passage accelerates beyond their ability to play it well. It's a major reason why 10 year-olds can play fast.  They don't care or worry about mistakes or sounding bad.  They don't even know when they screw up: they haven't been convinced that it's a bad thing.

3.  Especially in separate-bow passages the culprit can often be your right hand, not your left.  You must be able to produce a fairly fast tremolo with your bow near the frog using just your hand and your wrist. (See the issue on bow grip, as the proper grip makes it fairly easy). The crisper and shorter your bow stroke, especially if it's generated by only your wrist and hand, the more accurate your fast passage will be.

Now let's look at practice techniques that can help you increase your speed.

1. Let's start with the right hand.  With a good bow grip, practice fast tremolos on the open D & G strings, taking care that your hand is relaxed, never allowing the speed of the tremolo to exceed your comfort zone.  Then practice easy passages with separate bows at a speed that never takes either hand out of a relaxed state.  Remember if you practice fast enough to create tension, you are in fact practicing producing tension which is why elbow grease will always produce the wrong results.

2. Make sure you know everything you can about the passage you're practicing.  Set your metronome at a slow tempo and name notes with it until you can do without stumbling (it should be much slower than the target tempo of the passage).  Make sure you also know the string you will be playing for each note, and the finger you will be using.  You may find this process tedious, but it is a high-profit shortcut to the goal you are trying to achieve.

3.  Make sure you know what the passage sounds like.  Most musicians depend a lot on their ear when playing, even when the notes are in front of them.

4. Make sure the left hand fingers are nicely curved (see photo).  Watch yourself in a mirror and make sure you are using them efficiently and that they are not flying all over the place.

5.  Using efficient fingering is essential.  Some intermediate and even advanced cellists are wedded to 1st and 4th positions, guaranteeing that all shifts are long.  Long shifts will not only slow things down but can put blips in the flow of your playing. A series of shorter shifts is usually much faster in the end than one long one.  Practice the intermediate neck positions and don't shy away from using them: they can make life much easier.

6.  Never practice passages faster than you can play with a completely relaxed body.  If you have to perform something faster than you can currently play it (if it is a recital solo piece, perhaps quickly look for a substitute piece - if you are in an orchestra, wait until the rehearsal or performance to play at speed) don't practice it at tempo if you can't play it relaxed at tempo!!  Instead, practice naming your notes and fingers with a metronome, and playing it slowly enough to be able to enjoy it.  When you speed things up, as soon as you feel any tension anywhere in your body, stop!, and restart at a slower tempo. 

7.  You cannot force your way toward speed. Any time you try to practice through tension and stumbling, you are actually practicing tension and stumbling and it will become the way you play that passage.

8.  An tiny, excellent book by Eugen Herrigel: Zen in the Art of Archery, conveys the type of attitude that leads to success in playing with speed and playing the cello in general.  It is, as the title implies, a very non-western approach to acquiring a skill, and it is well worth the time to locate and read it.

In the next issue we'll examine the importance, intricacies, and methods of fingering.