How to play tunes faster

Learning how to play tunes faster

In December’s workshop we focused on techniques that would help us  to play tunes faster.

We started out by revisiting our fiddle bow hold. One of the things that makes it difficult to speed up tunes when we’re learning is where there are fast runs of notes that we’re playing on single bows. It becomes important when trying to play tunes faster to have a relaxed wrist, so the wrist action can become an integral part of the action we use to move the bow rapidly.

We practiced playing a dotted jig rhythm on an open A string, then playing the same rhythm on these notes:

Short riff in jig time

We learnt a 4 part jig called The Duck

In order to play tunes faster, we have to be able to play notes using short lengths of the bow, minimising the amount of work the forearm puts into bowing. More of the action comes from the wrist as we play the tune faster. We worked on the bowing hand wrist action. Remember to keep the wrist of the bowing hand slightly rotated (anticlockwise) so the wrist is in a plane where it can easily flex at either end of the bow stroke.

We looked at what happens with the left hand as we play faster. Keeping the fingers close to the fingerboard when they’re not being used, reduces the time it takes to get them back in place when we next need to use them. It also makes it easier to be precise about where the fingers fall on the strings, making it more likely we will keep notes in tune as we speed up. Practice keeping fingers down on the fingerboard where possible – often you’ll find that in tunes you go straight back to a note you’ve just played. Leaving the finger in place on the string after playing the note the first time helps when it comes to playing faster. It’s also not necessary to push the string down hard onto the fingerboard – the fingers need to ‘dance’ over the strings.

All of these things help with economy of movement which will help us to be able to increase the speed of playing tunes, and keep our playing under control.

To play at speed, you need to be able to keep the tune/rhythm going even if errors happen. To be able to do this with confidence, you need to hear the tune in your head, as you’re playing it. We’re aiming for the mechanics of our playing to become much more subconscious, so we’re no longer having to focus on which way the bow is moving, or which order our fingers need to go down to play that quick run of notes. The notes are played because we hear them in the tune. We tried plucking the first phrase of the tune, and missing random notes out, while still staying in the rhythm. We had to focus on hearing the tune for this to work.

Then we played this riff from the A part of the tune

Short riff in Jig time

We started slowly at first, then lifted the speed a bit in stages, working on holding the speed steady each time we picked it up. Everyone in the group focused on their own playing, pinpointing the speed that their playing became a problem, and analysing what issues were contributing to the difficulty.

It’s important to learn to control own speed if you want to play faster. There’s a tendency for tunes to speed up when we hit tricky bits, so playing faster often results in the speed careering out of control, unless we understand how to control it. Work out whether own foot tapping is driving/controlling your playing speed (some people play along to the tempo of their tapping foot, while others tap their foot in time with their playing). If your playing is following your foot tapping tempo, then you will need to learn to control the foot tapping speed to control your playing speed.

If you’re playing in a group, learn to listen closely not only to yourself, but to the others you’re playing with, and work out what’s happening. This is especially important if the  group is struggling with playing together well. Playing fast is much easier when you are confident you can control your own playing speed, and keep it steady at whatever speed you are aiming for.