Tricks with Tempo

Learning new repertoire has inspired me to write this post about the different uses of tempo. Different tempi can help us work on different aspects of a piece as well as our playing. When first learning a new piece, working with a slow tempo will help get the movements and the music into our fingers. It also allows us to hear all of the nuances of all of the notes and sounds asked for by the composer. Once the piece starts to become familiar you can try to play it faster or at tempo.

Playing quick pieces at different tempi can be used for other aspects of your playing as well. Playing them slowly also works on endurance. I remember when I was learning the Prelude from BWV 1006a, I started playing it slowly to get all of the notes right, but then I would play it slowly as a good stamina workout. It essentially doubled the time of the extremely difficult piece allowing me to achieve exactly what I wanted.

But there is also a good use for pushing tempi well beyond what you plan on playing them, especially quick pieces. There are both advantages and disadvantages to playing fast pieces. They sound flashy, are often “crowd-pleasers,” and for the most part interpret themselves. But it is often daunting knowing how fast a piece is “supposed” to be played. Obviously solid, slow practice is the first step, but another good way to attack this problem is by going the other direction. Pushing the tempo to something faster than you plan on playing it has an interesting psychological effect. Playing things faster than you should, even if it’s out of control and sloppy, tricks the mind into thinking the proper tempo isn’t as fast as once believed and therefore achievable. Sometimes you may find that you can play the piece at the faster tempo and actually like the way that sounds. Either way it’s a win-win!