Learn to play piano songs in perfect tempo by getting up to speed incrementally practicing in short sections and exploring the range in speed of a phrase
Early in my piano learning career I was seduced by the misconception that being able to play a phrase accelerando implied virtuosity. So, with every song I was told to practise I would always play it faster than what were in the instructions. Much to the horror of my piano teacher. It took her a while to fix this terrible habit.
A music’s pace conveys meaning. Therefore, the speed at which the pianist renders a phrase affects its mood, displays intent and tells a tale. This realization put me on the path of rehabilitation to staying faithful to a piano song’s specified speed during play - in other words, playing in the correct tempo as instructed in the composition.
Relying on the involvement of my own mind and ear is my preferred way. While I am aware of a device known as the metronome that helps the pianist regulate tempo, I have never used one. Not because I find it ineffective but more because of how I was trained as a pianist. I studied with a wonderful teacher for almost a decade and not once did she bring the metronome into the lessons. Instead I only had my hearing to assist me.
What I did was to get up to speed incrementally. By practicing in short sections. I would play the notes as quick-quick-slow in cells of 4 to 8 notes per their proper rhythm, even though for practicing purpose I was out of tempo. With the intention of returning to them later once I have had total control of the speed. Example in Image 1 below.
Applying the same concept, I played the first bar fast and the following bar slow. Extending the exercise to play 2 bars fast and 2 bars slow to refine my ability to adjust speed at will. In addition to keeping the proper rhythm while doing this, remembered to insert some dynamics into it by playing the first bar forte and the next one pianissimo so that the pursuit of accurate tempo was not done at the expense of artistic image. Example in Image 2 below.
The fingers are not able to arrive at optimum speed as demanded by the music score suddenly. Therefore, speed is built-up in increments in cells of four then eight notes, a bar then two bars as described in the above paragraphs – resulting in a complete phrase played in perfect tempo when I attempted to do so after I have had enough practice.
Another outcome gained from the exercise is a sense of the range in speed at which a phrase can be played. How slow can I go and still get away with it or how fast before rhythm, tone and articulation collapse. It gave me a sense of where the perfect tempo orbits around them. Between them there is a bond that must not be disturbed.
Take the phrase in Image 3 for example, as you can see it consists of mostly semiquavers therefore the rhythm flows in a cascading manner uninterrupted. With such an energetic flow, I could not resist the urge to play it in a stronger tone. A closer study of the composition revealed that the phrase is meant to be played in a soft tone. My impulse was mistaken, the bond has been disturbed.
A mistake that is unfortunately more common than expected among beginner pianist - the tendency to perform a fast-paced phrase loud, moreover a slow paced one soft. I had to remind myself that a change in tempo is not necessarily accompanied by a change in tone. Such gaffes result in distortion in the rhythm which are entirely preventable by practicing getting up to speed in small increments and alternating the tempo from fast to slow and vice versa, with shortened sections of the phrase.