Playing Faster – Part 1

One of the things I struggle with is playing tunes faster, or playing them up to the tempo they are meant to be played. I have read this is one of the hardest things to do, and I have read of many different factors that need to be worked on to increase speed. There is no shortage of information and advice on how to play faster.

As a beginner I made the false assumption that the way to play faster is to move my left fingers faster between notes, but that is only part of what goes into being able to play faster. While left hand speed is important, it is only part of the equation. How I use my right hand and how I absorb a tune play just as important a roles in the quest to playing faster. Playing faster is a combination of left and right hand techniques, as well as internalizing the tune as a whole. While not all-inclusive, here are six considerations I see repeated over and over as I tackle my effort to play faster.

  • Using the wrist to move the bow in short bow strokes. I can’t play fast with long bow strokes and it is much more economical and efficient to move the bow from the wrist than the arm. And, too much arm tends to produce longer bow strokes. I know I play more from my arm than my wrist, most beginners do, so this is something I need to work on if I want to play faster.
It’s all in the wrist!
  • Minimizing the vertical movement of the bow when moving from one string to another. So many tunes are played on two strings. The last three tunes I have been working on (Angeline the Baker, Juliann Johnson, and Rock the Cradle Joe) are only played on the E and A strings. When playing on the A string, the bow needs to be kept very close to the E string, and visa versa. This minimizes the amount of movement needed when switching strings, and is probably a the reason many accomplished old time fiddle players prefer a flatter fiddle bridge which minimizes this movement even more allowing them to play faster. I need to work more on bow control. If I can minimize string crossing, I can then play at an angle that allows faster movement between strings.
  • Minimizing the amount of movement of the left hand on the fingerboard. The higher the left fingers are raised above the strings when playing, the longer it takes to play each note. Ideally, the fingers should just hover above the strings, not be lifted above the strings. And, there are often times in tunes when I can keep a finger in place on the string, as I’ll return back to that note again. I mistakenly thought this was the whole key to playing faster until I started researching further. I have been consciously working on this. Hey, easier said than done!
  • Keeping a steady tempo by tapping a foot or using a metronome. It is easier to keep a tempo, slow at first and then increasing incrementally, with a guide. Foot tapping, or using a metronome, can be a guide to establishing a consistent tempo no matter what speed the piece is being played at. I admit I seldom do either!
  • Phrasing a tune. A tune is made up of individual notes, but these individual notes have to be thought of as phrases to increase tempo. Think of language. Words are made up of letters, but to spell out each word would make for very slow communication, so we speak these letters in words and phrases. Now, that makes a lot of sense.
  • Playing the tune without consciously thinking about what I am doing. Consciously thinking about all of these techniques will keep me from playing faster. There is just too much to think about to keep up with a faster tempo. My unconscious mind has to take over. I don’t know if there is anything I can do to accomplish this other than practice, practice, and more practice.

In Playing Faster – Part Two, I am going to write about some methods and exercises I have found to help achieve these skills which will help me play faster, closer to the tempo each song is accustomed to being heard at when performed. None are an overnight fix, but knowing what is needed to play faster, using methods and exercises designed to increase playing speed, can only be of help.

How about you, do you struggle with playing faster? How are you working on it? What do you think about these six necessary skills I’ve mentioned. Do you have others that might help achieve this goal?

  5 comments for “Playing Faster – Part 1

  1. old cowboy
    July 23, 2019 at 11:49 am

    I also have trouble playing tunes up to speed. At first you need to play them slow until you have learned the tune well. But then as you well know there comes a time when you need to grit your teeth and start speeding things up. It can be very frustrating! Having said that I think some of the so called professionals have the idea that the faster you play, the better! I do not agree with that! The song needs to be played at the right tempo and speed. The Orange Blossom Special is a good example of this. Yes it is a good show off tune to play, but I think even it needs to be played at the right speed. Another song that is always played too fast is Old Joe Clark. Play it fast, but not too fast. But this is just my thoughts.

    • July 23, 2019 at 12:09 pm

      I agree. Speed is not the goal. The “normal” tempo is the goal. What I am interested here is what gets you to that tempo. Yes, you have to know the tune well. That’s a given; but, what are the mechanics that allow you to play faster (up to tempo). It is more just knowing the tune well.

      Orange Blossom has long been used as a “show off” tune for how fast a fiddler can actually play. Have you ever seen this one? Quite entertaining. https://youtu.be/eCAFfX_va_I

      • old cowboy
        July 24, 2019 at 12:43 pm

        I think knowing the tune well is a big part of playing it fast. You have to know that tune so well you can play it without thinking about it. A teacher I know said there is a difference between practicing and playing. You spend your time practicing the mechanics, then you apply those mechanics to your playing. The mechanical part of playing fast is playing slow until you know the tune backward and forward. Then you apply the mechanics to your playing.

        • July 24, 2019 at 1:14 pm

          Sounds like exactly what I was talking about in the post. Part 2 (and maybe Part 3) I am going to write more about them. I see it as almost two processes…knowing the tune inside out and being able to execute the mechanics to play faster. You need both to play up to tempo. Once you learn and can execute the mechanics of playing faster, you only need to know each new tune inside out.

          • oldcownoy
            July 24, 2019 at 4:26 pm

            Well said! It would seem there is no single mechanic for playing fast! It all works together! Thanks for a good discussion! I have been in a slump for a while now. This gives me new hope! Just keep on with what I’ve been doing!

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