Psych Yourself Up to Play Fast Tempos!

I’m not by nature a fast player.  I don’t do anything fast except breakfast.

However – like most reed players – I am blown away listening to Coltrane and would give anything to be able to play with that amazing technical facility he routinely demonstrates (not to mention his wonderful lyrical ideas.)

And so, when my student loaned me the Jerry Coker book Patterns For Jazz, I jumped at the opportunity to challenge my anti-speed demons.

This past week has not been easy.  The commitment to woodshed Coker means that the papers pile up on my desk, the emails don’t get answered, the dog doesn’t get exercised, and those new songs don’t get learned.  But my wife is out of town, so “Now’s The Time.”

I just now finally was able to play exercise #169 up to the recommended top tempo mm=176.  This was a huge accomplishment for me.  I had to start yesterday at 20 clicks below the 132 bottom recommendation.  After playing all of the fingerings smoothly at mm=112, I started increasing the tempo by 5 clicks per performance, then 4 clicks, and – when I reached mm=150 – the increment became 1 click per iteration.


Even so, it took me 4 tries to play the exercise smoothly at mm=163, to play it at mm=168 took 5 or 6 tries, and so on.

My next student arrived, and I had to postpone the process until just now.  Starting back up after 24 hours away from the piece meant backing the metronome down at least 20 clicks.  I gradually worked my way up to where I left off yesterday.  Will I remember the piece tomorrow?  Or the next day?

It was at this point I began several loops such as those illustrated below.  As you discover the need for more loops, you can keep the metronome going to retain your momentum and repeatedly loop any sequence of 2 or more notes which suffer from “sticky finger syndrome.”


LoopsLoopsBut something else – something much more profound – begins to emerge when a slow hand like myself begins to push the speed envelope.  There is a myriad of psychological, emotional, and spiritual baggage which begins to float to the surface.  I have trouble focusing.  My artistic sensibilities become easily offended at the mundane nature of the exercise.

My mind remembers errands that need to be run, emails that need to be sent, phone calls that need to be returned.

My emotional side reminisces about the first time I ever played a saxophone – borrowed from my friend John – or about that gig 14 years ago when I met my wife.

My spirit obsesses over offenses perpetrated by me or against me.

This is a time not only of developing better finger dexterity and smoother finger motion but also of cultivating finer mental concentration, focusing, ignoring distractions, and learning to be fully present in this instant.  And I only develop these higher skills by diving in and swimming around in the mirky world of intense, prolonged practice.  

How do you develop finger technique?

4 thoughts on “Psych Yourself Up to Play Fast Tempos!

  1. How long did it take you to work through from Pattern #1 to #169? Just curious. Your blog on this prompted me to get out the Coker Patterns book. It took me half an hour just to get #1 up to the top of the recommended MMs and I thought I knew my major triads pretty well! Can’t imagine how long it’ll take me once I get to something (like diminished) that I don’t know at all well.


  2. I agree 100%. The only way to learn to play fast is to have the disipline to play Slow.
    Whenever i encounter a pasage I can’t play at tempo, (often) I must force myself to slow it down to a slower than playable tempo, then slowly come up.
    The only way I can play anything difficult is to play it 100 times or more. One day, I notice it has become easy.
    One other thing I’ve observed is that after a practise session and the opportunity to sleep on it, I’m often surprised at how much easier the pasage is the next day than when I left it.


