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Tempo Ladders: Helping speed demons get to performance tempo (accurately)

Kids seldom need help playing fast. But they do need help playing fast well. Tempo ladders are one way to bring some organization to the process of going faster.

If your kid is anything like mine, they probably enjoy playing fast. However, the old adage of “Practice slow to play fast” still applies. I’ll describe here a practice technique we’ve used for several pieces now to put the brakes on while still making progress. In the violin repertoire some of the earliest pieces that need this sort of attention are the Vivaldi concerti that begin in Book 4. The daunting passage work is a perfect place to begin working with tempo ladders, but real speed demons could probably put it to use even in earlier pieces!

Tempo ladders

I call this practice workout “tempo ladders.” It’s a term I borrowed from training in road cycling. Using tempo ladders, you gradually increase your tempo in overlapping increments. For example, I’ll practice today at 70 beats per minute for one or two repetitions, then 75 for one or two reps, then 80. Tomorrow, I might try 72, 76 and 82. Each day, I push both the lower limit and the upper limit as we become more familiar with the fingerings, bowings and other technical challenges. Over time, what you see is a series of overlapping lines that trace the progress of tempo development.

How we do it

  1. First, and most importantly, it’s pointless to begin pushing the tempo until the basics are in place. Do you know the bowings? Are the fingerings accurate? Is the intonation good? We often devote a few days to just getting all of that in place first.
  2. Divide the fast sections into logical chunks. If the passage to work on is long - more than just a handful of measures, it makes sense to divide it up into logical components and do tempo work on those parts individually. It can take a little experience to figure out where to sensibly divide the passage. One example is to identify shorter sections that are repeated. That would be an excellent place to divide and practice.
  3. Figure out the goal tempo. Listen to recordings and decide on a goal tempo to achieve. When you graph the tempo ladder, that’s going to be the maximum tempo.
  4. Figure out where you are right now. Many electronic metronomes have a feature where you can tap the beat and it tells you the tempo in beats per minute. Wherever you are now is the minimum tempo on your graph.
  5. Graph it! I use pages from a Leuchtturm 1917 journal turned in landscape orientation. (See photo above.) On the far right, I place the maximum tempo and each previous dot to the left of that figure is 2 beats per minute less than that number. In the photo above, the range is 70 to 140 bpm for the piece we’re working on. Obviously that will vary according to the piece.
  6. Practice Each time my daughter does a repetition at a tempo (metronome-guided, of course), I make a dot at the corresponding point on the graph. We may do 3-5 such repetitions are different tempos and each one gets a dot. Then I draw a line connecting the minimum and maximum for the day. Tomorrow, I’ll push both the lower and upper tempos a little bit. And I keep doing that each day until she can comfortably play the section at the performance tempo.

Advantages

It’s a way of sneaking in more repetitions.

Repeating a passage over and over isn’t fun; but it seems more tolerable when we’re doing it in a purposeful, organized way.

It makes progress more visible

There’s something about seeing the progress graphs march across the page that’s very encouraging. There’s a real sense of pride in making it all the way to performance tempo by gradually working up to it.

It slows down speed demons

By only slowly increasing the tempo over time, it helps keep passage work clean and accurate.

It encourages kids to think about practice in an organized, efficient way.

Practice isn’t always just playing a piece from start to finish and moving on. It’s about observing, listening and “diagnosing” what needs to more attention. Tempo ladders are one way of partitioning a piece and organizing the work of practice around a particular section.

Happy practicing, and I hope that you can put tempo ladders to good use! (Caveat: just be sure everyone understands the fingerings, bowings, etc. before pushing the tempo. It can be painful to unlearn!)

Let me know what you think. See the Suzuki Experience Facebook page to comment.

Written by:

Alan is the main practice partner and accompanist for a young violinist.