Raise your hand if you have a student in your piano studio who habitually plays through their pieces at a breakneck pace.
Since I can’t see you I’m just going to assume that the majority of you have one hand in the air. Piano students who have a tendency to race through their repertoire (I call them Jackrabbits) are a common occurrence. And while they may come in handy for those pieces marked vivace, for the rest of their repertoire it poses a problem.
Piano Students Who Play Too Fast
Piano students who play too fast usually belong to one of three categories:
1) The Wannabe Show-off – this student is convinced that everything sounds more impressive if it is played as quickly as possible. They are only interested in repertoire that highlights their fast fingers and, when given a piece at a slower tempo, make the editorial decision that it would still sound best fast.
2) The “Git’r Done” – this student is happy to play through their piece, but not so happy to take the time needed to include any sense of expression, phrasing or nuance. “Play through your piece” to them literally means “get to the end” and so they do so… rapidly!
3) The Nervous Nelly – this student usually plays their piece at a normal tempo during lessons and practice sessions, but come performance time their fingers have a mind of their own. Their fingers appear possessed as your student blasts through their rendition to then exit the stage seeming dazed and confused as to what just happened. (You usually have a heart attack in the audience.)
Reigning-In Your Piano Students’ Tempo
For your students to be well-rounded pianists it is important for each of these 3 “types” to gain some control over their sense of tempo. And while their fast fingers may impress some initially, eventually they are going to be called upon to play something slow… or (yikes!) accompany a singer or another instrument.
Many teachers habitually reach for the metronome when dealing with students like this, but if you are looking for ways to get through to those students for whom the metronome seems to be merely a background annoyance… Check out our 7 tips for slowing your speedy piano students:
1) Resist the urge to banish them to the “Land of Largo” – As a piano teacher, it is tempting to give these students the slowest pieces you can find. Surely by having them play only slow repertoire their ‘internal tempo gauge’ will re-set itself? But… before you dust off your anthology of funeral marches, consider the fact that what you are hoping to achieve is an internal sense of tempo that is balanced. Therefore, to be able to effectively monitor their own playing they need exposure to pieces of all different tempos to practice this skill.
2) Create opportunities for biofeedback – Often piano students who play too fast have lost the ability to actually be able to tell just how fast they are playing. They have reinforced their speedy habit over and over to the point of where they actually believe they are playing at a reasonable speed. To help your students gain control over their flying fingers use audio and video recordings so they can be aware of how they sound and/or look without having to listen as they play. Make note of stumbles, slips and mistakes (kindly) and, using their sheet music, discuss the instances where the above were due to their choice in tempo.
I’d also suggest searching youtube using the term “fastest piano player in the world”. Your student will likely get a kick out of watching other Jackrabbits – but it’s also a great opportunity to discuss things like “Did you find his/her performance enjoyable?” or “What kinds of things did you like or not like about the performance”. They will likely surprise you with their insights.
3) Step away from the piano – Encourage “tap practice” (we discuss this in length in another post here). It is much more difficult for your student to play too fast when they are away from the piano. It’s a great way to re-train that muscle memory to a more reasonable tempo.
4) Encourage visualization – This is so important for students who tend to play at lightening speed when performing. Teach your student to “Take 5” (5 breaths before they begin) and during this time to hear the first 2 phrases of their piece in their mind at their practiced tempo. Only after they have mentally heard the beginning of their piece do they begin to play.
5) Partner up – Spending time with your student where you each play the same part (both play the right hand or both play the left hand) helps your student to re-train their fingers to an appropriate tempo as they are forced to keep time with you. For little ones, creating lyrics to sing along with the main melody also helps to keep them steady (and making up lyrics can be lots of fun!). Pairing your speedy students with one of their peers for some duets also works wonders… but be sure not to pair two Jackrabbits unless you’re wanting your keyboard to burst into flames!
6) Talk about the music – For many Jackrabbits music is music. They forget to tell the story behind the notes. Spend time discussing the composer, what his/her motivations may have been when creating the piece, a story-line that could follow the music… anything that can connect them with the piece in a way that encourages expression and nuance. Write your “plot-line” directly onto their music to remind them that there is more to their performance… that in order to tell the full story they need more than just notes.
7) Use a metronome – I’ve left this one to last as it’s the most obvious method and is the one thing that most piano teachers automatically reach for. However, using a metronome without creating an understanding of the metronome just leads to frustration on the part of your student… and the eventual ability to either block out the metronome while they play, or the reluctance to use it at home (where it counts). Your piano student needs to understand what each of those ticks means (where in each measure they should be when they hear it) and should have spent considerable time playing very simple pieces or their scales and chords along with a metronome. It’s not a quick fix, but it is a beneficial skill to be able to play with one.
Never Fear, Steady Eddy Is Almost Here!
With a few small adjustments to how you approach your Jackrabbits you will soon have Steady Eddies instead! And not only will these students then have a great internal sense of tempo and underlying beat, but they will also have built up the muscle coordination to be able to play fast when needed. Your Jackrabbits have the potential to be your stars – help them learn to monitor their own playing and watch their abilities soar!
When we created “The Adventures of Fearless Fortissimo” I had several Jackrabbit students in mind at the time. My Jackrabbits really responded to knowing exactly what was happening during each of the Fortissimo pieces – their new-found sense of expression meant that they were taking the time to think while they played. If you have some Jackrabbit students, check out this book series for a motivating way to tap into their expressive side!