Classical Guitar Instruction with Douglas Niedt
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HOW TO PLAY FASTER ON THE CLASSICAL GUITAR:
THE PLAY-FAST-NOW METHOD, Part 2 of 2

Douglas Niedt, guitarist

"Douglas who?"

Douglas Niedt is a successful concert and recording artist and highly respected master classical guitar teacher with 50 years of teaching experience. He is Associate Professor of Music (retired), at the Conservatory of Music and Dance, University of Missouri-Kansas City and a Fellow of the Henry W. Bloch School of Management—Regnier Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

Doug studied with such diverse masters as Andrés Segovia, Pepe Romero, Christopher Parkening, Narciso Yepes, Oscar Ghiglia, and Jorge Morel. Therefore, Doug provides solutions for you from a variety of perspectives and schools of thought.

He gives accurate, reliable advice that has been tested in performance on the concert stage that will work for you at home.

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HOW TO PLAY FASTER ON THE CLASSICAL GUITAR:
THE PLAY-FAST-NOW METHOD, Part 2 of 2


By Douglas Niedt

Copyright Douglas Niedt. All Rights Reserved.
This article may be reprinted, but please be considerate and give credit to Douglas Niedt.


HOW DO I USE THE "PLAY-FAST-NOW" METHOD?

If you have not read Part 1, do that before proceeding.

As I mentioned in Part 1, when we practice something slowly, we might be using motor movements that are not viable at our final tempo goal. Therefore, we are creating habits that are functional at the slow tempo but dysfunctional or ineffective at the final fast tempo. We must then unlearn the slow-practice habits and redevelop habits that work at the fast tempo.

Keep in mind that the "Play-Fast-Now" strategy will not work for everything, and it might work at some stages of learning a piece but not at others. And as I pointed out in Part 1, it is mandatory to practice some things slowly to analyze your finger movements, sort things out, or replace a bad habit. The slow practice must consist of conscious and methodical repetition.

But, when we use the "Play-Fast-Now" strategy, we are not gradually working a passage or piece up to tempo. Instead, we are playing it at the final target tempo but working it up to smoothness, consistency, and accuracy.


Chaining vs. Speed Bursts

But how do we practice at a final fast tempo goal and maintain accuracy? After all, we do not want to practice mistakes. The answer is to use a practice technique called chaining.

I wrote about a form of chaining called "reflex practice" or "speed bursts" in my technique tip How to Use Reflex Bursts to Learn a Fast Scale. The strategy is highly effective on fast scales.

A significant difference between speed-burst chaining and "Play-Fast-Now"-chaining is in the use of a metronome. With speed bursts, we do not use a metronome. We usually play as fast as possible. In the "Play-Fast-Now" technique, we always use a metronome set precisely to our fast, final goal tempo.


Do I Have to Use the %*&^@! Metronome?

Yes, you must. We humans are horrible at keeping accurate time. When trying to learn complex music at a specific high speed, it is critical to the neuromuscular process that the tempo be unwavering. Your friend, the metronome, will keep you honest. No, it will not turn you into a robot. Once you can play the piece or passage at your target tempo, you have ownership and control over it. You have given yourself the tools to do whatever you want with the music. When you turn off the metronome, you can speed up or slow down at will. And for better or worse, the human variants of our inner pulse cannot be "trained out." They will always be a part of who we are. Practicing with the metronome for 40 hours a week will not affect that at all.

Always Warm Up First

Always do a warm-up before using the "Play-Fast-Now" practice strategy. I recommend 15-30 minutes of low-impact exercises such as scales, finger independence exercises (for both hands), and light stretching exercises. If you do not warm up, the muscles will tense or lock up when you attempt to play fast. Tense muscles cannot play fast or accurately, and you are wasting your time and risking injury.

Caveats

  1. For the "Play-Fast-Now" practice strategy to work successfully, the player must have a certain level of technique, finger dexterity, and finger independence. But the good news is that any shortcomings will immediately be apparent. Then, the player can remedy the problems with slow practice and later return to the "Play-Fast-Now" strategy.
  2. The piece must be in the ballpark of the player's ability. For example, it is unlikely that a student who has learned a few Sor or Carulli studies will have the technical ability to play Leyenda at tempo.
  3. The target tempo you choose may not be possible for you to attain due to genetic factors. You might need to reduce the target tempo.
  4. You will not play the entire piece immediately up to tempo. You will learn it section by section. Some parts you will be able to play at tempo instantly or in a day or two. The problematic "choke-points" may take a few weeks.
  5. The way in which you use the "Play-Fast-Now" strategy will depend on the piece or passage you are learning. Learning Leyenda at its final tempo will differ from learning La Catedral (Agustín Barrios) or an easy Carulli study.

Chaining

Forward/Reverse-Chaining and Micro/Macro-Chaining

Here is a difficult chord change from Romance or Romanza or Romance de Amor. Example #1:

Romance measures 17-22

We are going to focus on this chord change. Example #2:

Romance measures 20-21

Watch as I demonstrate the "Play-Fast-Now" strategy to play this change up to tempo in relatively little time using forward and reverse micro-chaining.

This procedure will work for you on any challenging chord changes in any piece that you play. It is not only for Romance.

★ BE SURE TO WATCH ON FULL SCREEN. Click on the icon with the arrows at the bottom on the far right:

Play-Fast-Now. Video 1. Romance

Here is a difficult passage from the Allegro Solemne from La Catedral by Agustín Barrios. Example #3.

Allegro Solemne from La Catedral by Barrios measures 17-24

In the following video, watch me demonstrate how to play this passage at a fast tempo of 84 using forward and reverse-chaining plus micro and macro-chaining.

