Playing Fast

Sonatine Mv. 3 “Animé” M. Ravel (1875-1937)

I am asked from time to time how I manage to play fast pieces. The ‘secret’ comes straight from the Master: “whoever humbles himself shall be exalted” (Matt 23:12).

The ‘secret’ to playing fast is to practice slowly. When Rachmaninoff (one of the great pianists of the 20th century) was at conservatory as a young man, the other students made a game of sitting outside his practice room to try to figure out what he was practicing — he was playing it so slowly that it was unrecognizable. This was a lifelong practice, and not limited to learning new pieces — just before a performance he would play through the program at less than one-quarter speed.

Rachmaninoff was hardly alone in this: if you Google “slow practice” you will find a surprisingly long list of articles about the effectiveness of slow practice both for musicians and athletes. And in the martial arts there is a saying: “one thousand times slow, one time fast.”

Finally, there is a Zen saying: “If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, try it for eight, 16, 32, and so on. Eventually one discovers that it’s not boring at all but very interesting.” That is, slow practice doesn’t need to be tedious at all. In fact, once you get into the “Zen” of it, it becomes a kind of meditation.

By the way, this piece is the only one in my repertoire that uses the lowest note on the piano. (Well, apart from a piece *I* wrote that uses both the lowest and the highest note at the same time!)