Coming out of a tight corner, I knew I was going too fast to make it safely round the next. The tumble that ensued was described by my husband Robin as ‘an elegant fall’. It didn’t feel very elegant from down on the dirt, but at least I was not in pain—not yet, anyway.

 

Over our summer holiday here in New Zealand, Robin and I decided to explore some of the bike trails amidst the lush rainforest, lakes and rivers of the West Coast around Hokitika, a little town we’ve grown to love. The West Coast Wilderness trail takes in some pretty stunning scenery in the area.

(We did our own version of the trail, but the link shows photos of the area.)

The last time cycling was a thing for me was my primary school commute as a child. The family bike was a bit too big for me and the only way to get any notable speed was through pedalling hard. No multi-gears back then, and certainly no electric bikes. What a pleasure to rediscover cycling (though still non-electric) with 24  gears to choose from!

What has all this got to do with music? Well, this week, as I got back into the teaching routine, I noticed that some students were playing pieces too fast, so the music was uneven. Other pupils were playing so slowly that they didn’t know how the music was supposed to sound at the best speed for it. So, from my recent time on the bike, here are a few thoughts on the issues of playing at the right tempo—the appropriate speed in a given piece of music.

 

1. Know how to use your bike

Getting used to changing 24 gears was my first hurdle, and getting the seat sorted made a big difference to my comfort level.

Setting up with a touch-sensitive keyboard or piano is important for a good start. I often get asked what a touch-sensitive keyboard is.  Basically, if you press a key down gently, it will play softly; if you make a short, sharp action on the note, it will play loudly. This simulates the hammer action on an acoustic piano. Make sure you are sitting comfortably tall on your piano stool (not leaning on the seat back if there is one) and with your fingers curved on the keys.

 

2. Start at a speed you can manage

I was painfully slow at first in getting back into cycling. But that slow start gave the best confidence to keep going.

For beginning pianists the most important foundation for appropriate later speed is learning to play with an even, constant beat. Learn to count out loud with early pieces and play at a speed you can play the complete piece without errors. Take it slow and steady.

 

3. Know how much you can handle

We decided that around 20kms per outing was a good distance for us. Just as we planned how much we could manage in a ride, we had to find the right speed to not only enjoy the scenery along the way, but to get to the end and feel like the pace had been good overall for the experience.

There is something really satisfying about playing even a small selection of a piece of music correctly at a suitable tempo in the process of learning it. To enjoy how the music sounds and not get frustrated, you need to minimize the mistakes and simply go slower.

 

4. Get back on the bike after a tumble

Even the best efforts at doing it correctly don’t mean you won’t have a fall. When I had my ‘elegant fall’ Robin gave me a hand up and I was quite glad it wasn’t as bad as I thought it might have been, apart from a muscle in my ribs complaining when I coughed for a few days! I definitely took it more slowly and carefully after that though.

We learn from mistakes in our music learning too. Don’t be put off by them. It is a good idea for the sake of the whole piece to take some time to practice slowly and carefully those difficult bits we struggle with.

This whole area of the right speed was maybe best summed up in a moment once when I was helping a pupil struggling with a difficult passage of music. Without thinking, I said: “The quicker you learn to play it slowly, the faster you will get it.” When that difficult passage becomes easy you are then ready to increase the speed.

 

5. Getting to the best speed

I still have a long way to go to become a speedy cyclist, but I do know a good way to increase the tempo of a piano piece.

You may have a piece that needs to go at a much faster speed than you are currently able to play it.

  • Use a metronome to find the speed at which you can play the piece currently without mistakes.
  • Increase the metronome speed slightly and do it again.
  • Repeat this process until you have reached the suggested metronome speed of the piece.
  • If at any time the music becomes uneven or incorrect, take it back to a slower speed. 
  • Enjoy the sense of satisfaction when you get there!

 

Whether it is on a bike or at your instrument, have fun, and enjoy the ride!