Piano technique - Speed or tone first?

Gaining speed to play at the required tempo is a piano technique developed in increments, tonal quality too is a priority so which do you emphasize first.

Confronted by a dilemma, I pondered which should I prioritize first in practise; tonal quality or speed? Seldom can a piano student play a piece just learned at a fast speed. It is too unfamiliar. Speed is built incrementally therefore time needs to be dedicated. The same can be said of tonal quality. A variety of the possible tones have to be listened to carefully before settling on the suitable ones for the rendition. When learning an unfamiliar composition, when both speed and tonal quality have yet to stand on firm ground, I need to choose which one of them to engage first. Either build up speed first or work on the tonal quality first. Each requires a unique process therefore impossible to be done simultaneously. 

The decision is a personal one, I believe there is no right or wrong in choosing to focus on practising to build up speed first or on tonal quality first. We all have our own unique ways in practising the piano. Figure out what is most efficient for you and proceed. In my case because perfecting tone is an intellectual endeavour that requires listening, thinking and judgment in analyzing sound, I prefer to do it after I have gotten up to speed. To me gaining speed is a mechanical endeavour, once you have absorbed the rhythm sufficiently, with enough repetition you will gain the speed needed to meet the required tempo. 

Rhythm in piano technique improvement

The need to absorb rhythm is another good reason to build up speed first before working on tonal quality. Rhythm is absorbed by understanding the composer’s style, intent and the artistic image of the composition. How deep you to wish to understand them is subjective and would require the proportionate amount of time and energy spent on studying the compositions. 

To a lesser extent with repetition the style, intent and artistic image of a short phrase could be understood well enough for the rhythm to be absorbed sufficiently. Therefore practising a musical phrase slowly and getting up to speed in increments is beneficial. For example, let us take the phrase shown in Image 1 below. Break the phrase down into shorter sections, cells of 3 notes for instance. Practise them by playing the notes in each cell quick, quick, slow. You can also alternate it with long, short, long to keep things interesting. This exercise trains you to control speed over individual notes when going from a single note to another.

Repetition is key in improving piano technique

With better control of speed over individual notes, I could then apply the similar concept to individual bars. As in practising 1 bar fast, the following one slow and so on. Extending it to practising 2 bars fast and 2 bars slow once I begin to feel that I am able to keep the speed constantly fast and constantly slow as intended. By practising the same bars with the hopes of gaining speed, because of the repetition I was also able to absorb the rhythm. After some time, the phrases’ style, intent and artistic image started to reveal themselves to me.

Given the option to either build up speed first or to get the tone right first, I usually select building up speed first. One reason is because it requires a lot of repetition, through which I am able to absorb the rhythm. Having played a phrase many times eventually its style, intent and artistic image become apparent. Break a musical phrase into shorter, smaller sections when practising to build up speed. Start with individual notes by practising them quick, quick, slow or long, short, long. Then applying the similar concept to several bars.

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