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  • Writer's pictureElisabeth Hope

Strategies for Practicing Tricky, Fast Sections

How to unravel those sections that tie your fingers in knots

Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Change the Rhythm:

    • Chocolate: dotted eighth-sixteenth

    • Chicken: sixteenth-dotted eighth

    • Mix them up! Chocolate-chicken, Chicken-chocolate, etc.

  • Change the Bowing: At first, play the section with separate bowings to simplify the learning process. Then as you’re drilling your left hand facility, try adding slurs or other bowings to keep your brain engaged as you practice. (Need inspiration? Check out Kreutzer Caprice #2)

  • ABC: start at the beginning and add one note or unit at a time

  • XYZ: start at the end and work backwards, adding one note or unit at a time.

  • Jello Hand: playing with a normal bow, begin with the fingers barely tickling the string at harmonic weight, then go up to 25%, 50%, 75%, and finally 100% finger weight. You may find that your 100% is less than it was before, or that what feels like 75% is plenty of finger weight to get a good tone in the section! Often we press much harder than necessary with the fingers.

  • The Slow Metronome Increase: set the metronome at the speed you can play accurately and cleanly. Increase your tempo in small increments until it gets uncomfortable or sloppy, then take about 5 clicks off the tempo. This technique is tried and true but one of the least time-efficient methods of increasing tempo on tricky sections. Consider trying Quick Units to save time!

  • Quick Units: similar to the Slow Metronome Increase, but begin with units (3 or 4 notes, usually, as it makes sense in your piece) and play each unit as quickly as possible, with a beat of rest between each unit to think through and prepare for the next unit. Include the preparation (string crossing or finger change as needed) for the next unit as part of the previous unit. The mental preparation during your beat of rest is key here! If you make a mistake, go through and figure out how you need to think it through better to get the desired results. This helps you practice quickly, but with enough time to think. This method usually takes much less total time than the Slow Metronome Increase.

  • Weird Beats: Set the metronome at the drilling tempo, but let it click on your off-beats or an unexpected subdivision of the beat. This helps to bring out different notes within the section and keeps your brain checked in as you drill!

  • Weird Accents: similar to weird beats, but you’re accenting with the bow rather than with the metronome. The first time, you might accent the first note of each group. The next time, accent the second note of each group, etc.

  • Hands Alone: a strategy pianists frequently use but works well for string players as well! Play the passage on open strings to organize your bowing, string crossings, and phrasing. Play the left hand alone, in normal position or guitar position. You can pluck occasionally if needed to check that you’re in the correct place.

  • Units by string: play all the notes on each string as a unit. This is especially useful to organize your bow arm if the string crossings are tricky!

Mix and match these strategies until the section is easy for you! Why would we mix? The official answer is interleaving learning, which involves mixing up the topics you're studying in order to help your brain draw connections between ideas, function more effectively, and learn more completely. The unofficial answer is: because it keeps your brain engaged! If you practice the same spot the same way more than a few times in a row, your brain decides it can leave the work up to your muscles, and you won't learn as effectively.

These are only a few of the many great ways to practice a tricky section that ties your fingers in knots. Have you found other strategies that work well for you? Let us know in the comments below!

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