A Simple Tip To Help You Play Better At Fast Tempos

One of the things that too often goes hand in hand with playing at fast tempos is excessive bodily tension. This is not a requirement of the music.  Instead, it’s largely because of the habits, perceptions and attitudes of the performer. It doesn’t have to be like that.

One of the aims of the Alexander Technique is to learn to approach any activity with a minimal amount of tension. Ease, efficiency of movement, freedom, clarity, balance.

As an Alexander teacher and practice coach, I help my students become aware of and prevent the various movement and postural habits that interfere with this easier, more efficient way of playing music. This is mostly a matter of getting them to change how they think  about playing.

Many of the problems of tension musicians have begin with their thinking. Playing at fast tempos is a prime example.

One of the things that invites all this extra tension is something I call “micro-managing” the pulse. In essence, this means that you conceive the tempo as fast beats coming one after the other.

For example, in 4/4 time, at a tempo of quarter note = 262, the quarter note pulse moves by quite rapidly. If you try to feel each beat this way, it not only invites bodily tension (you might try to tap your foot like mad as you tighten the rest of your body), but also, it creates a feeling of urgency  that scrambles your thinking a bit. It makes you less open to the control and choices available to you. 

If you watch some of the great jazz masters playing at these fast tempos, you virtually never see them moving with the quarter note pulse this way. Why? Because they conceive of the pulse in a broader  sense.

This means that instead of trying to feel 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, etc. as the main pulse, they tend to feel it more as a broad 1…1…1…, etc. (each “1” being the beginning of the bar). Some feel it even more broadly than that, feeling the time as long phrases crossing bar lines.

This shift in time perception tends to do two helpful things for these masters:

  1. It helps them to maintain a certain physical ease, flexibility, responsiveness and balance that supports a great technique (sound, too!)
  2. It helps them imagine  and create  the music in an entirely different way, with many more rhythmic and phrasing possibilities as well as note choices. Instead of merely “making the tempo”, they’re actually expressing themselves with a great deal of clarity and choice.

So no matter what kind of music you play, you’ll play with less tension and more precision if you broaden your perception of the tempo. Here are some guidelines you can use to help you with this:

  • Stop relying so strongly upon your foot. Seriously. Learn to feel the time without doing that. If you watch great classical musicians playing at blistering tempos you don’t see that foot flapping around. Same with many of the jazz greats. It’s fine to move  with the music. But think of it as a lilting dance instead of a foot-stomping-neck-tightening lurch.
  • Start reducing the metronome click. Once you’ve got the basic idea of the piece under your fingers (or the harmonic form, if you’re a jazz player) stop setting the metronome on the quarter note. At the very least, set it to half notes, with the aim in mind of letting it click once at the beginning of each measure. So, for example, quarter note=260 becomes half note = 130, which then becomes whole note = 65. I rarely let my metronome go faster than about 80 bpm (that  would be feeling the pulse on the first beat of each measure at quarter note = 320!)
  • Think more broadly about rhythmic groupings. If you’re working on a fast eighth-note passage, for example, start thinking of this passage as slower sixteenth notes. Or even slower 32nd notes (yes, really!) Use your metronome.
  • Go from even to odd. If you’re working on a very symmetrical phrase, pattern, exercise, etc., consider modulating it metrically. This change in perception can really free you from your habitually tense anticipation of playing it. So, for example, if you’re working on a phrase that is grouped as sixteenth notes, try playing that same phrase thinking  of the notes as triplets, or even quintuplets (maintaining the same velocity of each note). Again, use the metronome for this.
  • Practice rhythmic displacement. This is another way to help you to think outside the box about tempo and rhythm. It has a similar benefit as the “even to odd”, I’ve mentioned above. Here’s an article on how to approach this.
  • Reconsider beats “2” and “4”  (for jazz playing). I know it is standard for many students of jazz to set the metronome to click on beats 2 and 4 (in 4/4 time) in order to help them feel  the backbeat. But once you’ve reached a place in your musical development where you’re swinging comfortably, consider setting the metronome to click only on the first beat of each measure (especially at faster tempos). Besides helping you to stay less tense, this will also significantly improve your sense of time (it can be a bit of a challenge at first).

So whether your playing jazz, working on an etude, or even sight reading, thinking of the beat in this broader way will help you to stay calm and free. Give it a try and let me know how it goes.

Comments

  1. Margaret Almon says

    I find this fascinating. I have noticed the ease with which some jazz musicians play fast, and this helps me understand. I wonder if I can apply this in an analogous way in my mosaic studio, when working on small pieces with complex color gradation. I tense up in my thinking before I even begin. I am working with the idea that tension is not required.

    • Bill says

      Hi Margaret, thanks for your thoughts. I think it’s absolutely possible to take this same principle into the mosaic studio. As you mention, you “tense up” in your thinking, and that’s what always precedes the physical tension. I’m wondering if it would help you to think about the small pieces and color gradations in more of a “longview”, the way a musician might think of lots of notes at a fast tempo. I’d be curious and fascinated by any explorations you might make with this. Please share your experience!

  2. Arin says

    This is quite interesting. If you feel the beat in such large groupings, how would you know if you are playing in time? Like, wouldn’t you still have to feel the subdivisions in order to play accurately?

    • Bill says

      That’s a great question, Arin. In my experience, with both myself and my students, when the tempo can be felt accurately in large groupings (for example, I practice all my jazz improvisation exercises in 4/4 with the metronome only clicking on beat “one”), the subdivisions take care of themselves. In other words, if I’m “landing” on beat “one” precisely where I imagine it (and that lines up precisely with the click of the metronome), any rhythms I play in between will be quite nicely subdivided. If you’d be interested in a methodical way of exploring this concept, consider my e-book, Rhythmic Dissonance: Exercises to Improve Time, Feel and Conception. Thanks for your input, and best wishes!

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