The Fear of Going Too Fast

>Sitting on the side of the highway waiting to catch speeding drivers, a State Police Officer observed a car puttering along at 22 mph. He thought to himself, “This driver is just as dangerous as a speeder!” So he turned on his lights and pulled the driver over. Approaching the car, he noticed that there were five passengers, all old ladies, two in the front seat and three in the back – eyes wide open and white as ghosts. The driver, obviously confused, said to him, “Officer, I don’t understand, I was doing exactly the speed limit! What seems to be the problem?”

“Ma’am,” the officer replied, “You weren’t speeding, but you should know that driving slower than the speed limit can also be a danger to other drivers.”

“Slower than the speed limit?” she asked? “No sir, I was doing the speed limit exactly … 22 miles an hour!” the old woman exclaimed a bit proudly. The State Police officer, trying not to laugh, explained to her that “22” was the route number, not the speed limit. A bit embarrassed, the woman smiled and thanked the officer for pointing out her error.

“But before I let you go, Ma’am, I have to ask… Is everyone in this car ok? These women seem awfully shaken and they haven’t uttered a single word this whole time.” the officer said.

“Oh, they’ll be alright in a minute, officer,” she said. “We just got off Route 119.”

You’ve probably heard this joke before … I know I have. But I can relate. My husband is no longer able to drive, and I am responsible now for getting us everywhere safely. And I don’t like to drive on freeways because, even though the speed limit ranges somewhere between 65 to 75 on most highways and I always drive up to speed, it still seems like everyone is passing me, both on the right and left, just as if I am only going 22 mph.

When I heard this joke yet again last weekend, my mind wandered to playing my instruments (no surprise there!). I tend to practice and perform the slower romantic tunes or the heartfelt hymns that may seem somewhat tortoise-like in tempo to others. Even if the tune is upbeat and peppy, I can put a new interpretation on it and stretch those arpeggios out to draw the most meaning from every note and chord.

BUT, am I doing this because I have a fear of going too fast? After all, the faster I go, the more likely I am to make a mistake. And heaven forbid that should happen. Should I focus on learning more fiddle tunes, and build up my speed? I actually think that might be a good goal for me this summer. And so, for own sake and maybe yours as well, I want to examine how to build up speed in our playing. Here are some practice tips for you to implement right now in order to learn to play your music faster.

  • Limit physical movement. Have you noticed that when your heroes are playing at lightning speeds, it appears like they are barely moving at all? That’s because they’re being efficient and only moving the necessary muscles instead of the entire arm.

  • Micromanage the tricky parts. Work it out measure by measure, phrase by phrase, Part A and then Part B. Play each slowly, get comfortable, and then play that part three times in a row without a mistake. Then take the speed up a notch and repeat that section until you get to the point that you can play it at the new speed correctly three consecutive times. Only then should you move on to the next measure or phrase.

  • Think faster. Speeding up is not just about moving your hands more quickly. A huge aspect of playing faster is that your brain needs to think faster. Problems crop up when you’re processing information (such as what on earth is that next note or chord?) too slowly. Think in bigger chunks at a time.  Mindless practice is inefficient and a big waste of time.

  • Combine the mental and physical suggestions above. Once you start gaining confidence in both your right and left hand techniques, and once you understand better the licks and tricks embedded in what you’re trying to play, it’s time to combine those two elements.

  • Practice with a metronome. Many folks think that in order to play faster, you’ll need to spend a lot of time with your metronome, slowly but surely cranking up the speed. I agree. This method definitely works. I believe that everyone should have a metronome (you can get an app for that) so that, as you speed up you will keep the beat consistent throughout the piece (or notice where they fall behind).

  • Play drills for skills. Get back to basics. Tap into some of the technical exercises offered by to smooth out your technique and iron out problems that can cascade into bigger problems when you’re increasing your speed.

  • Imagine yourself playing for others. I don’t know about you, but I can make myself nervous by simply imagining there is an audience sitting around in my living room. And I’m not alone. A lot of people have a ‘freak out moment’ when they try to play faster than their comfort tempo – whether at home or in public. I get that. What happens when you freak out is that you spend so much energy on noticing yourself getting wound up, and then dealing with the fact that your heart is pounding and your hands are shaking, that you’re no longer concentrating on your actual capabilities! I read one article that even suggested running around the house or yard to get your heart pumping. Then pick up your instrument and try to play it at full speed at home.

    If you can still play with your heart beating wildly, you’ll be able to remind yourself later that you are fully capable of playing flawlessly under the same circumstances when your heart takes off in front of an audience. In other words, deal with this variable at home before you even pack your instrument up to play in public.

  • Listen to yourself. Something I’ve learned from my experience as both a music student and a music teacher, is that we often hear our music differently from our audience (or teacher). Your mind may be interpreting the feedback incorrectly. In other words, your mind can get in the way of your performance. For example, you may think you’re playing at a steady beat, but the truth is, you’re still slowing down for the problematic measures. Consider recording yourself to see how it REALLY sounds. There’s an app for that too.

  • Think critically. Be your own teacher. Catch the spots where you’re messing up and figure out a way to overcome that. My go-to solution is to rewrite the arrangement into something that flows better for my hands, if I can see I'm still not mastering a section.

    Say this after me. “I promise to practice playing a bit faster this summer.” It’s a slow process, but quitting won’t speed up your playing. Only practice will do the trick.



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