10 Techniques for Better Fast Playing

A staple of the trumpet/cornet repertoire is the arrangement by Herbert L. Clarke of The Carnival of Venice. While impressive sounding, it’s not too difficult to play if it is well practiced. However, it’s very difficult to play if poorly practiced like the vast majority of students I hear practice it (and also by a good share of professionals, surprisingly).

I have heard many poorly prepared performances of the Carnival of Venice in my life, and not just the Clarke arrangement- the Arban version is more difficult and is more frequently disasterous, and the Vizzutti arrangement is even more difficult and virtually always a failure except when Allen plays it.

Many musicians and especially trumpet players spend far too much effort trying to play faster, higher, and louder. Personally I believe it’s a much better idea to try to play better. Thus I spend the vast majority of my practice room work playing slowly, softly, and in the middle register.

However, occasionally, to appease the trumpet gods we must work on high, fast and loud. There is in my experience a big difference in the results of different techniques of preparation of quick technical passages, so I will today share my thoughts on the right way of approaching learning how to play quickly.

The most important principle is easy and very simple.

To prepare to play quickly, practice slowly.

Yes, I know, you say you practice slowly already. And I believe that you think you practice slowly. I for years thought I was practicing slowly. Then I finally learned to practice slowly for real and saw the enormous effectiveness of true slow practice. It works, but only with enormous patience. Playing somewhat slowly a few times is not enough; many reps at extremely slow speed are required. The rule is that the more times you play something very well very slowly the better you will play it quickly. Guaranteed.

The way I used to learn a fast piece was to play it slowly a few times until I learned the notes, then almost immediately start bumping up the metronome a click or two and do it every day or two for a couple weeks. Then I would be basically up to tempo and playing decently at a B or B plus. Then I would play it at tempo for a while, and get it up to an A minus performance. That’s the best it would really get, however, and I was an A- trumpet player only.

We should never be satisfied with A- minus playing, and these techniques will help you move past “pretty good” on your way to greatness. So, here I present my 10 Techniques for Better Fast Playing:

1) Start slowly. Very slowly. When you first begin a piece take out the rhythm, articulations, dynamics and just play slowly note by note at first, until you can hear all the intervals clearly in your mind and all changes between notes are in your hands and face.

There is an informal rule at the Meadowmount practice camp, where many virtuoso string soloists train as young players. That is, if someone walks by your practice cabin and they can tell what piece you are practicing, you are going too fast. That’s what I mean by slow playing.

At first, play so slowly that you learn the ins and outs of every note and so that every single note from whole note to 64th note has a great sound. For me on a normal fast piece, that’s no faster than one note per second for the first 3 or 4 times through at least.

2) Add the rhythm, dynamics, phrasing, articulation back in slowly one at a time. The overriding rule always is that every note must have a great sound. Play without a metronome and with very few rules. Breathe where you want, slow down for more difficult passages. Always play with 100% comfort, never hurry. You are encoding ease and great sound first and foremost.

3) Start to add speed but only very gradually. Instead of speeding up as soon as you can play a passage well slowly, speed it up only when you are bored to tears with how awesome you are that you have to go just a little faster.

The speeding up should be almost imperceptible. Instead you should just feel familiarity and love for the piece start to grow in you in an almost organic way. Nourish the music, it is like a small seedling that could grow into a tall tree, but only if it is protected and nourished with love and patience.

4) Start incorporating the metronome in the practice. After you have some thorough familiarity with a passage, finally take up the metronome, or even better the drum machine. To begin your session session, play it through without the metronome first at your highest level of comfort and ease. Then play it with the metronome at the same speed +1 or 2BPM, fixing all mistakes 10 times as you go. Then put it away for the day. Next day try a little faster but keep the ease/comfort level the same. Please do not rush this phase.

5) Keep practiced sessions targeted, focused, and bite-sized. If you have 2 weeks and 120 minutes it is far superior to do 10 minutes of work a day for 14 days as opposed to cramming it all in one session. The encoding method for the brain is repetition, so the number of reps you get in is of tremendous importance. Short sessions over time means more reps loading it in your brain’s working memory and more time to integrate memory into long memory in between sessions.

It’s very important to understand the difference between short term memory and long term memory. This subject I will cover thoroughly in a later post, but for now understand that we cannot overload our short term memory. It’s a tiny memory card vs the long term super data storage center of our long term banks. The long term memory banks are virtually unlimited but information must be funneled in slowly.

6) Use the power of chunking. The brain remembers information in pieces, that it can then fit together later. Build the pieces like this: Take the fastest most difficult bits apart into small 2-5 note pieces. Work them out slowly, and then speed up in tempo gradually so that you can play them really well separately at the target tempo. Then you can assemble longer passages like Legos.

7) Periodically go back to Square One. I guarantee that no matter how slowly you learned, there are still some small details that fell through the cracks. After you have worked on a piece for a month or two, go back to step 1 and start over. The second time you will really learn it well.

Generally speaking it’s never a bad idea to go back to basics. If musicians more often went back to basics there would be much less of a risk of career-threatening injuries due to poor form, neurological disorders such as focal dystonia, and generally declining skills over time. Time spent nourishing the roots of technique are never wasted. This begins with general health, by the way, which is even more fundamental than any technique of playing an instrument.

8) Periodically push past your limits. A good way to really challenge your brain is to force youself to try to survive past your comfort zone. This is one of the only times in practice that I permit myself to make mistakes. Occasionally when you are feeling supremely confident at your slow tempo, push the metronome way up to the point of almost unplayability, and try to get through the best you can. Then play it slowly again and it will feel even slower. Play it great once through slowly then, fixing all mistakes 10x and then put it away for the day.

9) Speed up your brain with brain training. I use and recommend Lumosity.com daily for a general 15 minute brain warmup, daily numbers-based performance feedback, and brain development in the areas of speed, task switching, memory, attention, and problem solving. I highly recommend some form of daily brain training. We take our bodies to the gym, why not our minds also? Over time your brain processing speed and thus your speedy playing will noticeably improve with the use of these games.

10) Get enough sleep. This is very important as sleep is when the aforementioned short term memories get moved to long term, so get on a consistent sleep schedule of 6, 7.5, or 9 hours a night and stick to it. Go to bed and wake early. Don’t drink too much alcohol. This makes a big difference in your IQ, and thus your fast playing.

Use these techniques consistently and over time you will see your fast playing improve very effectively. The funny thing is that you’ll never feel like you are playing fast, but instead you will feel ease, calm and confidence as you navigate the quickest passages that have left so many before conquered.

Here now is a video of the Herbert Clarke, with myself and John Shum on piano. Happy practicing!

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