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Rushing in Fast Passages

Kimberly Trolier | September 2019

Question: When I play a passage of continuous sixteenth notes at a fast tempo, I often rush. How do I stop rushing in a performance or audition?

Answer: When a passage is difficult, it is a common problem to make it harder by playing too fast. Start by practicing the passage slowly in many different rhythmic patterns to develop finger coordination. Practice a tricky passage with each of these rhythms.

Vary the Tempo
   Practice the passage at many different speeds. Start at q = 80 and work your way up past the performance tempo. When the technique is solid, set a metronome to the eighth note to emphasize the subdivision. Once you can do this, set the metronome to one click per measure so you can hear if all the notes in the passage are even.
   If you have trouble playing in a steady fast tempo without the metronome, record yourself to hear where you are pushing ahead of the beat. Then practice playing the rushed notes at a slower tempo and focus on the feel of the passage when allowing more time to play it.

Change Dynamics and Articulation
   Practice the section in a variety of dynamics and articulation patterns as well. Tonguing an entire passage helps identify the phrase shape. This shows which notes should be emphasized at the height of a passage and which notes are secondary or traveling notes. Add slurs in different combinations: slur 2, tongue 2; tongue 2, slur 2; slur 3, tongue 1 and tongue 1, slur 3 to coordinate the fingers with the tongue.

Lengthening Anchor Notes
   Each passage has anchor notes. These are notes that you aim for and perhaps lean on as you play. They could be the top or bottom note of the phrase, a note with an accidental, or a note of a longer duration. Practice spending more time (playing out of rhythm) on the anchor note and then proceed in the correct time.

Small Units
   It is also helpful to break a passage into smaller units. Practice 4 or 5 notes at a time. As you get to then next unit, mentally think re-start. In this way, you only have to think about playing a few notes at a time rather than the whole extended passage of fast notes.

   Often the last notes of a measure rush into the down beat of the next one. To keep control, practice the passage from the end and work towards the beginning by starting with the last three notes of the passage and playing through the downbeat of the following measure. Then add one more note or beat of notes to this. Repeat this practice and work backwards through the passage.

Phrasing with the Breath
   Additionally, think of phrasing with the breath. Add layers of dynamics to the passage such as making a crescendo to important notes and backing away from others. Take care that you make these decisions in a musically interesting and appropriate manner. When you identify the notes at the height of a crescendo, use your breath to emphasize them  with a faster air stream leading up to the peak of the crescendo.

Alternating Tempos
   Play the difficult passage very slowly once, then play it at tempo. Alternate this strategy many times. The slow practice allows your fingers to coordinate, and the faster practice lets you test how well you have learned the passage.

   If nerves are a factor, take every opportunity to play in a slightly pressured situation before the performance or audition day. Recording your practicing is an effective way to do this on your own. You can also play for friends or set up a dress rehearsal or mock audition in front of a panel of musicians you respect. Jog up a flight of stairs to increase your heart rate, then play through the difficult passage while your heart is beating harder. Breathe deeply to slow your heart rate, and then play the passage again. This allows you to practice playing through and calming the physical symptoms of extra adrenaline that often occur during an important performance.

   It is helpful to write a few words or a phrase in the score to help you capture the character of the music and remember how you want to play the passage. Phrases like lyrical sixteenth notes or light and supple can serve as a reminder before you play and help focus your attention on how you want to play rather than on your nerves.

   Prior to your performance or audition, visualize yourself feeling calm in all the steps leading up to it. This might include: checking into the audition desk, warming up back stage, and walking onto the stage to play. Imagine feeling calm and glad that you are playing that day.
   Mentally frame the experience as feeling grateful for the opportunity to play for others rather than focusing on the panel of judges or your inner critic. Choose a behavioral goal for yourself, like be courageous or stay focused. This will help you present yourself in a way that you choose rather than being overwhelmed with nerves or unhelpful thoughts and emotions. Practicing this before the audition or performance and incorporating it in your daily life will help you learn to choose positive and encouraging behaviors even when your emotions are running at a high ebb.
   On the day of your performance, embrace the butterflies and excitement. Trust your practice and encourage yourself through positive thoughts. If possible, record the audition or performance to accurately hear how you played. Realize that one performance or audition does not define who you are as musician. After you have played, recognize that you accomplished a lot even if the results are not what you hoped. Recognize that you stepped out of your comfort zone and rose to the challenge. Then, onwards and upwards to your next performance goal.