Reader Question: What to do with students who always play too fast?

 I have a 12 yr old student, a boy, who loves to play fast. Now, I know lots of kids play fast, but this kid is insanely fast. And no matter what, I cannot slow him down. He’s quite naturally gifted too, and will come in with pieces way to hard for him that he can get through, but it’s always sloppy. Fast & sloppy. I’ve taught him for 7 years and it’s always the same. Sigh. I’ve tried everything I know to get him to slow down. Maybe someone else has a trick I’ve never done…?

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When our faculty was presented with this question, a lively conversation followed that included a discussion about when to introduce the metronome, the meaning of “slow,” and what it means to internalize a steady pulse.

  • GENERAL COMMENT:  When one thinks about it, the only thing that the teacher can control is what happens in the lesson.  Therefore, plenty of experiences with successful performances, at a slow tempo, are crucial to this student’s success.  Working out new music together in the lesson will be so important in ensuring that the first performance is accurate.  Even if takes the whole lesson to do this kind of activity, the rewards might be great.

 

  •  STUDENT-TEACHER RELATIONSHIP

An automatic reaction of some readers might be to wonder if the “balance of power” is an issue.  Students must (difficult to put this in a delicate way) do what we ask, if they are to progress.  As with parenting, though, there are times where, despite our best intentions, the spirit of cooperation is not what we would like it to be.  Some teachers might go as far as to dismiss this student if he refuses to practice slowly and accurately.  In our discussion, though, we began to see things a bit more from this student’s perspective.  Some possibilities:

The student may see slow practice as taking a step backwards; in other words, feel that his teacher is “babying him.”  POSSIBLE SOLUTION:  A key phrase that might be used:  “I see you as being a great pianist and this is how we are going to get there.”  “All of the great pianists practice this way.”  “I used to play too fast all of the time, until I realized that I could play even faster if I practiced slowly first.  Please see this short video clip for a wonderful example of a teaching providing feedback on the practice tempo:

Marvin Blickenstaff provides feedback about practice tempo

– The student’s goals do not appear to be the same as the teacher’s goals.  See if you can get the student to articulate his goals for study, and if you can find some common ground.

– The student may need a time frame.  How long will he practice slowly until he can progress to a faster tempo?  If the student realizes that it might be for just the first week of study, with occasionally revisiting the slow tempo, he might be more willing to comply.

–  As much as it is clear in the teacher’s mind, the student may not really understand why he must practice slowly.  Some explanations:  “If you made a mistake, the brain and eye didn’t have time to send an accurate message to the hands.  A slower tempo will give you the time for this message to get to your hands.”  “The very first time you play something leaves a deep impression on your fingers.  For each incorrect initial performance, it takes 11 correct performances to undo that impression.  So it’s very important to play correctly the very first time, so there is nothing to undo.  A tempo that allows you to play correctly will be very important to achieve a correct first performance.”

The student’s idea of “slow” differs greatly from the teacher’s idea of “slow.”  An empirical guide, such as a metronome, might be ideal.

 

  •  THE METRONOME AS AN AID

–  From Elvina Pearce:  Thinking tempo:  The student sets the metronome to a speed that will be slow enough to ensure accuracy.  If the student makes an error,  he will realize immediately that the tempo is not slow enough.  He will adjust until he finds the speed that allows him to play accurately, with no errors. This puts the student in control, and gives the activity a “scientific” feel.  The student then makes a note of the tempo and practices at this speed for the week.

– Subdivisions can be very useful.  Set the metronome for the smallest note value, then the 2nd smallest note value.  Example:  Set the metronome for 16ths, then 8ths, then, finally, quarter notes.

Gestures:  When practicing slowly, the gestures will also be slower.

 

  • THE METRONOME WILL NEVER MAKE THE STUDENTS FEEL THE PULSE:

– Show the student how to conduct the piece.

– The student should count aloud with inflection.  Shape the pulse.

– Have the student do movement activities, while the teacher performs the piece at a slow tempo.

 

SELF – EVALUATION

– Have the student listen to a recording of his performance.  Can  he hear all of the notes?  Is he playing accurately?

 

When the student does play accurately, have a big celebration.  “I can really enjoy your performance because I am not at all distracted by any errors or stumbles.  Now, your fine musicality and musicianship shine through!”

 

 

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