I got bored with the old way – it came too easy. I worked until I could play chord changes at any tempo in any key, and then said ‘What else is there?’ Now I’m finding out. — Don Ellis, trumpeter, drummer, composer
The tempo is the suitcase. If the suitcase is too small, everything is completely wrinkled. If the tempo is too fast, everything becomes so scrambled you can’t understand it. — Daniel Barenboim, conductor
There are many pathways to explore on the journey towards understanding practice, and one path that several researchers have been down is the path that leads to playing at performance speed. Basically, they’re asking, “What is the best way to get a piece up to performance tempo?” Well, in one study they looked at 3 different methods with two conditions. The conditions were 1) with a model (a correctly performed example) and 2) without a model. The three different practice methods were:
1. Gradually increasing tempo until performance speed is reached.
2. Alternating between a slow tempo at which there are no mistakes, then playing again at exactly performance tempo.
3. Flailing away at the piece at performance tempo until you get it.
First, the model vs no model differences. As you might guess, those who had the model did significantly better than those without the model. Hearing a passage played correctly at the correct tempo is very beneficial. No big surprise, right? This reinforces the notion that listening to great recordings of music you perform has real benefits.
You can probably tell by my language that option #3, practicing at performance tempo, is not the way to go about getting a piece up to speed. In this study, the flailers performed the least accurately of the three groups. But what about option 1 or 2? What’s your guess?
Growing up, I learned that gradual increase was the way to go, and because it makes sense, it’s not something I ever questioned. Well, it turns out that option number 2–alternating between slow and performance tempos–produced better results than gradual increase. Of course, you’re wise to ask if the study was truly experimental (randomized, large sample size, etc.) so that we can generalize. It wasn’t, so we can’t say that this is absolutely the best way to go, but it is a compelling argument. I’m going to start using it immediately and see for myself.
This isn’t to say that you should completely abandon the gradual-speed-up technique, though, because that has its place for certain pieces that may be fiendishly difficult. But for something that is within your reach, the alternating tempo approach is the way to go.
click image to find free digital metronomes
If you’re interested, here’s the study and its abstract:
Henley, P. T. (2001). Effects of modeling and tempo patterns as practice techniques on the performance of high school instrumentalists. Journal of Research in Music Education, 49(2), 169-180.
The purpose of this study was to examine the effect of modeling conditions and tempo patterns on the performance of high school instrumentalists. The independent vari- ables of this study were (a) model versus no model and (b) steady increase of tempo versus performance speed tempo versus alternating (slower and faster) tempos. Sub- jects (N = 60) were high school wind instrumentalists from the American Midwest and South. Subjects sight-read an etude and then practiced the same etude six times using one of six practice conditions that combined the two independent variables. Subjects then performed a posttest on the same itude. Dependent measures were pretest-posttest gain score comparisons (as percentages) of correct pitches and rhythms as well as overall percentages of tempo gains. Results demonstrated the with-model condition to be superior to the no-model condition in rhythm percentage gain and tempo percentage gain. Tempo patterns had no significant effect on results.