I am often stretched as a teacher when demonstration and explanation are not enough for the occasional student having difficulty either reproducing or understanding a particular concept. A fairly basic approach to teaching is to relate what the student knows to what they do not know. I usually keep up with the general interests outside of music that students have, whether specific sports, favorite subjects in school, hobbies, or recent vacation activities. Any gathered information may be useful for finding commonalities. For example, if a student is studying dance, relating hand movement to choreography is a connection they can understand.
Speed benefits from slow practice. Technical accuracy and intent of expressiveness requires being in control of one’s fingers, hands, and body at the piano and knowing what to say musically before attempting to perform. Students playing fast too soon, as you already know, typically can lead to overlooked details and a lack of steady tempo leading to habits in performance which need to be broken.
Elementary students on occasion view medium to fast tempo with trepidation when it's first required of them. To demonstrate that the hands are capable of great speed, with their hands in some kind of five finger position, as this is usually the hand position for the composition they are playing, I will place my hands higher on the keys above theirs and play through a passage very quickly as they watch their fingers move without effort on their part. After a second demonstration, I ask the student to play. Having experienced both aurally and physically that with their hands it is possible, student receive a boost of encouragement to try.
One step toward increasing speed early on is the ability to look ahead. Often to demonstrate the challenge of the eyes spending to much time where the student is playing instead of looking ahead, I guide their eyes during a performance. With my pencil in hand I ask them to play their piece and always look where I am pointing. Once they get started I start moving my pencil one to two beats ahead of where they are playing to guide them throughout the piece. If the student finds this too difficult to follow, then we start the piece over at a slower tempo.
An example of relating one experience to another occurs when I discuss moving fingers fast in a relaxed manner while performing grace notes. As the student gains experience with performing grace notes, the approach of quick finger movement can be applied in other contexts. The challenge before the student may be a short passage of sixteenth notes within a phrase, and in other cases, it may extend through an entire work such as in C.P.E. Bach’s Solfeggietto.
If the student’s difficulty lies in a linear melodic passage of sixteenth notes, I will have them play the first two with the first functioning as a grace note to the second. The relaxed manner of playing the grace note is then extended to three notes with the first two sixteenths now being ornamental to the third. (Examples of a pair of grace notes can be found in Tapioca Tango from Keyboard Confections and Siesta Song from Mexicano Suite.) With each new note added, I demonstrate, as I feel hearing is an important first step for the students experiencing speed. Slowly, additional sixteenths are added to extend the number of grace notes until the passage is complete. The goal is to think of all the grouped grace notes as part of a single gesture. You may wish to explore Jubilation, a solo for one hand, or Sippin’ Soda from Keyboard Confections for examples of a series of step-wise grace note patterns. Playing the passage as grace notes becomes more of a challenge if the contour zig zags up and down as in the triplet figures of Augmented Reality from Vignettes for Solo Piano or if there are shifts in hand position.
Slower Metronome Settings for Speed
For very quick tempos, I suggest working with a metronome in a flexible manner. Students are reminded that the pulse of the metronome can represent any rhythmic value. For instance, if the piece is in 4/4, thinking in cut time with the metronome pulse representing a half note is a good place to start. I learned this while playing in a jazz trio with a guitarist and saxophonist and my role in accompanying the group often involved walking a quarter note bass line with my left hand while comping syncopated rhythms with the right. Numerous Bebop tunes were between 200-250 BPM. With the metronome between 100-125 representing half notes, I found it was easier to stay relaxed. For an additional challenge while practicing, I shifted my thinking and allowed the clicks of the metronome to represent beats two and four to mimic the closed hi-hat rhythm associated with the swing beat.
When working with students, once the cut time approach is done, try shifting the metronome pulse to the whole note. Find a comfortable very slow tempo on the metronome when chunking together larger rhythmic values. If the piece is in ¾ time, try setting BPM pulse to represent a dotted half note. For the more adventuresome, let the pulse represent two bars of music once again at a slower metronome marking. A good example for exploring this with a young player would with Carrie Kraft's solo Jiggity Jig which is in 6/4 and is to be played as fast as you can. Setting the metronome pulse to represent a single bar would be the equivalent of two bars in ¾ time. With any rhythmic value chosen, the student should stay with it until they can move the speed of the metronome higher numerous beats per minute. Throughout the exercises, I will continue to relate the need for relaxation, keep their eyes looking ahead of where their fingers are playing and remind them of the ease in which they can play grace notes. You may find some students holding their breath during the exercises. Remind them to relax and breathe. If they are having difficult with remembering to breathe, consider having them breathe rhythmically in time with the music. For instance, inhale for one or two bars followed by exhaling for the same amount of time.
When working with scales, in addition to thinking a larger pulse, I have the student think about lateral arm movement. In other words, thinking not just about quick finger movement but also focusing on moving the arm from left to right, or vice versa. I suggest students imagine someone is pushing their arm across the keys while they move their fingers as quick as possible to keep up with the lateral movement.
Advantages of Increasing Tempo
Insecurities Revealed: Sometimes a student needs to be able to discover their own insecurities. Playing a passage at an increased tempo may reveal specific places within a phrase where there is difficulty maintaining a steady tempo. It is important to understand why the problems are occurring and so this approach is best saved for the more mature late intermediate to advanced performers and modeled during a lesson. As the student plays, look for the point where there are disruptions to the flow of tempo. There may be a multitude of reasons for the disruption. It maybe an inability to look far enough ahead in the music and/or analyze what is required quickly enough. Maybe issues occur making shifts in hand positions. Was there a rest before a change in position for one of the hands and did the student prep moving the hand during the rest while the other hand was playing? Students tend to focus on the hand that is playing more often than prepping hands during rests which requires greater familiarity with the music. Was there a disruption due to an awkward choice or inconsistent use of fingering? Does the student focus more note-to-note rather than grouping of notes? If so, they are missing the forest for all the trees. Grouping of notes can occur by beat, contours, such as those associated with sequences or short phrases. Once an area of disruption in tempo has been discovered, I mark the music with brackets around the groups of notes or measures just before the disruption so the student will know where to begin their practice and then discuss why the disruption may have occurred.
Reaction Time: Momentary practicing at tempos beyond given metronome markings will challenge performers to react faster. I usually reserve this approach for the late intermediate to advanced student who is very familiar with their music and is getting close to the appropriate tempo. If the goal is 128 BPM, try a few moments with a metronome at 140 BPM and then drop back to 128 BPM. If this is too much of a shift, try 132-136 BPM before going back to 128 again. This approach may offer some variety in practice to advancing the tempo in an incremental manner towards the goal.