By David Rock
(Revised 13 June 2006)
1. Get your technique under control first - you´ve absolutely got to have correct grace notes and clean fingering before you try building speed.
2. While building technical proficiency, or tempo or whatever, don´t just play through the tune a thousand times. Identify particular tricky spots and work on them separately, then build them into their respective phrases. This way you get more repetitions where you need them most.
3. Systematically use a metronome, starting at a very slow tempo that allows you to play with accurate rhythm and perfect technique. When you have the tune consistently perfect at a particular tempo, advance the metronome setting by two or three beats per second. Over the course of a practice session you should notice considerable improvement, but expect it to take days or even weeks to make long term, consistent improvement. Be patient.
4. When I practice with the goal of building tempo, I don´t quit when I achieve the target tempo. I like to push it just a bit faster and then back off a bit. This enables me eventually to handle a faster tempo than I´m actually shooting for, just in case I get an unexpected adrenaline rush during a performance. The target tempo will seem easy if you can handle a faster tempo. Your goal is to play CONFIDENTLY at the target tempo.
5. Don´t practice (reinforce) sloppy playing. If you can´t handle the tempo, slow down. Isolate the tricky bit, get it right, and then build the speed.
6. Don´t end a practice session on a fast, sloppy rendition. If you´ve pushed yourself beyond your control threshold, slow down, and play a few calm, excellent renditions before calling it quits for the day.
7. It´s not always advisable to practice all of your tunes every day. Sometimes you need to concentrate intensively on just one or two tunes. To build speed and control requires many repetitions, and you simply don´t have time to give this kind of attention to every tune in every practice session. Once you know a tune, you only need to play it occasionally to keep it fresh. For long-term technical improvement you need to focus your attention on particular tunes - or even particular parts of particular tunes.
8. Turn on a tape recorder once you think you have the tune pretty good. Put the metronome close to the microphone so you can hear the clicks on playback. Is every beat note falling precisely on the click? Does the tune sound good in terms of expression?
9. Generally speaking, it´s better to sacrifice tempo for the sake of technical precision and musical expression. The exception to this rule would be when accompanying dancers or drummers in competition. In this case you have played their preferred tempo, which may call for simplifying the setting if your technique is not up to the task.