This procedure will work for you on any challenging piece or passage that you play. It is not only for La Catedral.

★ BE SURE TO WATCH ON FULL SCREEN. Click on the icon with the arrows at the bottom on the far right:

Play-Fast-Now. Video 2. La Catedral (Barrios)

What About the Right Hand?

We can also use the "Play-Fast-Now" strategy to achieve fast right-hand speeds. Let's look at Étude No. 1 by Heitor Villa-Lobos. I will use Pepe Romero's right-hand fingering because it is much faster than the original Villa-Lobos fingering. Romero's fingering is faster because it does not use the "a" finger. Here are the first few measures. Example #4:

Etude No. 1 by Heitor Villa-Lobos measures 1 through 4

I can use a combination of micro-chaining, macro-chaining, forward-chaining, and reverse-chaining to achieve a fast speed while maintaining a relaxed right-hand technique. I will focus primarily on the first measure. Example #5:

Etude No. 1 by Heitor Villa-Lobos measure 1

Here is a 17-minute seminar on how to learn to play a right-hand arpeggio pattern at high speed. Watch Video #3.

Again, this practice procedure will work for you on any fast arpeggio passage that you play. It is not only for Étude No. 1.

★ BE SURE TO WATCH ON FULL SCREEN. Click on the icon with the arrows at the bottom on the far right:

Play-Fast-Now. Video 3. Étude No. 1 (Villa-Lobos)

Reverse-Engineer the Problems

When you use the "Play-Fast-Now" strategy, a passage will be playable in a reasonably short time. But it may not be perfect. There will be many things you will need to refine. You will need to "reverse-engineer" some of the difficulties. Here is how to do it.

Do not get stuck on one way of practicing. Make your chain shorter or change from a forward chain to a reverse chain. Or start in the middle of the passage (center chaining) and work outwards on both ends. Constantly analyze what is going right and what is going wrong. Do not repeat a chain mindlessly, hoping it will succeed. If it does not succeed, stop and figure out why.

It may be time to slow down!

Remember, there are stages of learning a piece. Sometimes, you must slow down for your neuromuscular system to grasp what is supposed to happen. Sometimes the fingers must be told they are to do this, then that, and then this. Conscious thought is brought back into play so that the hands are made aware of every detail.

Decrease the metronome speed by a few notches. Now, you have more space to think a little and to make adjustments. You can clean things up. You can make the correct adjustments because you have already played the passage at the goal tempo. You know what the technical demands will be at the target tempo. Even though you are playing the passage a little slower, you are doing so from the target tempo's perspective. The habits you refine will work at the target tempo.

So, practice at the target speed, and once the passage is playable, back off just a few notches and clean it up with some slower practice.

Read on for a systematic approach to this strategy.

Still Sloppy or Insecure?

What happens if you still are not happy with how you are playing the passage after a couple of days of using the "Play-Fast-Now" strategy? Do not give up! The good news is that you are establishing the correct motor patterns needed to play the passage at its target tempo.

To improve the passage, slow the metronome down until you find a tempo at which you can play the passage successfully. For example, your target tempo is 160.

  1. Instead of 160, try the passage at 155. No good? Try 150. Still a little ragged? Try 145. Ah, success. Write down 145 in your music.
  2. The next day (or a few days later), start again at your 160 target tempo. It still is not perfect. Decrease the speed to 155. Hmm, it is still ragged. Decrease the setting to 150. Ah, this time, the passage sounds good at 150 instead of 145. That is progress. Write down 150 in your music.
  3. Follow this procedure every day. Begin at your target tempo of 160. Decrease the tempo until the passage sounds and feels good. You will decrease the tempo less and less until one day you discover you can play the passage well at your target tempo.
  4. I am using increments of five as an example. Often, smaller increments work better.
  5. Sometimes, you can successfully use this procedure in a single practice session instead of over several days.

In the old-school method, we start slowly and work up the tempo notch by notch. We hit a barrier where the motor functions that work at a slow speed do not work at high speed. In the "Play-Fast-Now" method, we start with our target speed using motor functions that are appropriate at high speed. Then, if needed, we can work backward to clean up and refine those movements. But in each practice session, we always begin at the target speed. We set our neuromuscular system at the target speed, and at the slower practice speeds, our brain refines our motor movements from that perspective.

Summary

If you have been frustrated with slow practice and want to try a different strategy to get past a speed barrier or plateau, try the "Play-Fast-Now" method.

Remember, the practice strategies you use on a piece will change over the period it takes to learn a new piece. Sometimes the "Play-Fast-Now" strategy is appropriate, but at other times, it is not. You must experiment.

This strategy is very gratifying and fun because you can play a piece or passage at the target tempo in a relatively short time. You will chain together a fast and challenging passage and play it nearly flawlessly at your goal tempo. In amazement, you will say to yourself, "Oh my gosh! Did I do that?"

Download

1. Download a PDF of the article with links to the videos. Depending on your browser, it will download the PDF (but not open it), open it in a separate tab in your browser (you can save it from there), or open it immediately in your PDF app.

Download a PDF of HOW TO PLAY FASTER ON THE CLASSICAL GUITAR. Use the "Play-Fast-Now" Practice Strategy Part 2 of 2 (with links to the videos).


2. Download the videos. Click on the video you wish to download. After the Vimeo video review page opens, click on the down arrow in the upper right corner. You will be given a choice of several different resolutions/qualities/file sizes to download.

Play-Fast-Now. Video 1. Romance

Play-Fast-Now. Video 2. La Catedral (Barrios)

Play-Fast-Now. Video 3. Étude No. 1 (Villa-Lobos)