  3. Dear Craig:
    I read through several of the postings on your blog and what got my attention was your mention of “being present,” which Thich Nhat Hanh calls “mindfulness.” You identify it as the most important element of effective practice. Nhat Hanh says it’s the most important element of doing most anything — of living, of being.
    You also mention “spiritual” matters, which is related to “being present” – that is, being “receptive” or “available” for “spirit” — God, Allah, Yahweh, Krishna-consciousness, the Tao, etc. — to enter yourself, to communicate with you and through you. Again, I would say that it’s the most important part of “being,” but we get all messed up with it because of the conflicting theologies that have been laid on us and because much of our secular world seems intent on crowding the spiritual out of our lives.
    In my nearly 70 years on this planet, I’ve found that what works best is to pick a spiritual discipline that seems to appeal to me — to “resonate” with where and what I am — and work with it intensively for a while. It does no good to jump from discipline to discipline or teacher to teacher, but most people find that after a while with one discipline/teacher others will begin to appeal and it may be time to move on. “When I was a child I thought as a child…” and so on.
    As this biblical passage suggests, there is a progression of development — psychological, moral, and spiritual — here that people can follow if they wish. Scholars like Erik Erikson, Lawrence Kohlberg, and James Fowler, respectively, have studied and written about these three aspects. Some of their stuff gets kind of deep and thick, but there are several essential points worth keeping in mind about all this:
    (1) There are “stages” of development — “plateaus” of relatively stability — with periods of transition — “growth,” often marked by upheaval, confusion, and searching — separating them.
    (2) A person can’t leapfrog over one or more stages — say, go directly from “stage 2” to “stage 4” (whatever they may be) — without passing through the intervening stages — “stage 3” in this example.
    (3) A person can’t even understand stages more than one level beyond where one presently is operating.
    (4) Some people never go beyond a certain stage and seem content to live out their lives there.
    (5) Only a few really attain the highest stages of development, whatever they may be. Those who do usually don’t go around bragging about this attainment.
    (6) It all takes time and serious effort.
    To bring all of this back to musical practice, consider the research that was done some years ago on basketball practice — in particular, shooting foul shots. There were three groups of research “subjects”: Group One practiced shooting on a regular schedule. Group Two didn’t actually shoot baskets — they just “visualized” themselves shooting baskets (and making them all). Group Three didn’t do anything. At the end of the study period, all three groups were tested. Not surprisingly, Group One did better — made a higher percentage of shots in the test — than Group Three, but Group Two did the best of all. My interpretation of this is that Group Two focused on “being present” to the activity (or process) of shooting baskets and that this study shows the importance of that. Hence, in recent years we’ve seen a number of books on “Zen and the Art of …” — trumpet playing, tennis, motorcycle maintenance, etc.
    You also mentioned that you like to practice early in the morning, “right after prayer.” What I get from all that I’ve written above is that the “prayer” should continue right into and through the practice. This also fits with what some musicians have written about music being a form of prayer, or even a sacrament — especially, jazz improvisation. I’m especially interested in this these days, which is why I’m reading the autobiographies of various jazz (and other) musicians, as well as stuff on theology, psychology, etc. If you like, I’ll share various tidbits, insights, discoveries, and such with you as I go along (like the page I gave you Thursday night from Charles Mingus’ autobiography). As I said to you when we talked a few weeks ago, some of what I’m learning may be suitable for a course in improvisation, but probably at the “master class” rather than the “beginner” level. It’s also going into my dissertation, if I ever get it all sorted out well enough.
    Best regards,


  4. EDITOR’S NOTE: Signe Crawford is a fine musician and an excellent teacher of clarinet, sax, and flute. She is the co-writer of my new book of jazz etudes.
    Hi George and Tom–Great thoughts. Thanks.
    Here’s a quick answer to “how slow is slow enough?” Go slow enough to get a direct finger connection between the notes the first time through. This requires a switch in the order people generally do things, (which is to play, analyze, correct, and play again). If you analyze before you play, you’ll get it right the first time, and you will also have created a clean neural connection which can be physically felt. On the first pass, it shouldn’t matter about the tempo, just the direct connection. If you slur through the passage, thinking of the next note you’re going to play while you’re actually playing, you’ll detect any indirect fingerings. If one fingering is giving you trouble, isolate the two problem notes and work just on that fingering. Add previous notes one at a time. Once you learn a passage, practice getting into it from the notes ahead, and then add some notes after it. It’s a very simple, intentional, and methodical way to practice, and it prevents you from jumbling up your synapses with mistakes. Anybody who knows all the notes on their instrument can do it, and it takes the stress out of practicing.
    See you around town–Signe


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